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  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

Stop . . . You're Both Right!

In Daily Life in Ancient Rome, by Jerome Carcopino, I came across the following: “Any well-educated man who was moderately well-off cherished the ambition of having a room in his house, the auditorium, especially for readings.” (p.196) This triggered a long series of mental associations centering on the difference between an ‘auditorium’ and a ‘theater.’ I have never had a really good answer to this question until now; but first a little background and history.

Merriam-Webster Online cites the following definitions.

au·di·to·ri·um Etymology: Latin, literally, lecture room . Date: 1700 1: a room, hall, or building used for public gatherings 2: the part of a public building where an audience sits.

the·ater Etymology: Middle English theatre, from Middle French, from Latin theatrum, from Greek theatron, from theasthai to view, from thea act of seeing; akin to Greek thauma miracle. Date: 14th century, 1 a: an outdoor structure for dramatic performances or spectacles in ancient Greece and Rome b: a building or area for dramatic performances

In many people’s minds, I suspect the acts of seeing and hearing are inextricably linked when it comes to thinking about a live performance. Even in extreme cases where there may be no intentional sounds (spoken word, music, noise;) hearing the silence is a necessary component of the performance. Conversely, a performance in the dark requires that our seeing is ‘not’ seeing. I grant you that the foregoing distinction is a bit esoteric, but the fact that there are separate words for ‘places to hear’ and ‘places to see’ indicates that over 2,000 years ago there was a meaningful difference (at least to some Greeks and Romans.)

Carcopino describes these auditoria as being, literally, reading rooms, where the host would sit on stage in front of assembled friends to read poetry (which was a popular fashion at the time. pp. 196, 197) While some wealthier citizens could afford to build auditoriums as separate rooms; others might only invite as many listeners as could be accommodated around their dinning room tables. These forerunners of ‘home theater’ did not compete with larger venues of the time; nor were they meant to.

Greek theater evolved from religious rites and festivals incorporating dancing and the spoken word. Originally occurring in separate facilities at different times; advances in acoustical design . . . meant that a dancing place and a speaking place could conveniently be one and the same, so theatres doubled as places of assembly. (Wiles, David, A Short History of Western Performance Space p.07). Unlike the Roman auditoria, Greek theaters of the first millennium BC, were intended to seat large numbers of people.

So, why do cities in the United States have buildings called auditoriums and buildings called theaters; which for all intents and purposes are the same thing? The short answer is, “I don’t know.” Research in my personal library (comprised of dozens of volumes) and the Internet (containing many more sources and references which were of no avail) did not lead me to any definitive answers - - or any indefinite ones for that matter. I have, however, formed some opinions.

Throughout the 18th century there was widespread opposition to theatrical performances in Britain and the US. In the puritanical climate of the time the theater was considered a "highway to hell". Theatrical performances were banned in most states during the American Revolutionary War. It is likely, however, that these ordinances were not strictly enforced, for there are records of performances in many cities during this time. (Wikipedia) Did this disdain for theatrical performance lead to the creation of auditoriums (which may have been a stand-in for theater) favoring speech and music presentations only?

In America, during the 18th and 19th centuries, most cities only had a single theater - - if they had any at all. Productions were much more rudimentary then, and sometimes plays would be staged in barns or large salons when no theater space was available. These early provincial theaters frequently lacked heat and even minimal props and scenery. Did this lead to auditoriums with their minimal to non-existent stage systems because such theatrical systems were not expected? On a practical note, they would be less expensive to build. Did converted buildings lead to auditoriums? How many of us have done summer stock in what is or once was a barn? When there was sufficient audience and money to build a dedicated space, was an auditorium the result of trying to fix the old problems in ad hoc spaces in the new space?

The school auditoriums I remember from the early 1960’s were clearly designed in the Latin manner: as a place where students were gathered to hear lectures or music presentations; with black stage draperies and borderlights the only theatrical accessories. There was, at this time, a sense that an auditorium was a lesser type of performance space; and not just because it lacked the technical systems. This may have been because they were architecturally speaking very boring spaces. They often served double duty as gym or cafeteria and lacked the backstage support spaces found in other venues.

The latter half of the 20th century has seen a greater incorporation of the performing arts into school curriculums. Starting in the 1970’s some new schools included fully outfitted spaces with lighting, rigging and sound systems. Today, it is rare to see a K-12 facility that does not offer theatrical systems that were previously only found in professional venues. These systems are sophisticated enough to stage Broadway sized productions and there are high school drama festivals to prove it. Sometimes they are called ‘auditoriums’ and other times ‘theaters.’ This has certainly blurred the distinction during present times.

Based upon my exhaustive research, I have come to the conclusion that at the dawn of the 21st century there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Auditorium is no longer a pejorative appellation: it is as Merriam-Webster says, “. . . the place where the audience sits.” Today, live performance, in all its guises can be found in formal and informal venues. A rose, is a rose, is a rose and it smells as sweet.

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