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Charcoalblue's inspired new seating is just the ticket as The Hard Problem opens at the Dorfman

Charcoalblue\'s inspired new seating is just the ticket as The Hard Problem opens at the Dorfman
Charcoalblue\'s inspired new seating is just the ticket as The Hard Problem opens at the Dorfman

UK The National Theatre's newly transformed Dorfman Theatre opened for the first time in its seated format last month with Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem. More seats than ever before are available for the show, following the regeneration of the theatre by architects Haworth Tompkins and theatre consultants Charcoalblue.

The improvements mean that an extra 27,000 people each year can gain access to what are often sold-out performances in the Dorfman, formerly the Cottesloe. In total, up to 130 more seats are available for each performance of The Hard Problem thanks to innovative seat designs and layout changes developed by Charcoalblue.

"By placing each row of the pit seating on an individual elevator, we have reinstated the original shallow rake format and made it possible to change from this to steep rake or flat floor quickly," says Alex Wardle from Charcoalblue. "We have also improved seat comfort, capacity and sightlines. To achieve this, we had to tweak the internal layout of the theatre, moving the control room up one level and moving the staircases out, to create space for a second row of seating."

Paddy Dillon, from Hawarth Tompkins, continues: "Charcoalblue came up with this brilliant concept that we could go from raked seating to flat floor, and instead of retracting them in a bleacher at the back of the room, we could fold them into the floor itself. Charcoalblue took technologies that existed before – st age elevators, seating that folds back into boxes – and put them together. That was a brilliant move because the theatre can quickly be configured into three different formats."

The redeveloped theatre now has added flexibility, more comfortable seating, energy-efficient displacement ventilation and a larger foyer. The renovations are part of the ongoing £80 million NT Future project.  

The new seating system enables the auditorium to be used for learning activities during the day when it would otherwise be empty. The elevators were built and installed by Delstar Engineering; the seating by Race Furniture. Although folding seats already existed on the market, the Dorfman seats had to fold into a tight space and allow airflow through the pedestal. This involved careful engineering and extensive prototyping.  

Paddy Dillon continues: "Since we were making new seats, of course we were going to make them more comfortable. Charcoalblue did a huge amount of work looking at seat widths, staggering of seats to optimise sightlines, comfort and flexibility."

Charcoalblue also designed strapontin seats, which fold out into the aisle until the user stands up. "As far as we know, this is the first time strapontin seating has been installed in a British theatre," Alex continues. "It's fairly common in European theatres, and adds ten seats in the best part of the house."

Charcoalblue also worked with electrical engineers Atelier Ten to specify new houselighting, choosing GDS and RVA LED fixtures which were installed by Northern Light. The technical walkways were extended to include storage space, which has speeded up rigging operations.

NT technical manager Chris McDougall comments: "With Hawarth Tompkins and Charcoalblue you felt like you had the best theatrical knowledge base – they've worked on some of the best theatres in the country and I had utter trust in the fact they were theatre people: they understand theatre. This made the whole process a lot easier."

Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem runs until 27 May 2015 at the Dorfman, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and will be broadcast to cinemas internationally by National Theatre Live on 16 April.

6th March 2015

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