Sharing Space

Aug. 1, 2001
Flexibility is an essential component in the design of multipurpose school performing-arts centers.

The two major design components in a performing-arts center are the size and shape of the stage, and the seating configuration.

In most large metropolitan areas, each of the performing arts is housed in a facility designed specifically for its needs because architectural requirements for a theater are vastly different from those for a concert hall. However, such a luxury is not usually feasible for an educational institution. One facility must serve both types of programs, so design flexibility is a high priority.

The two major design components in a performing-arts center are the size and shape of the stage, and the seating configuration. Music halls generally wrap the audience around the orchestra in the same space, creating the effect of being in the same room as the musicians. Dramatic and musical theater forms involve a variety of designs, but the proscenium theater has emerged as the most flexible in an educational setting. When combined with a stage that projects some distance in front of the proscenium, it can accommodate many dramatic and musical styles with few compromises.

The stage floor area just in front of the proscenium (pro-proscenium area) allows great flexibility in the use of the facility. Lectures, small musical programs or panel discussions can be held in this section with the main drape closed, and sets for a later show can be arranged without disruption. The pro-proscenium area also permits musical performers to move into the audience chamber, creating a more intimate effect. A motorized projection screen in front of the drape can allow for academic instruction.

Reducing the proscenium opening

Generally, dramatic programs require less space than musical productions. Consequently, it is important to be able to easily reduce the proscenium opening. This is best accomplished with tormentor towers — large panels on each side of the proscenium opening that roll out to reduce the width. The height of the space can be reduced with valance drapes. Wing space in the stage creates flexibility for drama. This space is used for actors' entrances and exits, and quick movement of sets and props during act changes.

For musical drama, orchestras are in a vertically movable pit in the pro-proscenium stage area. The floor is usually at stage level to create more stage space; at its lowest level it offers orchestral support, and at mid-level it can become an extension of the seating capacity of the house. The lift, or elevator, mechanism in the pit provides great flexibility, allowing a changeover at the touch of a button. Portable floors, or pit fillers, can be used instead of a lift, but they must be moved manually, which may take many hours.

Seating styles vary with the size of the audience. It is important not to make a small audience attending a musical recital feel lost in a large house. Zones of seating are formed by aisles, box-seat areas and balconies, and can be enhanced by house lighting designed around these zones. Aisles also allow performers to move into the audience, and they provide better supervision for children. Side boxes with removable seats at a balcony level provide dramatic opportunities outside the regular stage.

Varying the size and character of dressing rooms also adds to flexibility. A large dressing room in conjunction with a small one can accommodate casts of different sizes and genders, depending on the type of performance. Makeup can be applied in the dressing room if enough instructional faculty is available, but often a shared makeup room is designed with appropriate visual screening between the dressing rooms.

Rigging systems

Most rigging is configured in a counterweight system, using weights to offset the weight of a stage set hung on a horizontal pipe (scenery batten or lineset). Although it can be motorized, the rigging system generally is operated manually. Initial construction should include a full “T-bar” guide system along one wall of the stage. This is the basic rail system, spacing linesets usually six inches on center. Certain linesets are dedicated to specific functions, such as orchestra shell ceiling pieces, lighting battens, or travelers and masking drapes. The other linesets available in the system are for general scenery.

Flexibility is maximized by an increased quantity of general stage scenery battens. Rope rigging supplements the counterweight system and provides flexibility for unusual rigging positions. Some battens are dedicated to theatrical lighting and are called fixed electrics. Maximum flexibility is gained, however, by designing the battens with movable drop boxes. These are electrical connection boxes that can be relocated to any batten, making it capable of theatrical lighting.

Although it is an acoustic component, the orchestra shell is critical to theater flexibility and is designed by the theater consultant. The architectural volume of the stage allows flown scenery for drama but is a great sound absorber if left unmodified for musical productions. The music must be redirected to the audience rather than lost in the scenery above. Individual rigging battens are used for movable ceiling pieces that deploy to form a “roof” above the orchestra. The sound is sent out to the audience and redirected side-to-side, allowing the musicians to hear each other. Portable floor-mounted towers roll into location, surrounding the orchestra, directing sound to the audience, and forming a visual backdrop to the orchestra. Floor space must be provided to store the orchestra shell towers when not in use.

Let there be light

Lighting is the tool that creates visual emotion. The theatrical lighting industry is providing more features at economical prices. Maximum flexibility in lighting design is achieved by maintaining a varied inventory of luminaries and by the electrical circuiting of the luminaries. The optimum configuration for flexibility in lighting effect is one electrical circuit (2,400 watts) for every dimmer in the main control system. A lighting-control board governs house lighting, stage and theatrical lighting, and often the lobby lighting as well.

Modern computer technologies allow many preset lighting designs to be incorporated into the board's memory. This board, or a smaller additional board, should be portable to allow relocation to other rehearsal or performance areas. The portable board also could be located in seating areas or backstage for small performances or rehearsals. Connection panels must be provided in those locations.

Hear ye, hear ye

A multipurpose theater poses difficult acoustic problems. The reverberation that enhances the sound of music makes the speech in drama productions less intelligible. The classic “shoebox” shaped theater is desirable for music, because the cubic-foot-volume/per seat inherent in the shape increases the reverberation times. However, the long reverberation times makes it a less desirable design for theater, and its box-like configuration forces the audience farther from the stage.

To provide increased flexibility, variable acoustics are added to the audience space. The “hard” architecture is designed to enhance sound reflections and increase reverberation time. As a counterbalance, movable “soft” goods are added, increasing the absorption characteristics of the room. These can take the form of movable panels or drapes which, when deployed, can be hidden from general view or visible to change the aesthetic character of the room.

Highly sophisticated facilities can incorporate movable walls that reveal hidden chambers. The chambers can be designed to increase absorption or maximize reverberation by allowing the sound to bounce around inside the chamber before returning to the audience area. Acoustics also can be varied with movable ceiling reflectors in the audience chamber. Moving the reflectors up or down changes the acoustic volume of the room.

Sound-system design

The human voice, unenhanced, has always been the more pure form of professional performance. In recent years, however, the technical capabilities of sound reinforcement, particularly the need for recording/playback, broadcast and special effects, has made sound-system design a highly specialized field.

The system must recognize the difference between music and speech, and audio speakers should be capable of handling a variety of frequency response. Independent speech and music inputs to the sound system optimize sound quality. Equalizers and amplifiers also are critical components in maximizing audio flexibility. The mixing console is the hub of the system, and the system's capability increases as the number of inputs increases. These include such variables as stage microphone locations, program source equipment and speaker-system elements. The mixing console should be portable, and connection panels should be provided in each of its locations.

A variety of program source equipment for playing and recording is desirable, including mini-discs, compact discs and digital audiotapes. A two-channel intercom system allows private communication for coordination during performances and rehearsals. Backstage intercom speakers also can reproduce the theater sound so performers can monitor the show. Permanent locations generally include stage left and right, dressing rooms, makeup rooms, green room, scene shop and all rehearsal areas.

Portable equipment, such as headsets and beltpacks, allow connection to intercom receptacles on stage, in the control room, and at spotlighting locations, video-recording sites, catwalks, orchestra pit, vestibules and lobby. Numerous microphone inputs in the same locations, as well as microphone systems, also maximize flexibility.

Assisted-listening systems can be made available for individuals with limited hearing. They are provided with a headset and a battery pack that picks up a radio signal coming from the sound system so that they can hear an amplified version of what is being said on stage.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has had a dramatic effect on theater design. The ADA requires that spectators with disabilities have access to a variety of seating locations, especially if the ticket price varies. Aisles in the seating area now more frequently are ramped than stepped, allowing greater flexibility. Elevators are required in facilities with balconies. In an educational setting, it is sometimes necessary for members of the audience to get to the stage from their seats. This necessitates a path that can be used by a disabled person that is identical to the path used by the non-disabled. In addition, the light/sound control room, the stage manager's areas, lighting and followspot locations, orchestra pit, and makeup/dressing areas must be accessible by ramp or elevator if they are not on the main floor.

Gore, AIA, is director of architectural design at URS Corporation, Grand Rapids, Mich. The firm worked on the new performing arts center at East Grand Rapids High School (see sidebar).

Sidebar: New performing-arts center mirrors Italian opera house

A multipurpose performing arts center, in the style of an Italian opera house, is being constructed for East Grand Rapids High School in Michigan. The facility will seat 650: 500 on the main floor and 75 in each of two balconies.

The need for flexibility, as well as a small building footprint, dictated the design of the seating chamber. The main floor of seating and multiple shallow balconies conform to the style of an Italian opera house. The entire floor is ramped, permitting those with disabilities access to all areas.

An outer perimeter aisle is at the same level as the stage, so members of the audience can get to the stage easily. The lobby wraps around the entire theater to provide convenient access from the parking lot and street. While the center section of each balcony has fixed seating, the seats toward the front are movable to provide unobstructed viewing.

A third balcony, for technical equipment, matches the shape of the other two. The main light/sound-control booth is there, and the rest of the balcony is equipped for followspot and theater lighting fixtures.

The stage is sized for musical and dramatic performances and includes an orchestra shell, general-scenery battens and space for future battens. To save money, the orchestra pit uses pit-filler platforms rather than a lift. The stage also has tormentor towers covered in plastic laminate. A small catwalk at the upper rear of the stage allows increased backlighting of performers, and rear projection for special effects and instruction.

A tension grid is used in place of the conventional fixed catwalks in the ceiling for theater lighting positions. The grid is a walkable open mesh of steel wire that forms a floor but can be configured to larger sizes. The mesh is dense enough to walk on, but open enough to allow light to pass through, permitting more flexibility in locating the theater lights.

Because of the center's small footprint, the dressing rooms and makeup room are in a basement below the stage.

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