The basic dilemma in creating performance spaces in secondary schools is that such spaces often must serve multiple functions. Ideally, there should be three different spaces: one to present dramas; another for musical performances; and a third for assemblies — lectures, movies, political and community events.
Often, the unsatisfactory solution to this dilemma is an auditorium. This space has a gently sloping floor and poor sightlines, with acoustics that are too resonant for speaking and too absorbing for music. Sometimes it has daylight, which may be good for assemblies, but unwanted for drama. The daylight may be controlled inadequately with ill-fitting shades or blinds. The space even may have a noisy air-conditioning system and sound-absorbing ceiling, which ruins the acoustics entirely.
The best way to develop an effective design is to understand the requirements for each type of space:
The space for drama — a theater — requires sightlines that give every audience member a view of the entire stage. The acoustics of a theater should be designed for speech clarity. No daylight is needed — the audience space should disappear when the house lights go down and the stage is illuminated. The traditional theater requires a proscenium arch, a stage, fly space (the space in which lights, curtains and scenery are hung or stored above the stage) and wings. Near the stage, a theater requires a whole series of spaces — dressing rooms, green rooms, a scene shop and extensive storage.
In spaces for musical performance, sightlines are only moderately important. Acoustically, the room should be resonant, as if the space itself were a musical instrument. Resonant spaces have hard, acoustically reflective surfaces such as wood or plaster. Performers must be in the same acoustic space as the audience. At a concert, there is no stage as such, but rather a platform for the musicians that occupies the same volume of space as the audience. Spaces designed for music can have daylight or electric light.
In a space for assembly, good sightlines are important so the audience can see the presentation. The speaker should be in the same acoustic space as the audience, though this is easy to compromise because most speech is amplified. The acoustics and sound system should be designed for speech clarity. In this type of space, daylight is preferred, but the ability to darken the room is important.
Making it work
Given these competing requirements, where should performers be situated? The sightlines must favor drama, even though tiered seating creates a sound-absorbing environment less than ideal for music. In drama, performers are on stage, and the production uses the proscenium arch, the wings and the fly space. For music and assemblies, performers or speakers can be in the same acoustic space as the audience by using a thrust stage — a platform that extends into the audience area — and a band shell that reflects sound into the audience and stops sound from being dissipated into the fly space. A flexible thrust stage can be an orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered.
It is impossible to create one ideal acoustic situation. For a hybrid performance space, the acoustics should be changeable to accommodate musical resonance and speech clarity. This can be done with movable acoustic panels or movable absorptive curtains. Light problems also can be solved with movable devices.
The composite performance space should have a substantial lobby that is big enough for the entire audience before the performance, at intermissions and after the performance. The space should encourage social interaction.
By carefully defining the problems of a composite space, it is possible to develop a successful solution. In fact, the composite space can be more interesting than a space designed for only one use.
Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, is partner-in-charge of design for Peter Gisolfi Associates: Architects, Landscape Architects and Interior Architects, Hasting-On-Hudson, N.Y.
Multiple functions in mind
Some recently completed secondary-school performance spaces have been designed with multiple functions in mind. Each has required its own compromises:
The auditorium of Hommocks Middle School, Mamaroneck, N.Y., accommodates 625 people in a steeply raked space with perfect sightlines. Daylight in the space from clerestory windows can be shut out by sliding shutters accessed from catwalks. The acoustics are flexible; movable curtains and panels create a resonant space for music and speech clarity for drama. The lighting system, catwalk system for placing the lights, and the control booth for lighting and sound are sophisticated theatrical quality. There is only a partial fly space, and the wings are relatively small. A band shell and thrust stage are used for musical performances.
The Irvington Community Theatre, Irvington, N.Y., is used by the high school, the middle school and area residents. It has raked seating and perfect sightlines. It seats an audience of 750, with side seating on three levels. The performance space has clerestory windows, which can be blocked out with curtains accessible from the catwalks. Two layers of acoustic curtains can be pulled on both sides of the auditorium to change the resonance of the space. There is an elaborate and sophisticated lighting system, catwalk system and control booth. Because there is no orchestra pit, the front rows of seating are removable to allow space for instrumentalists for a musical comedy. The main compromises in this theater are that there is no full-fly space and only small dressing rooms adjacent to the stage.