At the time of the Volkstheater’s founding in 1889, the Viennese theatre landscape is still stringently separated by status: The Burgtheater, for example, is reserved for the high aristocracy as an imperial private theatre. More and more voices, however, are calling for a German Volkstheater (People’s Theatre) as a decidedly bourgeois counterpart to the theatre of the court, also in terms of popular education. In addition to folk plays, mainly classic and modern dramas are in demand. The “Deutsches Volkstheater in Wien” Association is called into being. Its members include the playwright Ludwig Anzengruber and the furniture manufacturer Franz Thonet. The architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer are also two of the founding fathers of the association.
The Volkstheater in the Weghuberpark is the first building to be erected in accordance with the specifications of the 1882 Theatre Act. It is the first theatre to be exclusively lit using electricity. Together with the architects Fellner and Helmer, Waagner-Biro developed the first fire protection measures for theatres. The fire at the Ringtheater in Vienna in 1881, and numerous other devastating theatre fires in Europe had ultimately given rise to the new safety regulations in Vienna. The research conducted at the time by Waagner-Biro forms the basis for the safety regulations laid down for theatres since 1991.
In order to reach broad sections of the population, the historical founding association already focussed not only on an appropriate programme, but also on the layout of the theatre, which was primarily intended to offer many seats at affordable prices in its large auditorium with very few loges. Over the course of the years, the number of seats was repeatedly reduced in order to increase and improve the view, the level of comfort and the acoustics.
The last significant renovation was undertaken, when the stage technology systems at the Volkstheater in Vienna were upgraded at the beginning of the 1980s.
Since then, the theatre has been transformed from purely ‘en-suite’ operation to an establishment focusing mainly on repertory and guest performances. At the same time, the demands on both technical and economic operations continue to develop. In order to take this into account, the house has recently undergone a comprehensive renovation.
Our colleague, Erich Raser, worked on the 1980s renovation, and was responsible for the more recent modernization in the year 2020.
You started working for Waagner-Biro over 40 years ago. How did that come about?
In 1977, when I was 19, I did a vacation internship in the field of stage technology. My first task was to participate in the Festspielhaus Bregenz project. I finally started working at Waagner-Biro in 1978 after graduating from an higher technical college. My second project was the Volkstheater, where I participated from the very first minute.
What were your tasks in the Volkstheater project?
At the time, the stage technology team was very small with only about 8 people. It wasn’t even a separate division but just a sector of the Mechanical Engineering department.
I acted as the right-hand man of the project manager. From the start, the project manager had me accompany him to all meetings and appointments. It was a very exciting time as I was always involved in the proceedings, from the initial drafts right through to the final construction and commissioning. This was extremely instructive and helpful, not least for the current renovation.
At that time, there weren’t any computers yet and everything had to be drawn by hand. Can you describe to us how such a plan was created?
At first, we drew on drawing boards with pencils or ink on transparent paper. We had a large reproduction department responsible for duplicating the plans. The blueprints for each plan were produced individually by hand.
Before starting to draw, it was necessary to pre-visualise the entire concept. Before I took the pencil in my hand, the plan was already finished in my head. You couldn’t just start drawing and, if something didn’t work, just delete it or push it to one side. Once you’d drawn it, there it was on paper. The parts lists were written manually, and we had to calculate the weights using a pocket calculator.
There were no CAD programmes or anything like that. Our first computers were bought in the 1990s. We even worked in shifts on the first CAD system so that the device could be used around the clock – that’s how expensive it was. There was a CAD workplace in the middle of the office, around which we hung black curtains. Because the quality of the screens wasn’t particularly well-developed yet, it was necessary to do this so that you could discern objects on them properly. Of course, some employees put up resistance to this “newfangled stuff”. In that respect, I started work in the Stone Age of CAD technology.
For the current rebuild, we relied in part on old plans from the archive, which we remodelled in 3D wherever something new had to be added to the existing construction. This was the case, for example, on the grid deck and the galleries, where we installed new drives and stairs.