The Vertical Theatre: The Future of Venue Touring?

Conceived with social distancing in mind, The Vertical Theatre Group’s latest innovation is targeted at a live entertainment industry reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. TPi’s Jacob Waite catches up with Stufish’s Ric Lipson and freelance Production Director, Jake Berry to discuss their collective vision.

At the turn of the year, The Vertical Theatre Group – a newly established collective of producers, creatives and technical specialists led by Stufish – revealed ambitious plans for a ‘future-proof’ live performance venue, aptly named The Vertical Theatre. Put forth as an ‘innovative and tourable’ solution, the freestanding venue is designed to guarantee the future of live entertainment, providing a much-needed boost to the sector and its workers. Founders, Stufish’s Ric Lipson and freelance Production Director, Jake Berry are optimistic enough about the venue, which allows for social distancing, to jump on a Zoom chat with TPi to discuss their collective vision.

According to Lipson, one of the biggest challenges that venues face in the wake of the pandemic is the dated topography of the space. Historic, listed, concrete buildings, which play host to live entertainment, and were constructed pre-COVID-19, are ill-equipped to handle social distancing. One-way entrances, communal foyers, handrails, bars and queues are all likely transmission zones for viruses. “As entertainment architects, we’re constantly examining ways to make buildings more functional,” he began.

By using the technology of, say, a festival roof or a modern truss system, to hold up equipment, The Vertical Theatre plans to house 1,200 to 2,000 seats, socially distanced, in a modular and safe, open-air setting. “We came up with the idea that the top of The Vertical Theatre would be covered, and the sides open, to allow the flow of fresh air while also staying dry and maintaining the capacity to rig and suspend lighting, sound and video kit from the roof,” Lipson furthered. “Think of Shakespeare’s Globe or the Royal Opera House, mixed with the intimacy of the theatre and the rigging capacity of an arena, along with the physical space and surroundings of an outdoor amphitheatre.”

In January, The Vertical Theatre Group previewed its vision for the space by revealing 3D drawings and an interactive video. “We modelled the design in a combination of AutoCAD and Rhinoceros 3D software. Some of the still images were developed through a Rhinoceros 3D plug-in called Enscape3D, while some of the animations were run through a Rhinoceros 3D and Unreal Engine plug-in called Twinmotion,” Lipson clarified. “Additional character animations were achieved in Autodesk 3Ds Max. Everything was edited in Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects.”

Since revealing their plans, the collective has opened discussions with potential partners to realise the vision – one they believe will be ready to roll-out later this year with the ambition to have multiple semi-permanent venues around the world in due course.

“The response from across the board has been amazing,” Berry commented. “It’s somewhat of a new venture for us, which makes it exciting. We’ve been examining ways to be creative amid the lockdown, but we also have to be flexible and acclimatise to the ever-changing goalposts related to COVID-19.”

The new style of performance space could, in theory, be used by all levels of the live entertainment world – from theatre and festivals, to global artist tours as well as comedy, circus and televised events, ensuring that the world of live entertainment can thrive in a world reeling from the unprecedented impact of a global pandemic. “We wanted to solve an immediate problem,” Lipson explained. “We not only want to make the structure viable, but we have also designed the structure based on truss and scaffolding, with bespoke cladding to make it pretty and hide the handrails, and make the boxes feel more luxurious, albeit COVID-19 secure.”

The audience sits in balconies which can accommodate groups between four to 12 people or designated ‘social bubbles’. Each audience member has an up-close view of the performance space and enjoys a unique VIP experience, bringing more people closer to the artist unlike in any other venue. “We’ve developed a bespoke version of the structure, with larger modular seating sections, which we’d lift from the ground up with motors, similar to the way a production crew would build a rock ’n’ roll show,” Lipson revealed. “It is designed to be tourable, however, some of the reception has been swayed to a more semi-permanent structure, for people to have in their city for a number of years.”

The venue has the capability to include built-in global streaming capacity and features innovative F&B facilities. Conceived with social distancing and decentralisation of audiences in mind, the Vertical Theatre also creates a space that is fully adaptable for when COVID-19 restrictions are a thing of the past. “It’s the new modern circus tent with much more capability,” Lipson remarked. “There’s no venue that does everything that this venue can do.” Once attendees spiral up the building, with 2m-plus wide corridors, they are led by ushers into the building, which is open air and maintains two steps from each box, with COVID-19 secure handrail access, as well as sanitiser dispensers, PPE, and a plastic screen separating audience clusters, “if that is what is required by the time that it is constructed,” Lipson remarked.

In addition to PPE, the building splits the audience into four areas, reducing congestion. “This creates an experience that is equal, albeit segregated, with the artists performing on the lower deck, suitably distanced from the audience. However, the human connection of artistry still remains,” Lipson said. “As the building is modular, further distancing is achievable, if required.”

The Vertical Theatre Group’s founders are Stufish Entertainment Architects represented by Ric Lipson and Paul Preston; Live Events and Documentary Producer, Holly Gilliam; Theatre Producer, Katy Lipson; Production Director, Jake Berry; Director and Digital Theatre Founder, Robert Delamere. The collective’s main goal is to provide a commercially viable space for live entertainment now, in a world of social distancing.

Well versed in sitting in a dark room for hours on end making the impossible, in fact, possible, the founders of the project have never actually met as a group in-person – collaborating entirely over Zoom. “While we can’t design shows for the masses, we can harness our collective experience to devise the future of touring and getting our colleagues and their equipment back out to work,” Lipson commented. “These flexible, temporary structures might be the next phase of thinking. The idea of touring buildings is a different way of thinking and planning for the future.”

Berry chimed in: “There are lots of things on the horizon, however, a timeline is difficult to predict given the ever-shifting goalposts involved in live entertainment. We’re excited and we know that it can work. If it was up to us, we would create this space tomorrow, but that’s not going to happen until the creative and technical parameters align.”

Lipson and Berry are quietly confident this new type of cross arts collaboration can help build a new and innovative vision for the future of live entertainment. “We are devoted to the vital importance of arts and culture. We believe they are an essential part of human experience, of what makes us who we are. We are very excited to be able to bring this innovative new venue offering to the live entertainment world at this pivotal moment for the future of the arts.’’

This article originally appeared in issue #259 of TPi, which you can read here.

Photos: The Vertical Theatre Group