GOING to the theatre can feel like an exercise in discomfort. From half-broken seats and bad sightlines to cramped foyers, many of Britain’s historic venues are in urgent need of an upgrade. But how do you renovate a theatre to accommodate changing tastes and requirements while retaining the building’s soul and identity? In an age of commercial pressures—36 theatres were on the brink of closure in 2016 according to the Theatres Trust, a preservation group—do theatres need to become more flexible and lean in order to survive? 

Steve Tompkins, co-founder of Haworth Tompkins, an architecture firm, has been grappling with these questions for more than 20 years. He considers Edwardian and Victorian theatre buildings to be important institutions, but argues that “you can’t be sentimental about them. If you extrapolate and work with their strengths you can make them exciting, vivid and current again.” 

The firm used this approach when remodelling the Royal Court in London, a Victorian playhouse dating back to 1888. They stripped and reseated the main auditorium to create better sightlines, rebuilt the studio theatre to give it more headroom and greater technical capacities and extended the stage and back-of-house facilities. The pièce de résistance, however, was the extension of the front-of-house area; digging out a basement under Sloane Square made room for a trendy bar, a restaurant and a bookstore. These have turned out to be useful, symbiotic streams of revenue.

The Storyhouse in Chester (pictured, above), due to open in May, is another example of a new type of cultural venue. Part new-build and part refurbishment, the Storyhouse will make use of a handsome but disused Grade II* listed 1930s cinema; like the Royal Court, it will house multiple outlets, including a theatre, studio, cinema and library. The idea is that “words and stories are the things that join it all together,” says Simon Erridge, a director at Bennetts Associates, the architecture firm overseeing the work. It is hoped that the building will be in use for most of the day, either in its capacity as a library and café or as a theatre and cinema. 

This multi-purpose approach extends to the theatre itself. With a moveable floor and seating, the spaces can be tailored to each production. An 800-seat proscenium auditorium, complete with a 20m-high fly tower, will allow the Storyhouse to host elaborate national and international touring productions. The rest of the year it will offer more “intimate” 500-seat performances set around a thrust stage. 

This flexible approach was also embraced by the Battersea Arts Centre in south London, a former town hall built in 1893. Mr Tompkins and David Jubb, the centre’s artistic director, chose to abandon expectations of how theatre should be shown and how the spaces should be used. The building now has an open-air theatre in a converted courtyard at its heart (pictured, below); its black box performance spaces have been stripped back and replaced by a play space for under-5s, a series of bedrooms for artists and a new venue for performances, weddings and parties in the restored Council Chamber. “The building is as buzzy at 11am in the morning now as it is at 7.30 at night,” says Mr Jubb. It is certainly good for the centre’s finances, and meets their avowed remit of serving as much of the community as possible.

An added benefit of this approach has been an impressive reduction in budget, from the initial estimate of £18.5m in 2008 to the £13.3m actually spent. Heating, ventilating and lighting a 19th-century building to the same design standards as a new build would have led to bankruptcy; the courtyard theatre celebrates the building’s character and allows much of the expensive mechanical plant to be done away with. To compensate, the centre is creating a “building forecast” to send to patrons 24 hours before a performance—they will be informed whether the building will be stuffy or cool during their visit. 

Architects’ work is never done, though. Venues may have to adapt further with the advent of new technologies such as binaural sound, immersive projections and virtual reality (some of which are already in use, as in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production of “The Tempest”, which renders an animated character live on stage). Mr Tompkins argues that theatres’ adoption of VR, in particular, is still a long way off. Unlike cinema, theatre celebrates shared experience: VR might “put the audience back into passive consumer mode”. 

In the Darwinian fight for survival, it makes sense for theatres to adapt. Audiences will welcome—and ultimately return to—theatres with comfortable seating, bigger foyers and new restaurants. But a good theatre still lives or dies by its atmosphere. That, more than new technology, should inform any architects or directors renovating one of Britain’s historic theatres.