U      N      D      E      R       C      O      N      S      T      R      U      C      T      I      O      N

In 1962 in Scottsdale, Arizona, Hopi Indian artist Charles Loloma brought Lloyd Henri New to Cosanti to discuss New’s plans for an American Institute of Indian Arts theater with Paolo Soleri. [1]

FOUR IMAGINATIONS converged to create the outdoor theater bowl.  Three intersected in 1962 in Scottsdale, Arizona when Loloma brought Lloyd Kiva New to Cosanti to discuss design for an IAIA theater with architect Paolo Soleri.  New was running the Kiva Craft Center,  designing textiles and teaching.  Loloma, whose skill in his high school years Rene d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Museum of Modern Art and Indian Crafts Board member, had already recognized, lived and worked at the Craft Center.[2]  Soleri, who had apprenticed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in 1947-1948 during which time his his bridge designs drew attention, had built four of his Cosanti Foundation earthformed cast concrete buildings on Doubletree Ranch Road by 1962.[3]   Taliesin’s magnetism for artists and designers was palpable;   Loloma had already visited with New  and met Frank Lloyd Wright around 1938 after moving from Hopi to attend the Phoenix Indian School where Lloyd New was teaching.[4]   In the early sixties,  Soleri’s silt-cast bells on exhibit  at the Craft Center had caught the eye of Loloma who was casting silver jewelry in tufa stone molds.[5]

Building a new theater was an ambitious project for a nascent institution.  George Boyce of the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided $10,000.00 to set up an IAIA theater in the unused Indian School chapel at the Cerrillos Road campus.[6]  But obviously, a makeshift and possibly iconographically loaded site didn’t satisfy Lloyd New’s vision which encompassed both a theory of Native drama and its venue.

By the mid-sixties the IAIA was developing both the concept of Native American contemporary drama and the theater to go with it.   New’s Credo for American Indian Theater provided the broad statement of the IAIA framework within which drama instructor Rolland Meinholtz,  dance instructor Rosalie Jones[7] and others developed tenets of Native performance which could derive from ritual but remain secular.

“We believe that young Indian people must be trained in the fullest degree regarding all aspects of theatre;  the history of universal forms, the technical aspects, acting, speech and movement.  Against this understanding they must then be led to examine Indian culture for that which is theatrical, and then find wasys to interpret those unique aspects for contemporary audiences in true theatre settings.”
     from CREDO for AMERICAN INDIAN THEATRE  by Lloyd H. New. Santa Fe, NM.        July, 1969.
New further outlined characteristics of a theater building:
 “…if INDIAN THEATRE is to happen, the emphasis must be upon that which is culturally unique to the American Indian, in terms of performance, actor-audience relationship, and a uniquely conceived architectural setting…  … It must be a highly functional, theatrical machine, designed to encompass the unique needs of Indian Theatre.”
      from “PHYSICAL SETTING”.  Notes on Indian Theatre Page Fifteen.  Lloyd Kiva New, Director.  Institute  of American Indian Arts.

IAIA theater instructor Rolland Meinholtz as the fourth imagination developed precepts of a theater for contemporary Native drama[8] which, as IAIA point man, he communicated directly to the architect, Soleri.  Together with New, Meinholtz travelled and researched the ceremonial settings for various Native groups; plains tribes, southwest pueblos and northwest tribes.  Loloma took them to Hopi to observe a bean dance.  They visited the restored kiva at Aztec Ruins, New Mexico and observed a full deer dance at San Ildefonso Pueblo north of Santa Fe as well as the Taos San Geronimo harvest festival.[9]

From these sources Meinholtz synthesized  program points for the theater for Indigenous drama.[10]
The audience should be crowded together (on the theater’s bench seating) This is to promote a chemistry of audience response… the total effect should not be of an immense space but of a moderate non-claustrophobic confinement.  The audience should feel that that they have been somewhat crowded into a large lodge or partially underground chamber.

The steep bowl seating compresses the physical and psychological distance between audience and performer. Audiences and performers alike note the intimacy fostered by the relation of thrust stage and wrap-around seating. The stage’s enveloping shell with its acoustic faceting and pebbly lower band evoke geologic forms.

The theatre should be designed in such a way that theatrical action is not necessarily localized to the stage area.  Action in the aisles, at the sides, in the midst of and behind the audience should seem feasible…

Two ‘vomitoria’, tunnel from under the seating from which players may emerge onstage at the audience’s feet. One tunnel opens at a fire pit.  It is probable that this arrangement derived from the underground kiva entrances observed at Aztec.  Stage left a long canyon connecting to the earthwork beyond slopes down to the stage providing  an entrance for actors and animals.  The hill is part of  the performance space for actors, animals and wagons, even canisters for launching fusillades of arrows.  A hoodoolike fire tower rises stage right.

The arrangement of spectator and performer should make it plain that the theatre is a three dimensional art.

The theater’s three dimensionality is unique among American designs. The upward path of the subterranean vomitoria translate to hollow columns rising from the stage to support a horned scoop which breaks the curve of the shell to provide an upper performance platform. Two stairways flank the columns and penetrate the shell through irregular openings. Vertical movement can imply transformation in Native stories. The upper stage includes the panoramic bridge running the edge of the shell. The lack of proscenium prompts audiences to perceive the drama as a field of action rather than as formal presentation of a picture in a box.

Meinholtz travelled four times from Santa Fe to Scottsde to discuss the IAIA theater design program with Soleri.[11]  The record of Meinholtz’s input survives in his writing and several communications and exchanges.  Soleri’s revealing trace is in his drawings.  However strong were his precepts of the building, Meinholtz credits Soleri with the design:

“He drained everything I knew, cared about, or dreamed about, and took it all and with his genius and own resources produced the magic that is the Solari (sic) Theatre.”[12]

The architect has stated that the IAIA increased design complexity as work progressed.[13]  An undated Soleri sketch

Outdoor Theater Bowl. Soleri early sketch. Undated
shows an informal and intimate outdoor design, clustering arches of varying size around the stages, and audience areas with much less seating, some casually on the ground.  The canyon opens upstage center.  A second, covered stage situates south of the open stages.  The design is clearly an adaptation of the apse forms Soleri had already built in Scottsdale at Cosanti. 

The undated sketch anticipates Soleri’s earliest dated drawing, from January 1966, “Sheet 3”, showing an eight-sided theater with both ramped seating and three tiers of observation decks inside a corbelled enclosure resembling a kiva roof.  Adjacent , the outdoor stage is backed by hemispherical apses resembling those protecting the Cosanti studios and flanked by the earthwork and canyon similar to the built project.  Soleri labeled the earthwork hillside “earth amphitheater”, suggesting (as is possible today) that audiences could sit “behind” the stage, that the theater could be “two-faced”.


“Sheet 4” of the same early set shows in plan the indoor and outdoor theaters together joined by a promenadeA wing of the indoor theater extends as a pair of

Plan of indoor and outdoor theaters. Jan. 1966.
Cosanti architectural drawngs show a wing of apses reaching west along the promenade between the indoor and outdoor theaters, one positioned to reflect sound from a “musician’s platform” across the seating towards the stage.  The canyon, at this point opens stage right.  According to executive architect Channell Graham the indoor-outdoor schema was planned for construction almost until Soleri arrived onsite to begin building in the summer of 1966.

Soleri’s 1966 sketchbooks reveal design development of outdoor theater iterations moving away from the Cosanti-like arrangement of apses to the incorporation of Native American forms and iconography.  It appears that as the year progressed, Meinholtz’s principles and perhaps input from  Lloyd New affected Soleri to expand the design vocabulary beyond the familiar forms of his home compound.  Sketchbook page 235

Paolo Soleri Sketchbook05 page 235. detail

illustrates his adaptation of Native symbols clearly annotated: The theater divides vertically into upper and lower zones with the lower level, the main stage labeled “physical” and the upper level denoted as, “ghostly”.  Double worlds.  Soleri programmed the upper in two modes, weather and the diurnal cycle that coincide in a central sun symbol.  The climatic cycle from stage left to right runs “cloud, sun, lightning, thunder”.  The diurnal cycle runs “morning star, dawn, sun, moon”.   The geometric sun was omitted in the final construction. At the extreme left, a moon bridge crosses the canyon. The canyon itself may be washed by downpours captured in basins and spouted over its rim.  The overall effect is of an armature for performance, specific forms designed to be occupied by actors, contrasting with the trapezoidal void of conventional theaters where audience and performers are separated by the proscenium as picture plane.   Soleri’s theater becomes more varied, open and fluid as he adopts elements signifying indigenous ceremonial spaces.


Soleri speaking at an IAIA design meeting
Soleri Addressing a Design Meeting at the IAIA – courtesy of the IAIA Archive
  1. Weintraub.  Email correspondence
  2. Streuver.  p.4
  3. op. cit.
  4. Streuver. p. 4
  5. Bahti. Author’s communication
  6. Graham.  Author’s interview
  7. Jones. Inventing Native American Drama
  8. IAIA.  Notes on American Indian Theater
  9. Meinholtz. Author’s conversation. Fall 2010
  10. IAIA.  Notes on American Indian Theater.  “PHYSICAL SETTING”
  11. op.cit.
  12. ibid.
  13. Soleri.  Author’s interview. October 2010
  14. All sketches and drawings referred to are in the Arcosanti Arch
  15. copyright© conrad skinner 2011


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