Determining Scale + Scope
Systems Design + Specification
Theatre Planning FAQ
The Design Team
Performer + Audience
Front of House Spaces
Whether you call us theatre planners, theatre designers or theatre consultants, we are professionals who design theatre spaces and their systems, and guide the architectural design team throughout the theatre design process. We collaborate with the owner and users to establish the functional requirements of the theatre, and with the architect and engineers to ensure that the building provides for and supports those requirements. Theatre planners are essential members of the team designing or renovating any theatre, concert hall, amphitheatre or other performing arts venue.
Theatre planners are specialists with expertise in three worlds - performing arts production, architecture and construction. The most obvious part of theatre planning is designing and documenting the theatre's special requirements - the form and layout of the theatre, space adjacencies, stage rigging, dimming and control, seating, etc. In addition, designing a performing arts space requires extensive collaboration between the owners/users and the design team. The theatre planner, who is fluent in the languages of both groups, facilitates that collaboration. By assisting and guiding the collaboration theatre planners help to assure a successful project for everyone.
The early part of the work in a new theatre building involves understanding and planning the project. This includes determining which spaces are needed, their adjacencies and the project's budget. Some of the typical steps a theatre consultant will take or contribute to are:
Once the outline of the building and the production requirements are understood, the theatre planner will begin to design, draw, and specify the systems. These systems may include any or all of the following:
We have a longer FAQ about theatre planning here, but the three most common questions are answered below.
Why can't an architect design the theatre? Architects are responsible for the overall building, but do not design every element themselves. They hire a team of specialists that includes engineers, interior designers, landscape designers, and others. Theatres are highly specialized buildings that must meet the unique requirements of the theatre companies that use them. Space planning and designing the production infrastructure of a performing arts venue are best fulfilled by trained specialists such as theatre planners, acousticians, and A/V consultants.
When should we start working with a Theatre Planner? As early as possible! Theater planners can help theatre owners and architects evaluate their goals for a renovation or new building, and provide important information on feasibility, cost, scheduling, and more.
Who hires the Theatre Planner? Hiring a theatre planner depends in part on the owner and in part on the question of responsibility. Most large organizations such as universities or municipalities will expect the architect to assemble the entire design team, including the theater planner. Smaller organizations may not have established requirements in this regard. In some cases, theatre owners prefer to hire theatre planners separately from the architect to clearly establish that they are directly responsible to the owners.
As we’ve mentioned, an entire team of experts is required to design and engineer a performing arts theatre. The design team will include:
Theatre is storytelling, and theatres are machines that help tell those stories. The actor/audience relationship determines how stories will be told (presentational or environmental, for instance) and, to an extent, the types of stories that can be told. Therefore, the first consideration for any new theatre building is also one of the core elements of theatre production - the relationship between actor and audience. The spatial arrangement of stage and seating affects every other decision, from the extent of theatre systems such as rigging and stage lighting, to the director’s choices in arranging actors and scenery on stage.
Well-designed theatres, regardless of their form, have several important features in common. First, they support a type of intimacy and energy that is only found in live performance. They ensure the audience is comfortable and can fully experience the story being told without straining to see or hear, and that the performer is aware of the audience’s reaction to events as they unfold. Second, they provide an appropriate facility that supports the production. Stage equipment, backstage areas, and ancillary spaces must all be suited to the users’ needs. Some key elements of a good theatre are:
With the above guidelines in mind, some of the preliminary information required to designing a new theatre can be discussed and determined. The results will suggest the most appropriate theatre form.
The most common theatre form today is the proscenium theatre. In a proscenium theatre the audience is arranged facing a common direction, toward an opening in a wall that separates the audience and the stage. The wall is the proscenium wall and the opening is the proscenium arch, which frames the audience’s view of the stage. The proscenium wall hides all off-stage spaces and activities to the sides and above the stage, thus helping to present a clean and controlled stage picture, and one that is more or less the same for the entire audience. A proscenium theatre often has one or more balconies and/or side boxes. These allow a higher seat count, and higher potential ticket sales, while keeping all of the audience members reasonably close to the stage.
The stagehouse (the part of the building that houses the stage) of proscenium theatres typically holds a counterweight or motorized system of steel pipes. The pipes, or “battens,” are hung parallel to the proscenium and placed every 6” or 8” for the depth of the stage. They provide a flexible suspension system for the scenery, production equipment (lighting, sound, and video), and drapery, including the house curtain.
Plan of Typical Proscenium Theatre, Orchestra Level
There are several variations on the proscenium that are well established and have their own name.
Fan theatres, or fan auditoriums, get their name from the shape of the auditorium. Popular in the 1960s, this form has fallen out of favor because the extensive seating on the orchestra level often replaced seating in balconies. This simplified construction, but the result was that too many audience members were too far from the stage to clearly see and hear the performance.
End Stage Theatres
End Stage Theatres are similar to typical proscenium theatres in that the entire audience is facing the stage from one direction. The differences are A) the audience is typically in straight rows facing straight the stage B) there may be no proscenium wall. In the latter case, the house and stage occupy the same rectangular space and the stage is simply a performance area at one end of that space. An end stage theatre is often the result of converting a relatively narrow existing building into a theatre.
Plans of a Typical Fan Theatre (left) and End Stage Theatre (right) (not to scale)
Courtyard theatres are a modern version of English theatres of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.. The auditorium is usually rectangular, with a sloped or tiered central seating area, a parterre (a raised seating area surrounding the orchestra seating), and one or two balconies over the parterre. In flexible versions of a courtyard theatre the central seating area can be reconfigured to create a thrust, arena, or alley stage.
Sometimes synonymous with proscenium or courtyard theatres, horseshoe theatres are typically rounded at the rear of the house, giving them a horseshoe shape. They usually have a parterre one to three rows deep surrounding the orchestra seating and/or balconies, as in a courtyard theatre.
Plans of a Typical Courtyard Theatre in Proscenium (left) and Thrust (right) Configurations
In a thrust theatre the stage pushes out into the audience and the audience wraps around the stage. In doing so the audience is brought closer to the performer, and the performer is in a more natural, less presentational, relationship to the audience. The history of this type of theatre goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Large scenic elements are confined to the side of the stage without audience. The rest of the stage must use low or open scenic objects that do not obstruct the audience’s view. With audience wrapping around the stage +/- 270°, actors, directors, lighting designers, and sound designers usually find thrust stages to be more challenging spaces than proscenium theatres.
Arena, or theatre-in-the-round, describes a stage that is completely surrounded by the audience. Tunnels or ramps, called vomitoria or “voms” give the actors access to the stage, usually at all four corners, from backstage areas. Arena theatres can only use scenery and props that are low enough that they don’t block the audience’s view of the performers. Actors must be seen and heard from every angle in an arena stage, making this the most difficult theatre for directors, lighting designers and sound designers to work in. Performers must be lit from all angles, and the actors need to change positions frequently so that no section of the audience is looking at a performer’s back for too long.
Plans of Typical Thrust and Arena Theatres (not to scale)
Alley theatres place the audience on two long sides of a rectangular stage. They are rarely, if ever, purpose built, but can be set up within a courtyard or black box theatre.
Plan of Typical Alley Theatre
Black box theatres provide users with the ultimate in flexibility. As the name suggests, they are open spaces, usually painted black, where neither the stage nor the audience location or size is fixed. Instead, the stage/audience relationship is part of the scenic design and is intended to complement the production. Large black box theatres may include a balcony for audience or equipment on several or all sides.
Properly sizing and equipping the stagehouse is critical to the success of any theatre. Major considerations include:
Backstage spaces can be divided into those that support the performers and those that support the performance. Each space has specific requirements.
Performer Support Spaces
Load-in and Load-out? Like other professions the theatre has its own language.
You can learn about these terms, and many others, in our Illustrated Theatre Glossary.
Production Support Spaces
Below is an example of the arrangement backstage and front of house spaces, as well as the adjacencies and interconnections between spaces.
The short answer is, "All of them." It's important to remember that all codes are adopted at the city, county or state level. Even codes that have "national" or "international" in their title are just templates or models that local authorities can adopt as-is, or adopt with modifications. Therefore, it's important to confirm the codes in effect in the jurisdicion of each project. More specifically:
Are you thinking about renovating your theatre or building a new one? If so, we can help.
Send us a message or give us a call at 718.788.0588. We're always happy to talk about theatre!
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