Spaces where the arts are produced or presented are part of the core infrastructure of cultural activity, their provision and design directly affecting the practice of the arts. This is probably truer of theatre spaces than of those for the visual arts. And yet, designs of theatres and auditoriums are at the periphery of what the design fraternity in the country considers important.
As a result, most of the effective or remarkable spaces in this category, built in the last 30 years or so, have required the vision of a performer to guide their design. One example is the theatre building and small campus of Chorus Repertory Theatre in Imphal, inaugurated in 2001.
Design for the actor
In a context where the design of theatre spaces tends to ignore the actor completely, the auditorium of Chorus Repertory Theatre is a rare space that actually focuses on the performer. Theatre director Ratan Thiyam, who founded the company in 1976, and directed the long process of design and construction of its 2.75 acre campus, says: “When people talk about a big theatre, they refer to the size of the audience space—1,000 people, 1,500 people, etc. In reality, our ‘big’ auditoria actually have small stages.
“Because we were building a space where performances were also produced, we provided enough space for the actor to move freely, whether for a stylized or realistic performance. Our stage is 55ft wide and 35ft deep. It is also designed so that the audience of 200 can sit in many different relationships with it—facing it from one side, embracing it from three, or completely enclosing the stage like an arena.” This generosity of movement space is palpable when you visit the theatre. It is also apt for Thiyam’s approach to contemporary theatre, which often taps into the special physicality of Manipuri martial arts or dance traditions.
The auditorium is called the Shrine Playhouse to capture the group’s shared sense of the sacredness of performance. Though built over 25 years—brick by brick, rupee by rupee—the campus offers a coherent environmental experience. Thiyam believes that the immediate environment inspires performers even in everyday life. He recalls: “After walking through the campus and arriving at the stage, a visiting performance artiste once said: ‘After coming here, I feel like dancing’. For me, that was an important compliment.”
Building on tradition
The design uses traditional architectural wisdom with artful theatricality. The campus is a sequence of courtyards linked with multi-functional spaces. The arrival courtyard displays posters of many of the company’s successful performances across the world. The court leads into a spacious passage, which is also the exhibition gallery with photographs and information about the theatre’s various activities.
At one point, the passage widens. To the right, on the wall, is a wide map of the world, with threads linking Imphal to the various places in the world where the company has performed.
To the left, a straight path cuts through a lush garden to a distant cascade of sloping roofs vaguely reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Thiyam, manipulates our experience of the space to build both a sense of institutional achievement as well as a sense of occasion to set the stage, literally, for the drama to unfold in the auditorium.
He also communicates the unusual mix of cultural inheritances that his company’s work taps into—that of Indian and East Asian traditions, as well as of our own modernity.
Perhaps the two projecting porticos sheltering entrances into the theatre are the best indication of his very modern sense of creative freedom. Resembling an elephant’s tusks, these are whimsical grafts on to a form that otherwise stays loosely within an established Eastern building form. With an unconventional, almost awkward grace, they offer memorable shelter at the edge of the performance inside.
The campus is a mix of flamboyance and serenity. As you walk in, the grittiness and sense of siege that surround Imphal are suddenly lifted. One could say that it is designed like a spacious garden shaped and accented by buildings.
In fact, it is difficult to imagine the architecture working well without the garden. Perhaps not being an architect frees Thiyam’s tacit understanding of how buildings and spaces ought to relate to the landscape around, “I planted so many trees here so that I could hear birdsong and the sound of drops falling off leaves after the rain.” Perhaps only a romantic could build a theatre like this in a place that feels as if it is under constant siege.
One of the two projecting roofs sheltering the entrance to the theatre
The office complex with tiered roofs
Painted decorations on the roof
The sloping roofs that are somehow reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City
Photographs by Himanshu Burte
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