Ed Wilson of Foster Wilson Size explains how well-designed theatre spaces can have a lifechanging impact on young people’s confidence, creativity, communication skills and careers.


Foster Wilson Size recently reworked and expanded the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon.

Ed Wilson
Hufton + Crow

The Covid pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on the mental health effects of isolation on all age ranges, but this problem is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than among young people. New technology has enabled a wide range of tasks to continue despite physical isolation, but has had only partial success in imparting the positive health effects of communication. At the same time, a reliance on social media to communicate with friends seems to have amplified anxiety, a side effect that appears most acute for children.

More positively, we have all started to appreciate the positive mental health benefits of shared communication and shared experiences: going to the theatre, seeing a film at the cinema or going for a meal with friends.

Activities that were once seen as optional or even frivolous are now understood to provide an important opportunity to share experiences and gain the benefits of direct communication. Theatre in particular is a highly effective means of providing a collective experience that is lived in the moment.

For young people, participating in theatre provides the opportunity to gain confidence in communicating with other people and to discover the thrill of taking on different identities. In some cases, drama can become a passion that leads to a lifelong career. The success of the entertainment industry in the UK rests in large part on the success of grass-roots theatre for young people. Even if only experienced as a member of the audience, theatre for children is stimulating, fun and informative, providing space for imagination and dialogue.


Polka Theatre in Wimbledon

Through working on a number of theatre projects for young children over the last few years, my practice has encountered many stories of how important theatre has been for the development of young people. While working on the restoration of Hoxton Hall, it was clear that the evening classes of live music were there to offer an alternative to more disruptive forms of street culture.

More recently, while working on the design of the new Brixton House theatre (previously Oval House), I have been impressed by how many actors have come forward to talk of how life-changing the experience of youth theatre was in their lives. In particular actor Pierce Brosnan’s description of how the experience of theatre at Oval House “completely altered my life and expanded my horizons, allowing me to find myself”.

Inner-city experiences of theatre clubs may not be the same across the country but even participation in a production at a school theatre can give a child a massive boost in skills and confidence.

For an architect, theatre design for young people provides a range of possibilities to connect design with imagination and play. Our recent reworking and expansion of the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, working with theatre designer Laura McEwen and play space designer Jonny Allams, has provided an opportunity to integrate play within the architecture of the new theatre spaces –whether this is a magic carpet that hints at flights of fantasy on the facade, an underwater stream of carpet flowing from the entrance or a playhouse emerging from
the jungle in the garden.

Foster Wilson Size worked with Laura McEwen and Jonny Allams at the Polka Theatre to create a flexible design that integrates play within the theatre spaces.

The form of the theatre is as important for children as it is for adults; finding an arrangement that best enables engagement between actor and audience. Cinema layouts, in which the seats all face the same way towards the stage, can give good views of the performance but provide little interaction between audience members. A more natural configuration for storytelling is a group gathering around a speaker with free flowing communication between the two.

It is this arrangement that underlies the form of the adventure theatre at Polka Theatre, which has the flexibility to accommodate different groups of children, whether seated or gathered on mats on the floor. Interaction between performer and audience and between audience members is if anything more natural in children’s theatre where a young audience has few preconceptions of how a theatre show should be experienced and takes little encouragement to participate.


Providing appropriate space for children’s theatre does not mean that children’s theatre cannot be professional or that it does not have the flexibility to work for an adult audience. An early years theatre may present too much of a stretch for adults who might be reluctant to sit on the floor and imagine they are on a magic carpet, but youth theatre is a vital factor for the overall success of many professional theatres.

Flexibility and daytime use are often key to commercial success, so theatre classes for children during the day can create a perfect synergy with professional theatre performances in the evening.

Our design of the performing arts centre for Cheltenham Ladies College was conceived from the outset as a space built to professional standards that could be shared between the school and the town. Today it runs as both a successful teaching space for children and a key performance venue for the Cheltenham Festivals.

Theatre has long had a symbiotic relationship with architecture, whether it is the medieval public square planned for the events of theatre and spectacle, the play of performance and staging of Baroque architecture or the inherent theatricality of the Parisian street.

Theatre and architecture are two art forms that work most effectively when they bring people together in public space, providing a meaningful context in which an experience can be shared. Perhaps nowhere is this relationship more concentrated than in children’s theatres where the relationship between imagination and design is less inhibited, and there is a real intensity to telling stories for a new audience.

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