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ITEAC: The event trying to put an end to bad theatres

Attendees at the 2014 conference. Photo: Origin8 Photography Attendees at the 2014 conference. Photo: Origin8 Photography
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Now in its fifth outing, the International Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference features ‘rock star’ names and will tackle a range of issues in theatre construction and beyond, as Nick Clark and Heather Doole report


Shortly after the turn of the century, Richard Brett, who has been called “the stage engineer of his generation”, noticed a problem: too many bad theatres were being built. Or rather, too many unsolved problems were getting through into new-build venues. Robin Townley, chief executive of the Association of British Theatre Technicians, says: “He felt the way to solve these issues was to get everyone together so we could resolve them, and then plan for the future.”

The result, in 2002, was the Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference. From the start, it was embraced by architects, engineers, consultants and technicians involved in the theatre.

Interest in the event, held every four years, was not limited to Britain. As a result of overseas attendees, by 2010 it had prefixed the word ‘international’ to its name, making it the ITEAC. It is the “key event for people in the industry,” Townley, who is on the event’s editorial board, says. “It’s where the important questions are asked.”

Brett died in 2014, but his original drive and the desire to move the industry forward remain ingrained, the organisers say. The next three-day edition is set to open on June 3 in London’s Savoy Place, at the headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

“This is where the soul-searching and heartfelt discussion take place,” Townley says. “Where the developments on the bleeding edge are talked about.”

Howard Panter, joint chief executive and creative director of Trafalgar Entertainment Group, says it is an “amazing gathering”, adding: “I think it’s a ‘must attend’ event.”

Robin Townley, chief executive of the Association of British Theatre Technicians and Howard Panter, joint chief executive and creative director of Trafalgar Entertainment Group. Photo: Origin8Photography
Robin Townley, chief executive of the Association of British Theatre Technicians and Howard Panter, joint chief executive and creative director of Trafalgar Entertainment Group. Photo: Origin8Photography

ITEAC is held quadrennially to reflect the length of time needed for capital projects to come through, and new themes to emerge. To highlight the timelines, one event will be held at the new Bridge Theatre next to Tower Bridge, which had not even been announced at the time of the previous conference.

The venue is a good place to discuss advances in theatre building, Townley says. “The question will be: Is this an example of what a post-subsidy theatre might look like? Backed by venture capital, in London but not the West End in a found space and built to be adaptable.”

The 2018 edition will bring together more than 120 speakers and 300 delegates to discuss the pressing issues, from whether historic theatres can be overhauled for modern audiences, to serious issues in lighting and sound, advances in the use of digital technology and whether stage engineering systems are worth it.

Townley has attended since the first event. “There is a feeling that the senior and respected people in the industry want to get involved, it’s reflected in the speakers,” he says, referring to them as “rock star” names of the theatre world.

This year, those stars will include Francine Houben of architecture firm Mecanoo; Olivier, Tony and Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance; lighting designer Paule Constable; and opera director Graham Vick. “We’ve always been fortunate that people have wanted to share learning and develop the body of knowledge in our world,” Townley says.

Speakers such as Vick, Rylance and Kiln theatre artistic director Indhu Rubasingham have been invited to illuminate the conference on what artists and creative leaders need from buildings and how those buildings can influence the creativity on stage. “These buildings have to work commercially and creatively and it’s good to learn what those putting work on stage need,” Townley says.

Stage lighting will inevitably be a major theme this year. Lighting designer Lucy Carter will chair a panel with Constable, Matt Drury, the National Theatre’s head of lighting, programmer and designer Rob Halliday and Adam Bennette, technical director of theatre lighting and rigging company ETC.

They will seek to unpack the effect of new EU legislation and what it means for designing and installing the infrastructure of new entertainment fixtures in theatre buildings.

Paule Constable: The prospect of theatres literally going dark is real

“Lighting won’t just be talked about in the sessions, but in the coffee bars and the reception rooms,” Townley says. “The event could not be better timed to get some of the biggest names together to talk about this issue, one of the regulations that may push us to a cliff edge.”

Another pressing issue facing the industry is sound, following a recent ruling in favour of a member of the orchestra at the Royal Opera House who had developed acoustic shock as a result of sitting in front of the principal trumpet. Experts will ask what it means for pits and concert platforms across the country and what can be done about noise exposure and protecting the performers. “These discussions are happening right now, it’s hugely timely,” Townley says.

This year’s conference sought advice from Tonic Theatre, which works within the creative industries to support greater diversity and inclusion, on broadening the remit of the speakers invited.

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic, explains: “Our work involves encouraging the editorial board to notice the voices who are already in prominent positions, as well as to work outside the immediate networks that they usually return to.”

The second part of Tonic’s remit was to ensure a greater diversity among the speakers, concentrating on the gender split, black, Asian and minority ethnic diversity, greater inclusion of younger speakers or speakers who have not previously spoken at conferences and broader international representation.

This year, as well as having the highest number of speakers ever, those speakers come from a wider array of professions.

Townley says the ITEAC is keen to hear views from beyond theatre: “We like to have someone to act as a provocation or stimulation, to challenge and develop the way we think and to get the juices going.”

He points to the inclusion of Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, as a keynote speaker. Griffiths has recently overseen a multimillion-pound capital project and is a key player in developing infrastructure in the Middle Eastern state.

While some panels are still being finalised at the time of writing, a third of the speakers in the current programme are women, up from just 14% at the last conference four years ago. The 2018 edition marks a giant leap from the five women who appear in the schedule for the first conference in 2002, but Kerbel acknowledges that it is still a work in progress. “What I feel we have done this year is established a baseline that the editorial board can work from for future conferences,” she says.

The event also wants to discuss how theatre can reach those who have traditionally felt left out. Jenny Sealey, artistic director of disabled-led theatre company Graeae, and writer and poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan will discuss making theatre buildings more welcoming and accessible to more communities.

In looking to the future, this year’s conference will explore virtual and augmented reality, and what effect it will have on the industry. This is not just how it can be integrated into performances, but how the technology can support an audience in venues and how it can be used to help design the buildings themselves. “People want to know where the clever work is being done,” Townley says. A virtual petting zoo is just one of the examples for delegates to experience the technology first hand.

But the theatre does not just learn from advances in technology, and recreating lost venues can provide valuable insight, the organisers say. In a session called ‘Theatre by Candlelight’, the panellists, including actor Hattie Morahan and director Adele Thomas, will debate the traditions theatre can learn from and restore.

There are wider themes at play too. “There is an issue in London and in the larger houses in the regions – and Broadway too. There are buildings of a certain age. They have great history, but we need to make them fit for the 21st century,” Townley says. “The answers to those questions may be found at ITEAC.”

The International Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference will be held at the headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London’s Savoy Place from June 3-5

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