Theatre Design and Construction


Theatre Design and Construction

What makes a good theatre? Questions about upgrading Seating, Lighting, Projection systems, Rigging and even storage space issues - anything to do with the theatre!

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Comment by Erich Friend on January 30, 2012 at 3:13pm

Stephen, you reminded me of a project where the General Contractor subcontracted with the Fire Sprinkler contractor to install the pipe-grid in a black box theatre.  That was a nightmare to get done.  Sprinkler piping knowledge does not equate to theatre pipe grid knowledge . . .

Comment by Stephen Ellison on January 30, 2012 at 2:45pm

The structural grid support beams do not need to be on the center line. The lighting grid hung from the structural steel should have pipes on a 4' spacing and be centered in the room for just the need you stated. Too often the grid is just "thrown in" by steel workers who have never worked in a theater. This results in pipes of the wrong dimension and no where near where you need them for lighting or scenery. The black box theater we have where I work has the problem of not enough pipes and they are placed in the wrong position.

Comment by Miriam Morgan on January 30, 2012 at 2:05pm

Out of curiosity - how common is it to have structural grid support on center-line? I recall lighting in a thrust venue with a black box style grid, and the frustration that I couldn't put any lighting fixtures on center.

Comment by Stephen Ellison on January 30, 2012 at 1:57pm

Reply to Lawrence re Grids,

I agree about the engineering stamp on the grid design, but there are firms in the theatrical field that can provide that service. I have seen too many grids put in that are horrendous in design and material choices. When a grid is designed properly then it does not fall under steel erection since the grid is attached to the structural steel. the structural steel would be installed in the base package and then the grid can be installed at a later date and not require any welding. This is all based on having the right structural steel installed for support of the stage gear, which is in addition to any building steel. That is apoint often missed, the addition of steel which has the sole duty of supporting the stage gear and not the building or roof.

I have found that as a consultant in lighting systems I would rather hire a rigging firm that has the structural engineers on staff to design the grid for me based on my requirements for location and height. In this way I do not have to learn about structural engineering and they cover stamping the drawings.

I will add the caveat that I have worked only from DC into South Carolina and other locations may have different requirements about who can perform the installation. That being said, if the rigging company does the design then they can be onsite during installation to insure that it is being installed correctly.

Comment by Miriam Morgan on January 30, 2012 at 1:43pm

Everyone, thank you for your comments they are truly fantastic and support everything I'm hoping to convey. I have continually cited evidence that this project needs to be done in a proper order, and our proscenium theatre history is evidence of that. (our concrete proscenium theatre was designed by Louis Kahn). 

I sincerely appreciate all the commentary and anything anyone else has to add. I am forwarding all of this information on to our ED. :)

Comment by Lawrence L. Graham, ASTC on January 30, 2012 at 1:05pm

A quick comment to Stephen re grids:

Theatre rigging companies generally are not licensed to do steel erection. In all the jurisdictions I have worked in, the grid must design must be stamped (sealed) by a structural engineer. And the most cost-effective way get the grid into the building is as a part of the steel "package."

Yes, the loading (and the reactions to the moving live load) must be calculated and passed on to the structural engineer so that the building can support the whole system. And that has to be done in conjunction with the rigging design itself.

The design of the rigging steel and/or grid (sometimes they are one in the same, sometimes not), is customarily a part of the consultant's work. And it is the consultant's responsibility to make sure that the rigging system, including the rigging steel and grid can safely support the intended weight.

Comment by Lawrence L. Graham, ASTC on January 30, 2012 at 12:44pm

Adam is quite right and so is Erich.

Unfortunately, anybody can hang out a shingle that says "Theatre Consultant" on it. So it is very important to make sure that the consultant you choose is actually a good fit for what you want to do. And that would include a lot of hands-on experience in the production end of the theatre business. 

Furthermore, you want to make sure that your consultant will offer you objective advice, based on your project's requirements. A consultant may have definite ideas about things, but it's your needs that count, not some personal hobby-horse of the consultant - or other members of the design team for that matter.

I became a consultant precisely for the purpose of designing theatres that work, having worked in so many of them that were poorly designed. The outcome of the project should always result in a theatre that is highly functional, cost-effective to build and efficient to operate. Only experience in both the world of the theatre and the construction industry can get you that kind of building.

Comment by Stephen Ellison on January 30, 2012 at 12:35pm

So having worked as a consultant and a Tech Director, I feel strongly that you need to have a consultant design a master plan for the space, (or a group of consultants). Adam makes a good point about the training required for a consultant. To really be able to design a space you must have the background in the actual day to day operation. So in choosing a consultant ask those questions.

I would disagree with Lawrence about when to install the grid. A grid should not be installed by the general contractor, who will use the miscellaneous metals subcontractor. Instead have a grid properly designed and installed by a theatrical rigging company. Where Lawrence is correct is when to design the grid. If you do not have the grid designed and the load information prepared and submitted to the structural engineer before any work is done you might have a building that can only support a few hundred pounds if anything at all, beyond the base structure.

As Erich pointed out there are any number of questions, codes, and individuals that need coordination, you need a design before you even start pushing dirt around. While you can get good advice from other tech directors about the use and the gear. Unless they have been working as a consultant also they will not have the knowledge of all the codes that you must meet, the ability to provide the engineering team with the proper data, or the experience in the construction industry. The consulting world is different from the technical theater world. We build things for a temporary use, and we don't have to prepare submittals before hand.  As I said at the beginning I have done both jobs, so it is possible to find consultants that have the background and experience in building a set or hanging lights.

Comment by Matt Courtney on January 30, 2012 at 12:31pm

Hi Miriam,

A lot of good advice here, but the two most valuable words are certainly "Master Plan".  We've all seen spaces where we've said "what were they thinking" (walk onto almost any high school stage and look up).  A good master plan will minimize those statements later on. Yes, it will cost a few more dollars to do it this way, and you'll start out with less "stuff", but you won't waste money trying in vain to get things right later on.  Best of Luck in your endeavor!

Comment by Adam Lindsay on January 30, 2012 at 12:18pm

I will agree that there are tons of hard to use theatres and there is a need for consultants but most of them I have dealt with don't understand the logistics of getting the shows onstage. But there does need to be someone or some group of someones in communication with the Architect, Contractor, and the swarm of Engineers that are needed to build any large building.


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