A conversation with Charcoalblue, theatre and acoustic designers

Charcoalblue is widely considered to be the most innovative theatre and acoustics consultancy in the world, with studios in London, Bristol, New York and Melbourne.

Apr 20, 2016 | BY: Alexandra West

Jerad Schomer, Team Leader, and Clemeth Abercrombie, Lead Acoustician, of Charcoalblue 

Charcoalblue is widely considered to be the most innovative theatre and acoustics consultancy in the world, with studios in London, Bristol, New York and Melbourne. Their portfolio includes seven auditoria for the Royal Shakespeare Company, two auditoria for the National Theatre in London, as well as new spaces for the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House in the UK and a new Performing Arts Centre at the World Trade Centre in New York. Charcoalblue is responsible for the theatre and acoustic design for the Hearn Generating Station. 

Q: What was your initial reaction when you heard about Luminato’s plans for the Hearn Generating Station? 

A: Our initial reaction was one of awe at Luminato’s ambitious plan to transform this immense industrial space into a fully-functional, temporary performing arts centre. We knew right away that this was a project we had to be involved in. 

Q: What was your inspiration for the designs? 

A: We studied a number of theatre forms and historical precedents as part of our initial design process, including thrust theatres like our Royal Shakespeare Theatre project, and other more traditional proscenium or end-on theatres with deep balconies such as The Old Vic in London and the Hudson on Broadway. We also took inspiration from the building itself. The individual theatre spaces, when sited within the Hearn, will exist as part of a larger whole. Whichever space you are in, the intention is for you to experience the building as one cohesive form. This cohesion informed everything from the audience entrance to the situation of the theatres amongst the dense grid of steelwork, the modular materials selected for audience seating to the careful fine-tuning of the space’s challenging acoustics. 

Q: How do you create a theatre space using non-traditional objects like shipping containers and ensure it functions for patrons, artists and technical crews? 

A: We try to start from a human-scaled approach to space. At first, the tools and materials are not important. We ask what shapes and sizes will make the best experience for audience, performer, artist and technician. From an audience perspective, we know that a degree of audience density improves the audience experience. It means that more people are in closer proximity to the stage, which improves not only sightlines but also awareness of other audience members’ inclusiveness and fosters a sense of community. 

Q: Will there be any traces of Luminato Festival 2016 at the Hearn after the festival ends? 

A This project is the result of a continuing conversation that many cities are having about reclaiming former industrial space. From London’s Tate Modern to Charcoalblue’s latest North American project, St. Ann’s Warehouse on the New York waterfront under the Brooklyn Bridge, cities are reclaiming waterfront industrial spaces and transforming them for cultural use. The Hearn could be a trailblazer for similar redevelopment in Toronto. For decades, and sometimes for centuries, some of the most desirable parts of many major cities have been given over to uses that few residents get to enjoy. The Hearn is an opportunity to prove that this raw space is desirable, that, in fact, it can help form the vital and vibrant cultural fabric of a great city by enabling the creation of work that can’t be presented in a typical gallery or performance space.