Why Good Theatre Design is Music to the Ears

Why Good Theatre Design is Music to the Ears

Performing Arts Centers are complex facilities architecturally and require a distinctive approach and engagement with professionals in performance acoustics, lighting and theater seating. The McMillan Pazdan Smith process includes a distinct approach to designing for The Arts.

As a very specialized and highly visible community space, we approach the design aesthetically, with a focus on the owner’s intended use. There is a wide range of common performance types — spoken word, choral, band, orchestra, theatrical productions, and lectures — that all require flexibility and adaptability.

The owner’s range of expected performances will in turn dictate the necessary acoustic properties, and thus the actual shape of the space, including the curvature of the main walls and the radius for audience seating. These initial decisions must also factor in accessibility, audience sight-lines, and aesthetics.

Acoustical flexibility can often be achieved through careful material selection. Acoustic draperies that retract into special pockets let the theatre director control the reverberation patterns to “tune” the space to suite the performance. An acoustical shell around the stage projects sound toward the audience and an acoustical projector hanging in front of the proscenium can be custom designed to the properties of the space. Often, a lightweight concrete deck in the ceiling structure helps isolate the space from outside noises like airplanes.

Dorman High School, College & Career Center, Backstage

Acoustics also influence the mechanical design of the building. Fan coil units can be used to condition the stage house and auditorium with low velocity air that doesn’t disrupt performance conditions. Baffles and plenum silencers can help further reduce the mechanical noise to almost zero.

Structurally, performing arts centers are large, open voids with long spans and no columns. Fire curtains and smoke vents in a space without columns require detailed planning and an experienced consultant. Catwalks, loft rigging and gridiron are all tall, heavy expanses of steel that require additional design strategies. An orchestra pit often means adding a basement under the main floor system. Even the stage surface itself adds technical structural considerations.

The lobby frames the approach to the performance. Lighting, visibility, and aesthetics all play into this. The audience should see movement, light and activity from a distance as they arrive. Upon entry, the lobby interior provides an opportunity for a dramatic experience leading the audience toward the performance itself. It should also manage circulation and interface properly with the performance space, often using sound and light locks at every entrance.

Christ Church Episcopal School, Performing Arts Center, Lobby Rendering

A wide range of ancillary storage and support rooms are necessary as practical considerations. There should be a clear path through the facility to move over-sized equipment from loading dock to stage, and specialized storage areas for props, sets, costumes, and instruments. Other considerations include green rooms, dressing rooms and sound-isolated practice rooms.

Designing a Performing Arts Center can be an intricate challenge, but also highly rewarding. When the doors finally open and the experience is exceptional — that’s a satisfying moment for all involved.

About the Author: Cris Crissinger, CSI, CCS, CCCA has over 30 years of experience preparing construction specifications. Previous to retirement, Cris was Director of Specifications for McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture where he was responsible for evaluating new products, preparing project specifications, assisting in facility assessment, performing field investigations, and coordinating internal training programs. Crissinger is a member of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), the Building Performance Committee of ASTM International, and the Design and Construction Division of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), and serves in the community of the Construction Board of Appeals for Spartanburg, South Carolina. He has twice won the Richard M. Horowitz Award from Roof Consultants Institute (RCI)  for his writing.

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