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Full Moon Theatre (La Theatre de la Pleine Lune)
Saint-André-de-Bueges, France
Full Moon Theatre (La Theatre de la Pleine Lune)
associated engineer
Peter Rice
Ove Arup & Partners
date  October 1987 - 1992
era  Modern  |  category  Stadium/Arena/Pool  |  reference  Tc548438
photo  Photo: RFR, courtesy Arup
La Théâtre de la Pleine Lune, or the Full Moon Theatre, is a site-specific collaborative project, initially located in a remote part of the south of France. The idea is to develop experimental theatre projects lit solely by the light of the full moon. Engineer Peter Rice was an ongoing member of the research group developing the idea, working on the design of various reflectors to focus moonlight.
The Full Moon Theatre was the inspiration of French opera director and architect, Humbert Camerlo (b.1943), who, on 7th September 1987, conceived the idea of lighting a performance area with moonbeams. Together with his wife Viviane, he immediately assembled a group of shaving mirrors and focused the light of the rising moon on a small sculpture on the terrace of their house.
The idea of a full-size laboratory/theatre was developed with Rice in the following months. The first experiments began in October 1987, though actual construction of a full-size theatre did not begin until 1991. For those four years, Rice worked on the project as an Ove Arup & Partners engineer. Once construction began, his other practice, RFR, was involved.
The theatre idea was developed as part of Camerlo's interdisciplinary research project, Ateliers de Gourgoubès. Members of the project at the time included physicists, artists, musicians, writers, choreographers, dancers, film directors, television producers and Rice. Gourgoubès is also the locality of the project's base in a farmhouse on a remote property — ideal for a moon-lit theatre, as the general light pollution is low.
Rice described the project as being about minimal intervention. Although his team's engineering skills were needed to track the path of the moon and work out the geometry for the lighting installations, the physical work to develop/create the first theatre was all carried out by local craftsmen on site.
A natural slope not far from the farmhouse was selected, and curved drystone walls built to create tiers. The audience of 200-250 people sits on these walls, the level ground behind which is grassed. They face a constructed stage platform. Several theatre events have been held at this location, but the group's activities have taken place at other less-permanent sites too.
Rice, who died in 1992, and so saw only the first few years of the project, described it as a "natural outflow from the place and the people who are there [on site]" (An Engineer Imagines). Rather than a technical challenge to be solved, the project is better thought of as "myth, fantasy and reality" combined — evolving as the group evolved their ideas and made physical elements.
However, the light intensity of the moon is quite low, even if the moon is full. So an essential task is to amplify it — a lot. The development of the original reflectors happened over time in concert with the group. Three types were developed in the first season — 'Keplers' and 'Archimedes' designed by Rice's teams in London and Paris, and 'Copernics' designed by Camerlo. Keplers and Copernics can be seen in the photo above.
Essentially, the idea is to use all the reflectors to capture the moonlight — tracking the moon in real time — amplify it and reflect it onto a constant location on the stage. Performances were limited to the few days each side of a full moon and relied on clear skies. Computer modelling was used to determine the mirror positions in order to capture and reflect the most light possible. To raise the light level on stage to five times natural moonlight, 6.5 sq m of reflector are required for every square metre of stage area.
The large shallow parabolic Keplers focus moonlight on a 1m x 2m area and can be used anywhere in the theatre. They consist of timber lattice grid-shell panel covered in plywood, then a layer of paper, then mirror-finish plastic foil — all set in a timber frame.
To construct them on site, the results of computer analysis done in London were sent to the site in the form of dimensions for the lattice members, the lengths of which determine the parabolic shape of the panel. The Keplers pivot horizontally and vertically, tracking the moon and the action on stage.
The Archimedes reflectors are also parabolic, roughly circular in shape and based on radial timber frames. They too are covered in ply, paper and mirror foil, and they were designed for use on the stage.
Copernic reflectors were ranged along the back of the amphitheatre (on the highest seating tier), facing the stage. Each consists of a tall rectilinear steel frame supporting multiple glass mirror slats, which can be independently angled as required, controlled by strings at the back. They too tracked the moon and action on stage. The whole steel frame can pivot.
Unexpectedly, the lightweight reflectors were subject to the buffeting of the evening wind, which can come in gusts from any direction in this location. Bases were installed, making the reflectors less flexible in application. In addition, they had to be turned to face the ground during the day in case they focused sunlight onto the surrounding area causing a bushfire.
Development of the relectors and other aspects of the project continued after Rice's death but little information is available. As far as can be determined, the original theatre site is no longer in use, although other performance venues have been used. The tiered seating remains in place.
Architect: Humbert Camerlo
Research: RK, JJ
reference sources   AEI

Full Moon Theatre (La Theatre de la Pleine Lune)