Architectural Interiors: The Proscenium 01

I have been known to take in a play or two, and not just because my wife has a theater degree; I’m a man of refined taste, after all. I have seen quite a few plays and musicals here in Pittsburgh, but until this weekend I’d never made a trip to see a play. A concert, yes, but never a play. I just couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I could be convinced to drive several hours just to see a play. Then Angela found out about two of theater’s all-time greats, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, performing not one but two comedies in repertory. Not only that, but giving her the tickets on Christmas for the shows on Valentine’s Day allowed me to kill two holidays with one gift. Consider me convinced.

I’d give you a critical review of the production, but that would be pretty useless. First of all I’m not qualified, and second of all it would be enormously boring because the review would go something like this: Both plays were flawless in all phases. End of review. Pretty boring. Also, no pictures. So instead I thought I’d talk a little bit about theater architecture and work in some eye candy as well.

There are many components to a traditional theater, but the one I want to focus on in this post is the proscenium. This is the arch that is built around the stage that frames the performance and keeps all the messy parts and pieces out of view of the audience. I may have mentioned it before, but I’m fairly obsessed with “framing”, selectively allowing and denying views in order to create an experience. The proscenium is perhaps the clearest example of a frame, facilitating the suspension of disbelief by hiding all of the inner workings while at the same time focusing attention to the action on stage. It’s also a great place for some design creativity, too. Here’s Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh:

Interiors_Heinz Hall Proscenium

I really like the monochromatic color scheme at Heinz Hall. Everything is done in white with some subtle gilding here and there. Most of the detail comes from the intricate plaster work at the sides and ceiling. Theater design is finicky work; I hesitate to criticize the bit at the top of the proscenium that was clearly added later just because the shape makes me think that such an addition was needed for acoustical reasons. That being said, I really wish we could still see the opening as it was originally, I’d love to see how the plaster work at the sides of the opening resolves itself at the top. Compare Heinz Hall to the Cort Theater, where we saw No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot this weekend:

Interiors_Cort Theater Proscenium

Some similarities: primarily white, great craft in the plaster. Some differences: more liberal gilding, painted murals at the ceiling, frieze at the top of the opening. I love the ceiling at Heinz Hall, coming together at the top to imply a great oculus. At the same time I really like the murals and friezes at the Cort. I’m sure there are some great theatrical references in them, but I don’t know enough to pull them out myself and I didn’t happen to be sitting next to an expert. Both are also besmirched by later attempts to address their shortcomings: Heinz with acoustics, the Cort with lighting.

So there you go, for those looking to get rich quick there are a lot of four-dollar-words up there. Hope you were taking notes. I’d love to hear your theater stories and your thoughts about the proscenia above.

Spell check says “proscenia” isn’t a word, but I beg to differ.

P.S. For those curious about the way I made these panoramas: I didn’t. I drove myself crazy trying to get Photoshop’s built-in “photomerge” automator to work with limited success. Then I tried Hugin, which almost worked, then crashed, then deliberately created the absolute worst panorama possible from any source images. I uploaded a bunch of images to Panomonkey which never returned a finished panorama to me (and even if it had, I would have had to pay one banana to remove the watermark). Finally, I found Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor, which took all of my images and made the above panoramas quickly and with zero effort on my part. It even balanced the color and brightness so all parts of the finished image are relatively even. I rarely rave about anything (let alone two things in one post), but after driving myself nuts for several hours with every other tool, I’m telling you Microsoft’s ICE is hands down the best at what it does.

5 thoughts on “Architectural Interiors: The Proscenium 01

  1. Fun facts: The theater was modeled after a theater in France and the murals are of the gardens of Versailles. You were sitting next to an expert! Or at least someone who looks stuff up before she goes to a new theater.

    There’s actually another cool feature of the proscenium–the plaster is perforated and treated with glass. Back in the day they used to backlight it, which probably looked pretty cool. I guess the architect was a pretty famous theater architect but this is one of only a couple of his theaters still remaining.

      • I didn’t remember reading anything about them, and I was having a hard time picturing what you were talking about. So I looked up more stuff. First, it wasn’t modeled after a theater in France, it was modeled after a palace. My mistake. Then the interior was decorated in the French style from the same period (Louis XVI). So I assume the instrument players are a throwback to 18th century France. But I don’t really know. I’ve exhausted my expertise.


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