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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DMX controlled relay panel 5 Replies

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Comment by Erich Friend on January 30, 2012 at 12:05pm

I'll confirm Rick, David, and Lawrence's concern for getting a consultant on-board early.  Almost every aspect of a Theatre Plant's construction interacts with the other parts.  A coherent Master Plan is vital to the success of the project.  Designing a theatre is much more than jamming a bunch of disparate equipment into a box after the fact.

There are significant building code requirements that must be addressed for assembly spaces, and they must be integral to the design, not work-arounds that must be endured for the life of the facility.

Investing in getting the design completed up-front will both save you time and frustration later.  Just because you have the building designed doesn't mean you have to fund or build all of it immediately.  Proper construction planning includes planning for phased construction so that building and it's systems can be assembled as they are funded.

A Theatre Consultant's role in a project is to connect the programming information from the owner to the various specialty systems designers so that they understand the project goals in the context of a production space.  Most Structural Engineers, Electrical Engineers, and Architects (And the many other specialists on a project) do not fully grasp the implications of their work when applied to a performance space, so without contextual guidance they will arrive at designs that may meet the engineering needs and the code requirements while being largely dysfunctional for the audience, performers, and crew that use the building.

The landscape is already littered with difficult to use theatres - don't add to the list.

As for the budgeting process - don't get the cart before the horse.  A Theatre Consulant (and the rest of the design team) can put the budget together as a part of their services.  They understand the marketplace and the construction process so they can provide pricing that accounts for the nuances of the building process.  It is much better to define the project goals, then the budget, rather than try to force unrealistic goals into an inadequate budget.  The only budget that should be discussed early is to retain the design professionals needed to plan your project.  You are under no obligations to build the building until you actually sign the contract with the contractor, so the planning process can work quite closely with your fund-raising department to see that the building is funded to match the programmatic needs.

Here are three blog posts I have made on the subject:

Comment by Adam Lindsay on January 30, 2012 at 12:04pm

No offense intended Larry but I personally disagree about the consultants but that might be because I have had very bad experiences with them. A consultant that has actually build scenery, hung lights and/or engineered sound would be one thing but the majority that I have dealt with have done none of these things. They might have designed one or some of these but never done the work to make it from drawing to reality. If you can find a consultant that has hands on experience, I say use them. Other wise find some older Tech Directors, Master Electricians and Sound Supervisors/Engineers. I find these to be the best consultants, they will tell you what you need now, what you will need in the next few years and where to get it and you won't end up with a sound system rigged to be mono instead of stereo, a bunch of lights from a soon to be defunked Australian lighting company, doors that are too small for scenery to fit through or a trapped floor with no traps. Just a few of my experiences with consultants.  

Comment by Rick Reid on January 30, 2012 at 10:07am

I have designed several project for 'phased' construction. This can work tremendously well but 'Master Plan' must be in place first. As the others say, there are several critical decisions that will effect the whole project.

I would consider:

  1. Tech gallery/catwalk around the perimeter ~12' even if the main grid is higher. Over the audiences head, but still side-on to the actors.
  2. Network taps everywhere, DMX and sound to use it with portable output nodes. Outlets near each tap.
  3. Acoustical control! Something else that is very hard to deal with later. Big square rooms echo badly!
  4. Make sure a man-lift is readily available or included in your equipment list. I would go for a scissor style if possible.

Feel free to ask questions of us, vendors, architects, etc. But beware of the one person one story issues ("after ... I'll never...") Check out what everyone recommends. That's the real value of consultants. We have done the leg work on most issues and will make sure our recommendations are solid.

Comment by David McCall on January 30, 2012 at 8:20am

Larry is right you need a consultant before the shell goes up.

One of the most misunderstood things in any theater design is that sooner or later you will wind up needing to run temporary wires from anywhere to everywhere. Every kind of wire you can imagine. The need for fancy permanent wiring is rapidly diminishing. Especially in a black box theater. You will still need power to run the lights, but the need for a huge supply in one place and large racks of dimmers is going away. We will be needing lots of simple circuits to plug in movers and other intelligent lights. You may still want to use some conventional lights, but those can be powered by smaller dimmer packs that can be placed near the lights as needed. Most intelligent lights want 5 wire or 3 wire DMX feeds, but I suspect that CAT-6 and fiber will take hold soon, and those will get replaced with something else in a few years.

The same is true of structure. You don't know what you will need to hang or where you might need to hang it. Just be sure that you have a lot of structure overhead so that you can add trusses, grid, or individual bars pretty much everywhere imaginable. Also consider is how you will get to all of this structure to rig lights and other items.   

If you are allowed to "blue sky" you might consider some traps in the floor. What the hey, trap the whole thing :-)

Another consideration is traffic patterns. Actors will need to enter from many different places. If possible actors should be able to move about without getting into public areas. Technicians need to be able to get from the booth to backstage without crossing through the theater.

If the budget gets too tight, then start dropping lighting and sound equipment before you start cutting into infrastructure. Feel free to cut anything that can be purchased, borrowed, or rented later.

Just my 2 cents

Comment by Lawrence L. Graham, ASTC on January 30, 2012 at 6:29am

My advice is simple: the sooner you involve a consultant, the better.

Since I am a theatre consultant, this may sound self-serving. But it's based on my 35 years of experience working on the design of theatres.

For example: you want to have a grid in your black box. Who will advise the structural engineer about its design? i.e., how will be be supported, what kinds of loads will be imposed upon it, how will it interface with the lighting and sound equipment and how will that equipment be serviced?

A grid is a part of the base building. As such, it is a part of the initial shell, not something that it would be cost-effective to add later. It would be very unusual for a structural engineer to understand how this part of the base building _functions_. A professional theatre consultant can do the preliminary design to meet your requirements and expectations. The structural engineer will then know how to do the design as a part of the overall structural work.

Comment by Miriam Morgan on January 30, 2012 at 5:53am

My arts organization is midway through funding process for a new black box space and I need some advice and information. This will be the most significant addition to our arts campus and an expansion onto a shared (and re-purposed) office building that is now home to ballet studios, an art gallery and a cafe.

The ED has charged me with putting together a wish list for this new venue (I am currently the TD in our 600+ seat proscenium venue). His intentions are to get the building shell for a 5000sq foot black box in place, so we can not 'back out' of the project, and continue our push forward. He does not want to involve a consultant prior to shell construction because of cost constraints and his past experiences. I've told him how this concerns me, and I would not recommend this due to the complex needs on the interior. 

I would love to hear from everyone who currently operates, or has built a black box on the challenges we may face. What key components make one black box more flexible than another? What should we not compromise on, what can I compromise on? What is your opinion on his hope to involve a consultant only after initial shell construction?

My wishlist includes a grid system that makes lighting and sound flexible, significant use of LED and green fixtures, the ability to accommodate children's theatre, experimental theatrical productions, chamber music concerts, collaborative pieces and special events.

 I certainly appreciate any information, advice, direction, ect. 

Thank you in advance!

Comment by james leagre on January 14, 2010 at 12:09pm
I am the Executive Director of a professional children's theatre and we currently have a 300 seat theatre that is only 2 years old - sadly enough the economy and some extending circumstances are forcing us to give up our space, through much pain my Board has voted to close the space down. Therefore, I am planning to sell off the majority of our equipment. We have a huge Reed Rigging truss system that is in 10' and 12' sections, approx. 50 lighting instruments, a sound system, Stagerite portable stage units ,drapery and a main - any ideas on where and how to go about selling these items. We want them to go to a good home, but still have some debt related to building the theatre space... I have included pdsf of available equipment:LIGHTING Equipment.pdf
SOUND Equipment.pdf
TRUSS System.pdf
Comment by Erich Friend on September 4, 2009 at 12:09pm
We'll need a bit more information in order to make a good recommendation. What screen will you be projecting upon? Size? (HxW) Screen surface (specific if you know, otherwise a generic description of 'matte white', 'matte gray', 'white and sparkely', etc.) , or will a new screen be part of the purchase?
Also need to know the ambient light level falling at the plane of the screen (easily measured with a light level meter). This will help calculate the contrast ratio of the resultant image for a particular screen / room / projector combination.
It would be helpful to know how far from the screen plane it is to the nearest and farthest viewers, and the width of the seating area at both the the front and the back.

Do you really want to place the projector in the sound mix booth? The fan noise and heat output can be irritating to both the sound operator and any nearby audience members. Depending on the size and layout of the other booth equipment, it may not fit, either. If practical, I would suggest locating the projector at the back wall or in the lighting control booth, if any, and up high about the elevation of the top of the screen. This separates the visual/audible distraction from the audience, and reduces the occurance of shadows cast by people walking between the projector and the screen. If the projector may be located as suggested, then knowing how far from the screen plane to the projector lens face will be helpful, too. Not knowing what projector will be installed (different projectors have thier intake and exhaust located front / back / side / bottom), or how much ventilation space is available behind it; then a range of possible distances would be helpful. If it will go into the lighting (old projection?) booth, then the space behind the projector usually isn't an issue. Will the projector be shining through a pane of booth window glass? Or will the window be open? If there is glass, can a hole be cut in it?

Don't worry about getting the computer / DVD / BluRay signal to the projector - there are plenty of ways to do that without degrading the signal (however, 200' feet of RG 59 running HDTV signals is usually not one of them.) Where are your sources best located? It is typical to put the DVD / BluRay player in the sound booth, but it may be more practical for may users to have it in the stage manger's rack off stage right / left. I highly recommend buying a good BluRay player to 'future proof' (well, at least temporarily) your investment. The newest BluRay player from OPPO is very good.

As to places to provide for input to the projector from a laptop computer, I suggest that you accomodate both a location in the sound booth and one off-stage right / left (or better yet, in an apron floor pocket near a lectern / podium position). Digital signals from DVI / HDMI / DisplayPort will provide the best image quality if properly connected, but for legacy reasons, it is typically necessary to also provide a 'VGA' analog connection point, too. You may also need regular S-Video (Y/C) and Composite Video (CV) inputs for legacy connections like VCR's. If you are using any type of video production mixer, you may need a video format converter to get from the video mixer's output to the best format of input on the projector. Some of the more professional grade video mixers may have digital outputs (SDI or HDSDI), and those signals will usually have to be converted to HDMI or DVI (however, some projectors will accept the broadcast format signals with optional input cards).

Also consider the best way to control the projector. Some projectors can be controlled and monitored via a network connection, and some utilize RS-232 control ports. The IR remote control that comes with the projector usually isn't the best tool if you are more than 10-15 feet from the projector, or don't have a line of sight situation. Network connections can also allow you to monitor lamp-life, filter status, and schedule shut-down for periods of non-use. The savings to the venue over the life of the projector will more than offset the added cost of a good network monitoring system.

Many campuses use video systems to distribute emergency messaging (Mass Notification). Talk to your security and IT department about tieing into that system so that Emegency Notifications can over-ride the local program. The cost to do this is minimal, but they may offset a substantial part of your video projector installation cost if they are getting something in return.

I understand that this seems like a lot of questions for what should be a simple task. I see many projection systems that were executed with, as my dad used to say: "Nary a forethought", and the resulting images look amazingly awful. A little bit of planning and up-front engineering can provide you with the knowledge to budget appropriately for the true system cost (projector, mount, screen, cabling, signal processing and transport, power, conduit, labor, etc.). Don't start with a budget and try to foce the system to fit -- start with the viewing needs and deterime the best equipment for the job. That, in-turn, will lead you to the budget. The results wil be much better.

A final note: Video projectors have mass and sharp corners. If installing them overhead, please be careful how you mount them and only use hardware rated for overhead rigging. Projectors sitting on make-shift plywood shelves are every bit as dangerous as lighting instruments and scenery if not properly secured.
Comment by Bert Hutt on September 4, 2009 at 10:57am
I am trying to find a digital projector for power point presentations and DVDs for The Soper-Reese Theatre. We haev a sound station at center of house and need to throw an image about 50-60 feet. Any suggestions out there?
Comment by Scott Georgeson on August 21, 2009 at 10:16am
To all theatre students and recent grads. The USITT "Ideal Theatre" design competition is up and running again for 2010. Look at USITT web site for information.

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