British theatre’s most influential person – Architect Steve Tompkins: “We have to think in terms of maximising theatrical affect while minimising resource and energy use, in construction. All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”
The prolific architect was named most influential person in British theatre but the world is in the grip of a climate emergency – and he says we all have to act.
Whenever there’s an announcement about an exciting UK Theatre building being built, redeveloped or revamped – whether it is the £45 million renovation of Grade I listed Theatre Royal Drury Lane , a pop-up community theatre in Manchester or a new commercial London venue with flexible auditorium- it’s a fair bet that architect Steve Tompkins and his team are involved.
In the past two decades or so, Haworth Tompkins has been responsible a number of high-profile theatre building projects including the Royal Court, the Young Vic, the Bush, and Chichester Festival Theatre. Tompkins celebrated work has also included the recent £13m rescue of Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, which was partially destroyed in a fire, and the 2,135m £25 million refurbishment of Bristol Old Vic, one of Europe’s oldest theatres.
When I meet Tompkins, 59, he had just flown back from America.
“Well,” he begins, “I got back from the States 24 hours ago, so I am in a slightly heightened state, 100% Jet-lagged. We have a new job there, the first project in our studio that involves some flying, so we’re working out how to approach that.”
“There are two dozen projects on the book at any one time in the studio, ranging from a 1600 seat lyric house to a demountable 200 seat auditorium which can be carried from location to location – by the audience,” Tompkins tells me.
Earlier this year, Tompkins was named the most influential person in British Theatre, in the annual 100-strong power list, published by The Stage. Tompkins, who placed 23rd in last year’s edition, came in above prolific figures including producer Sonia Friedman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Where was he when he got the news? “I was in the Lake District for New Year and I was running on the hills and got home to this email with a full-page mugshot,” recalls Tompkins.
And it felt like a huge thing? “I suppose it is a huge thing if you want it to be a huge thing,” he says, finding a sigh and a smile. “Last year was good with Vicky (Featherstone) – saying we are going to situate you in this spot because it allows us to talk about something arguably more interesting than the usual suspects producing fantastic shows – as they always have and they always will. I think it is interesting to adjust the levers – so that the odd outlier can come through on the rails. Choosing me, representing Haworth Tompkins, meant we can talk about the importance of theatre hardware. I got many lovely messages from friends who are theatre designers and makers saying – fantastic – this feels like it is on behalf of all of us.”
He adds: “We’ve been trying to emphasise collective authorship, so in that sense the personalisation of the Stage thing was a setback but this is on behalf of the whole organisation and the studio gets good acknowledgement and profile.”
Reflecting on the studio’s journey and the collective endeavour, Tompkins says: “I started the studio with my partner Graham Haworth – we did all the early thinking about what the studio should be about – then Roger Watts (Tompkins’ long term collaborator and now co-director) and I took the theatre thinking forward and now we have a team of two dozen people in the performance design group– all of whom are really knowledgeable, technically far more knowledgeable than I am – and who are now building their own client relationships and running their own teams. It is high time that it is seen as not just me because it never was about just me.”
Tompkins’ first major theatre project was the transformation of the Royal Court in London. Even more remarkable considering his background was in social housing. His first theatre job, though, amuses him. “We got the job in 1995 and it opened in 2000. In 1995 we were a couple of early 30’s gobshites who had never done a theatre,” he laughs drily.
“We introduced ourselves to Iain Macintosh at Theatre Projects; a great theatre guru and hugely knowledgeable– one of the first books about theatre that I read was Iain’s Architecture Actor and Audience. It is the perfect introduction to the field. Again, it is symptomatic of the state the world was in in 1995 – the lottery was starting up – at that time Iain could envisage suggesting an inexperienced architect for the shortlist as a wild card to see what happened. Today that would be seens as too risky, meaning younger practices get less of an opportunity to break through.”
The 59-year-old smiles at the memory. “We were interviewed on stage at the Royal Court and I guess we were just enthusiastic because we got the gig.”
Fast forward a decade, Tompkins had won the 2014 Stirling prize for the innovative £27m redesign of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – his first theatre built from scratch. Director Gemma Bodinetz believes it is Tompkins’ love of theatre-making that makes him so unique. “Steve and his team are wonderful because they understand the art form, how it works and they love theatre; they understand magic,” says Bodinetz, who runs the Everyman.
“We were his first all-purpose new build; a complete new build and when you walked into it you felt that it was completely loved. He has a fantastic way of creating democratic theatrical spaces with pure soul and that is what theatre is truly about. Because of an erratic funding landscape – we worked together for 10 years on this Capital project and every so often the process would have to stop.”
“A lesser man and architect would have dropped us,” she says. “Months at a time the project was frozen. We kept moving the design forward even when we were in this wobbly place – he and his team gave us his complete backing and unwavering belief. When I stopped working with Steve and his team it felt like a bereavement. He is so much more than an architect.”
Recently, though, Liverpool Everyman crashed out of Arts Council England (ACE)’s National Portfolio for the 2018-22 period, after a disastrous but acclaimed experiment with a repertory company of actors that pushed it into serious financial trouble. Increasingly theatres are running to stand still. Government cuts and those by local authorities mean that many regional theatre’s futures are at risk. “I have watched a brilliant director like Gemma do impeccable work with real courage and creative vision,” says Tompkins.
Years of austerity cuts and the national state of Brexit uncertainty make it particularly hard for arts organisations to take risks. Does he think that Capital projects are vital to secure regional theatre’s past for its long-term future? “It’s a really complex question.” He considers it carefully. “The situations are all so different, aren’t they? Liverpool Everyman is a building which has garnered a lot of public praise and yet still, still it is really difficult for her and her team to generate financial steerage,” he says. “All the recent travails that Gemma and her team have gone through, you think, God, what more can you do, actually. Her commitment to Liverpool is unimpeachable, and so if somebody like her is struggling to find the sweet spot, then it suggests to me that something is fundamentally broken in the funding system.”
“I do not know what the long-term answer is but it helps to have a building to that is on your side in terms of theatrical possibility, running costs and capacity to supplement revenue income.”
On the subject of saying no to prospective collaborations, “It’s not hard,” he says quickly. “It’s about self-protection and respect for your team. You have to take a hard line on what your capacity is at any given time. In a way it is a self-fulfilling issue, and we have occasionally got it wrong – in both directions. After the Royal Court, we had no work for a year because naively we had put all our creative capital into getting the thing open.”
“Brexit is going to be disruptive,” he adds, voice trailing off.
Of the many challenges facing society in 2019, the first and most overarching is the one so essential to the future of civilisation itself: the climate emergency . We touch on politics, but you can glean his beliefs from his Twitter feed: pro-European, and climate-change activist. “The international – the debate around the climate and bio-diversity emergencies are taking a huge amount of my headspace – we have to be the exemplars,” he says, and he looks genuinely pensive. “All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”
Haworth Tompkins principle aim is to make buildings they design accessible to everyone. “The listed status of many theatre buildings means that many are still trying to get around the problem of providing adequate access to disabled theatregoers,” he says.
Certainly, relaxed performances are offered at many theatres – these aim to provide performances for those in the autistic spectrum and those with sensory and communication disorders. But progress is slow with many physically disabled audiences still miss out. “A lot of theatre hides behind the fact it is working it of historic spaces and if it doesn’t affect the bottom line it feels like it is not a priority,” he adds, quickly. “It is absolutely true and less the case in publicly subsidised buildings – we need to get off our asses and get on with it – none of it is that difficult – even at Drury Lane we have managed to make that accessible on all levels – most of those barriers are easy to take down if it’s made a priority and the proper resources get committed.”
Would he say that success fundamentally depends on client relationships? “Absolutely,” he nods. “All projects completely rely on the strength of the relationship between architect and client,” Tompkins says. “Nick Starr has been an incredibly important person in our studio’s creative life – not just, because we have done so many projects together –now The Bridge and the next one for the London Theatre Company. Roger has the same thing – you have a telepathy and common set of references, which means you, can move very quickly.”
Starr’s affection and admiration for Tompkins is mutual. “Steve is a genius. Truly. I can feel his respect for Dennis Lasdun – it is very distinguished architecture – the quality of materials, the scale,” says Nick Starr who ran the National Theatre for 12 years, collaborated with Haworth Tompkins on London’s Bridge Theatre and is currently working with Haworth Tompkins to open a new 600-seat venue in King’s Cross in 2021.
“Steve can draw in three dimensions upside down,” reveals Starr. “So, when we were looking at a future project – and he is sat opposite you – Steve can take a point and expand. And then you realise he’s drawing it so that they are the right way up for you – so that’s quite interesting – the hand-eye paper co-ordination allows those early discussions in which the problem solving and creativity is right in front of you.”
Architect Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre – one of London’s best-known and most contentious Brutalist buildings – is a layered concrete landscape that Prince Charles once described as being like “a nuclear power station.” I ask Tompkins why he thinks the National’s architecture is so divisive. “The more we got to know the detail of the National the more awe and respect we had for the designers,” he says. “Of course, the building is flawed in so many ways – it’s also kind of magnificent –and it will continue to be magnificent. It had a really difficult birth- it opened to austerity and a loss of nerve around modernism and the classical as opposed to the picturesque.”
Asked about the controversial National Theatre’s ‘no laptop’ foyer policy during peak times, Steve’s answer is: “I think there is a logic in asking people to vacate the foyers before shows. In one sense, you think its public funding and a democratic space I have a perfect right to be here,” he says reasonably.
“I can also understand from the point of an organisation that the publicly funded mission is to host 3 shows and make sure the audiences are having a good time for the price of their ticket,” he continues. “If it’s impossible to get a seat then that can’t be right either – in defence of the National – and I’m not their spokesperson – I think its joyful for them to have the foyers full of people doing their thing and hanging out – it’s the same “problem” that the Young Vic foyer has – you come to the show and there’s already 300 passers by having a ball in there – if you try to make a foyer that people will find convivial then you can’t complain when people find it convivial – I guess there is a civilised conversation to have there– I think it will find its balance – I’m an optimist.”
The narrowing of the state school curriculum, squeezing out arts subjects in favour of the more traditional and academic is also a threat to culture for all. For example, young people living in the country’s most deprived areas, and those with lower than average attainment levels, are the most likely to miss out on studying creative subjects. “It is about opportunity,” he says decisively. “Culture is under threat in so many ways and the government’s lack of concentration on arts education is another symptom of a wider malaise. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience and participate in the performing arts early in their lives and its not happening.”
“In a way the lack of concentration on arts education is yet another symptom of that more general and tendency – the only thing that will motivate the government – it is about opportunities it and a start in life that you may not have,” he says, shaking his head.
Anyway, as if Tompkins and his team aren’t busy enough currently the studio is working on a 180-seat pop-up theatre for Manchester Royal Exchange’s community outreach work has been announced, complete with canvas roof and cardboard seats. The mobile space will tour disadvantaged areas of Greater Manchester and will be “very low carbon and super-lightweight”. Hayworth Tompkins and Theatr Clwyd has also just begun an extensive public consultation on their multi-million-pound redevelopment designed by Haworth Tompkins which will see the 43-year-old north Wales venue future-proofed.
“Theatre Clwyd will be interesting,” Tompkins says, “there is a fantastic artistic team with Tamara (Harvey) and Liam (Evans-Ford) making all sorts of waves and leading the way; brave as you like. There is a strong sense of continuity at Clwyd both in term of affection for this friendly giant of a building and in terms of a buy-in for what that team is doing.”
“We like to think of us as having accompanied a building for a few years of its life, either from birth or later on. The building will be there after us, as will the organisation. So, I do think architects can have a false idea of their capacity to stop time – we like to think that when we leave the building it will be complete and all will be frozen at that moment. You can acquire more modesty if you imagine yourself entering the life of the building and working with it –working with it and leave it in a healthier state than when you found it. Our approach entirely is instinctive and collegiate and democratic – that’s where we feel our power is.”
Most significantly, the devastating impacts of global climate change and the part he plays, of all the wide-ranging topics that we discuss is one we keep returning to. Tompkins is instinctively conscientious. “We need to work out what our most positive cause of action is,” he says. “That is the overarching project of this studio and should be of anybody’s work. Architects actually do have clear possibility of affecting positive change; construction accounts for nearly 40% of energy-based carbon we produce.”
We really covered a lot. So much that the office ceiling could have fallen in and we wouldn’t have noticed. It is clear that business as usual is not an option and in the context of social cohesion and the nature of modern society – Tompkins and his team are working through theatre towards something – impressionistic – and bigger than theatre itself.
And there is no doubting his purpose. “If we – as makers – can devise in-roads into the climate emergency that then we can have a direct effect and we don’t need to feel helpless.”