Willow Theatre, by Brad Steinmetz and Tim Lai

  • Strips of horticultural fleece sway like the branches of a willow. Photo: Matthew Carbone

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269202/large/Willow-Theatre4.jpg$,

  • Fleece was used to line the theatre’s interior. Photo: Matthew Carbone

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269202/large/Willow-Theatre4.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269203/large/Willow-Theatre1.jpg$,

  • Fleece was used to line the theatre’s interior. Photo: Matthew Carbone

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269202/large/Willow-Theatre4.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269203/large/Willow-Theatre1.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269204/large/Willow-Theatre2.jpg$,

  • Aerial shot of the temporary Willow Theatre, which attracted 10,000 people during its short life

  • http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269202/large/Willow-Theatre4.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269203/large/Willow-Theatre1.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269204/large/Willow-Theatre2.jpg$,http://www.designcurial.com/Uploads/Project/9121/images/269205/large/Willow-Theatre3.jpg$,

Cardiff hosted a world-class temporary stage space, made from horticultural fleece, with the highly sustainable and magical theatrical experience gone in a week..

Client: World Stage Design Awards

Designers: Brad Steinmetz and Tim Lai

Cost: Less than £20,000

Construction time: One week


Photos: Matthew Carbone

The UK is home to some of the world's most creative and brilliant stage, set and performance designers, so it was a fitting home for the third World Stage Design festival last September. It was even more fitting that this quadrennial festival - in its third outing after being launched in Toronto (2005) and then hosted by Seoul (2009)- took place at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD), whose senior lecturer in Technical Theatre, Ian Evans, founded the festival with his colleague Sean Crowley, RWCMD's director of drama and head of production and design.

As the only international celebration of its kind, showcasing the work of theatre architects, performance designers and scenographers, there was a mass of inspiring projects to cram into the 10-day celebration. But the crowning moment for American architect Tim Lai and stage and set designer Brad Steinmetz was when their ethereal, recyclable and sustainable theatre - the winning scheme for the festival's prestigious World Stage Design Award that attracted 100 entries from 26 countries - was constructed in the RWCMD's courtyard, to act as a major venue for talks, workshops, debates and performances.

Fleece was used to line the theatre’s interior

Fleece was used to line the theatre's interior

The Willow Theatre is a temporary, locally sourced and fully recyclable or reusable theatre with a distinctive exterior made from horticultural fleece. Its form, features and construction were cooked up between Steinmetz and Lai - who had never worked together previously - over weeks of late-night emails and occasional meetings (fortunately they are both based in Columbus, Ohio). Using their designs, students from the college and expert volunteers, constructed this 150-seater space in little more than a week.

Regarding the unusual materials and exterior, Steinmetz, a professor of theatre at Ohio State University, says: 'I'm always interested in spaces between forms and ways to make those spaces interesting. The translucent fleece gives an intriguing spin towards spaces and their divisions. I was first drawn to the material as a cheap alternative to large theatrical fabric, but I soon learned that its unique lightness and translucency could be used to great effect.'

Fleece was used to line the theatre’s interior

Fleece was used to line the theatre's interior

Seinmetz and Lai call their structure the Willow Theatre because of the way the strips of fleece shelter and sway, like the branches of a willow tree. The building's frame comes from hired and returnable industrial scaffolding. Horticultural fleece is used for both the decorative fronds and to line and insulate the interior walls, with an interior lining of stiff vinyl that is white on the outside, black on the inside.

Flooring was an issue, says Steinmetz: 'Initially we thought we'd use the cobblestones of the courtyard, but that wouldn't be practical in wet weather. It was easier to build a sub-floor, then the audience is on risers, about seven rows up.' Wooden board flooring and seating is also reusable and recyclable, and the fleece and vinyl roof retractable for open-air performances. The brief was for the whole project to cost less than £20,000.

Aerial shot of the temporary Willow Theatre, which attracted 10,000 people during its short life

Aerial shot of the temporary Willow Theatre, which attracted 10,000 people during its short life

Alongside the events on the main stage, there was a free exhibition staged around the RWCMD campus of set, costume, props, lighting and sound work by 100 performance designers - with bronze, gold and silver awards given to the best designs entered. For the first time the event combined with Scenofest, resulting in more than 100 workshops, seminars, performances - including dance, opera, physical theatre, interactive and site-specific events - and presentations exploring performance design, craft and technology.

For something with such a magical, whimsical presence, it seems sad that the structure had to vanish as soon as the festival was over. Says Steinmetz: 'All the materials have gone now. The agricultural fleece has been donated to farms and garden nurseries in the area. The vinyl went back to the company which uses it for signage. The scaffolding has all gone back to the builders.' But Steinmetz and Lai hope there may be an opportunity to resurrect it for an event on their side of the Atlantic, come this summer.

Words by Veronica Simpson

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2024, All rights reserved.