The Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre

London, UK

The National’s Cottesloe Theatre was widely regarded as the most successful of its three spaces. After 35 years of continual use, of cramming ‘infinite riches in a little room’, the theatre was in need of significant refurbishment. Meet the Dorfman.

The end-stage seating capacity was increased by around 70 seats in steep rake; and by around 130 in shallow rake.

Established at the Old Vic theatre in 1963, The National Theatre of Great Britain relocated to its current Sir Denys Lasdun-designed home on the Southbank in 1976. The NT Future programme, initiated by the Executive team of Nicholas Hytner, Nick Starr and Lisa Burger, saw a comprehensive redevelopment of the entire complex which included an ambitious equipment upgrade of the Lyttelton and Oliver theatres, transforming the Cottesloe theatre into the flexible Dorfman theatre, a new temporary stage in the theatre’s forecourt.

The Cottesloe Theatre - uniquely flexible and adaptable, its range accommodated both the epic and the intimate - has now been transformed into the reconfigurable Dorfman Theatre. The old steeply-raked retractable seating unit is now gone: instead, new folding seats and Serapid-driven motorised elevators for each row of pit seating allow multiple seating configurations to be created faster and more efficiently than ever before. This versatility also allows a ‘shallow rake’ seating format to be created for the first time since the mid-1980s, and a flat floor to be achieved quickly by folding all the seats into their floorboxes and setting all elevators at stage height.

“Charcoalblue are passionate theatre people. Their great skill is in understanding what it takes to create a great theatre space.”

Lisa Burger, Executive Director, National Theatre

New folding seats and Serapid-driven motorised elevators allow multiple seating configurations to be created.

The transformation of the seating formats can be achieved in just 30 minutes.

The transformation of the seating formats can be achieved in just 30 minutes.

The control rooms on the first balcony were moved up a level, creating a new row of seating in their place whilst retaining an optional sound mixing position.

A big improvement to sightlines - especially from side seats - was achieved simply by cranking-back the balcony rail.

Infrastructure for the stagelighting and audiovisual systems was reworked where necessary, retaining as much of the existing installation as possible.

Technical provision is enhanced with new walkways over the auditorium, providing storage space and improving technicians' access and safety. A big improvement to sightlines - especially from side seats - was achieved simply by cranking-back the balcony rail. Overall, the end-stage seating capacity was increased by around 70 seats in steep rake; and by around 130 in shallow rake.

In a long-term partnership with the NT, Charcoalblue also designed a new computerised point hoist system in the Olivier and new lighting bar ladder winches in the Lyttelton Theatre; together with technical facilities in the Clore Learning Centre.

We were also design partners in the creation of the Temporary Theatre (aka The Shed) and theatre consultants for the refurbishment of the National Theatre Studio.

“It’s difficult to say we would have actually pulled this off the way we did without those two specific groups, without Haworth Tompkins and Charcoalblue.”

Chris McDougall, Project Manager NT

An early concept sketch for the flexible auditorium rake.

Plan drawing of the Dorfman.

Section drawing of the Dorfman.

Demonstration of the bespoke seat folding mechanism.

Technical provision is enhanced with new walkways over the auditorium, providing storage space and improving technicians' access and safety.

Innovative solutions

The transformation of the seating formats can be achieved in just 30 minutes. A by-product of this is the rapid creation of flat-floor areas within the pit seating for directors, designers and operators to work from during technical rehearsals. Row spacing and seat widths were increased throughout, and the new seats are more generously upholstered. ‘Strapitains’ – seats which fold down into the aisle, the first use of such seats in the UK – leave sufficient aisle width for latecomers' access, and spring clear of the aisle when the occupant stands.

The control rooms on the first balcony were moved up a level, creating a new row of seating in their place whilst retaining an optional sound mixing position. Stagelighting and audiovisual systems was reworked where necessary, retaining as much of the existing installation as possible. In addition, new LED houselighting was installed throughout.

Dorfman exterior

Take a tour of the Dorfman with the team.

Project Details

Client

National Theatre

Project cost

£70m

Completed

2014

Awards

The Stage Theatre Building of the Year 2016
RICS National Award 2016
RIBA National Award 2015

Credits

Architect

Haworth Tompkins

Structural Engineer

Flint & Neill

Construction Manager

Lend Lease

Quantity Surveyor

AECOM

Project Management

BuroFour

Seating Contractor

Race

Stage Engineering Contractor

Delstar

Stagelighting & Audiovisual Systems

Northern Light

Photography

Philip Vile

Related

...the National Theatre is one of London's best known and most divisive Brutalist buildings.

Dezeen

Press

Sir Denys, your theatres are still alive, your building has absorbed change remarkably.

RIBA Journal

Press

Denys Lasdun’s icon remains a brilliantly composed homage to Epidaurus.

The Architects' Journal

Press

...this venerable modern monument is looking better than it has done for a long time, and in some ways ever.

The Guardian

Press

Andy Hayles

Talk to Andy about The Dorfman.

Contact Andy

+44 (0)20 7928 0000