Blackfriars Shakespearean Playhouse
Elizabethan Architecture in an American Setting
Staunton lies in the scenic Shenandoah Valley 180 miles (290 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. The town is dominated by beautifully executed examples of nearly every revival style that was popular in this country from the mid-19th to early 20th century, giving the main commercial street a varied and interesting skyline.
Early-20th-century architect T. J. Collins gave downtown Staunton a range of styles in a gothic cathedral, a classical revival bank, a Frank Lloyd Wright-style apartment building, a Venetian palazzo, and a mission-revival synagogue.
The Blackfriars Playhouse, completed in September 2001, after slightly more than a year of construction, fully occupies a tight site on a steep street, a half block from the main business street. The site is flanked by a large old hotel and the rear of a commercial building. Behind the playhouse, the finishing touches are being applied to a city parking garage.
Richmond, Virginia architect McLaughlin could not have been given a more daunting challenge than to create on such a restricted site a 17th-century playhouse for which no visual evidence survives.
Yet he has designed an apparently accurate reconstruction of the old theater within a modern building. In a departure from Shakespeare's own venue, this Blackfriars has support spaces, such as dressing rooms and rehearsal halls, and modern lobbies with an elevator and other features required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The exterior pretends to be neither as old as the other buildings in Staunton nor jarringly modern. The architect describes the building as having an "astylistic and vernacular exterior that fits into the historical and architectural context of Staunton."
The blood-red brick of the playhouse with its dark gray mortar was, according to McLaughlin, inspired by the colors of Alvar Aalto's undulating Baker Dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The playhouse's dark earthy tones also evoke H.H. Richardson's Sever Hall at Harvard University.
As dusk descended over Staunton on September 21, 2001, the golden glow of light emanating from the central entrance bay of Blackfriars Playhouse was a beacon drawing in the festive line of opening night ticket holders.
As they passed through the entrance doors, flanked by windows above and to the sides and by piers supporting diagonal struts beneath a canopy, they entered the modern, undecorated lobby, with an almost purplish wallpaper.
Visitors then entered the auditorium from ground level or climbed the stairs at the corner of the building to the upper lobby and entrances to the theater's upper-level seating. McLaughlin gave the staircase prominent exterior treatment by opening up the corner with extensive glass and capping the corner with its own truncated hip roof.
The architect accomplished several goals with this distinctive treatment: he created some theatricality on the street, made a beacon leading people from the rear parking garage to the theater's entrance facade, opened up the interior, and evoked older buildings in Staunton by using a similar roof form over the corner.
An Interactive Experience
This is an interactive theater where actors and audience exchange dialogue and intermingle while seeing each other clearly. This is authentic Shakespeare according to Ralph Alan Cohen, a professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and co-director, along with Jim Warren, of Shenandoah Shakespeare.
Several years ago, Cohen's students had become bored by elaborate productions of Shakespeare, and he sought an alternative that would engage them. Through his own research, Cohen explored the relationship between architecture and literature. He discovered that the tradition of turning off the lighting in a theater only dates back to the mid-19th century.
He also discovered that Renaissance theaters had been designed to resemble theatrically successful spaces in banquet halls. The professor concluded that the "relationship between players and audience is not accidental."
Spurred by this research, architect McLaughlin pursued his own studies of Elizabethan interiors through four trips to England. He visited surviving Tudor structures such as Middle Temple Hall, the Hall at Gray's Inn, and Westminster Hall. He conducted archival research at the Folger Library, which reportedly houses the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works. There, McLaughlin found 17th-century legal and archeological records.
He also consulted with leading experts on Elizabethan theater design and construction. He studied plans for theaters no longer existing or never built such as recently discovered drawings of Inigo Jones for a hall playhouse and Simon Basil's plan for a temporary theater in Christ Church, Oxford.
Additional clues about the physical configuration of Elizabethan theaters came from Shakespeare's own written stage directions as analyzed by experts such as C. Walter Hodges and Irwin Smith.
Thanks in part to this authenticity, the Shenandoah Shakespeare company is enjoying a successful autumn run. Next, they plan to build a re-creation of the 1614 Globe, Shakespeare's favorite outdoor theater, on a site near the new Blackfriars.
William Lebovich is an architectural historian and photographer from Chevy Chase, Maryland who photographs new projects for architects and developers and documents properties of historical, architectural, engineering, or industrial significance throughout the continental United States.