The Black Theatre - Site Specific

Jerrard Smith

Following our unproductive visit to Yugoslavia in 1987, Thom (Sokoloski, director of many Patria works) and I went to Liège in Belgium at the request of the Festival de Liège and Jeunesse Musicale to look for a site for the Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos.

The notes accompanying the score suggest a mine as the ideal location for this operatic work based on the concepts of ancient alchemy and the interpretations of Carl Jung.

We were shown a few potential sites including a disused factory, a museum of metallurgy and a winter circus. The factory was cluttered and not particularly suitable from a sound or aesthetic viewpoint. The museum, full of mining tools from the past when Liège was the centre of coal-mining for the area had some real potential but was far too small to accommodate the audience we anticipated.

The final site was an abandoned structure like a huge silo. Five stories high, it had once been home to traveling circus acts in the winter. (Apparently, one of the last acts to perform in the space was Buffalo Bills Wild West Show). It immediately struck us as a very exciting possibility.

The Cirque d'Hiver was originally an open tower with seating in boxes on each level. After its life as a venue for circus performance, it underwent renovations for its less glamorous existence as a parking garage. Concrete floors were constructed at every level and two huge freight elevators were installed to move the cars from floor to floor. By the time we arrived, the elevators were in a state of only the most marginal functionality and just the lower two floors with access to the road outside were still active as carpark.The next two floors were littered with the wrecks of a variety of cars.

The top level however was magnificent. The circular cement floor (with a wooden roundabout in the middle) was surrounded by a pillared colonnade which framed a ten-foot-deep recessed area around the walls. Above the pillars was a row of low windows and above these, trussed by a series of radiating metal rods, a wooden ceiling sloped up to a large glass cupola. Below the cupola was suspended a circular catwalk with a bridge to a small central platform, all about eighteen feet above the roundabout.

Thom and I left Belgium buoyed by the possibilities of one of the most exciting performance spaces we had yet encountered. As is often the case, the reality became a nightmare as I have explained in the accompanying article, Hell in Belgium - Black and Blacker Theatre.

I took photos and measurements and we began the process of planning where to put the audience, the set, the orchestra and the soloists. There were of course some concerns. The audience would have to arrive by way of a fairly narrow cement staircase to the third level then a metal fire escape to the fourth and fifth floors. We had decided to use the fourth floor as dressing rooms and the third as a preparation chamber where the audience would receive an introduction to the work and an atmosphere would be established (something we had done in RA and The Greatest Show) [see article on preparation].

QuicktimeVR Panorama of the Cirque d'Hiver (you need the quicktime plugin - The file is 200k and should load fairly quickly.)

Part two - Hell in Belgium

The Alchemical Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos