Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

Redefining historical cultural spaces requires a certain set of skills: vision, perception and a delicate touch. The redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre included the creation of a 1,030 seat auditorium with a thrust stage, the largest of its kind in the world, transforming the relationship that the audience has with the actors.

To bring a greater immediacy and clarity to the performances, the distance from the furthest seats to the stage has been reduced from 27 to 15 metres.

Challenge

The key objective of the redevelopment was to return to the concept of the actors and audiences sharing one space; ensuring that no audience member is ever more than 15 metres from the action. With audience experience key to the design, the thrust stage is surrounded by opportunities to enhance the drama, including both a seven metre fly-zone above the stage and a seven metre basement below it, allowing actors to appear to descend from the heavens and to drop into hell.

It was important that the theatre could continue to operate as initial work began, ensuring that audience members did not experience any disruption. Another key challenge was that the basement needed to be constructed below the ground water level, making it prone to flooding. At the same time the RSC wanted to reduce its carbon footprint by 20% and future proof the implementation of low carbon technology.

Solution

To fully investigate the challenging ground conditions on the site, our engineers worked with the contractors to drill a 20 metre borehole underneath the stage. As the work had to be done while the theatre was still open, the whole exercise took place within an 88-hour timeslot between shows, with our engineers and the contractor working round the clock to ensure it was completed on time. Following our investigations, we used a technique of interlocking reinforced concrete piles with a waterproof lining wall to form the basement box.

Audience comfort has been greatly improved through our process of analysis of the air quality in the old auditorium and our design of a new ventilation system that delivers fresh-air directly to the seats. People flow modelling has been used to support the Fire Strategy which allows flexible use of the front of house spaces.

Our integrated engineering services scope included; civil, geotechnical, flood risk, structural, building services and fire engineering for this extensive project.

The sensitive and complex refurbishment and remodelling of this landmark in our cultural heritage has elevated what was undoubtedly a theatre that was artistically world-renowned into a theatre that is technically world-class.

Judge’s comment, The Institution of Structural Engineers Structural Awards 2011

Value

The addition of the basement has far reaching benefits for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – as well as providing a practical solution for storing scenery, the space offers the audience an additional dimension to their experience of a performance at the RST. The new flexible, front of house spaces are full of light and air and achieve the client’s ambition of providing a daytime destination that attracts a broader cross-section of the visitors to the town in addition to the theatre audience. Together with the improved operational efficiency of the new building, this is of significant benefit to the RSC as a business.

At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the team have succeeded in delivering a bold, visually rich, technically complex building in a significant historic location for a high profile cultural client on time and on budget.

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