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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Discussion Forum

DMX controlled relay panel 5 Replies

Started by Valeria Silva. Last reply by Bill Conner ASTC Jun 24, 2014.

Half Silvered Mirror

Started by Thespian Troupe 4848 Sep 13, 2010.

Sand on stage 2 Replies

Started by Peter Schoenthal. Last reply by Peter Schoenthal Sep 2, 2010.

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Comment by Rick Reid on December 6, 2012 at 12:41pm

Alex, most lamp manufacturers have some basic tools that you might find will work. I generally use GE's:

While they include most of the variables, knowing what to put for each is the real issue. Erich's points like dimmer/distribution costs naturally won't be included.

I find the biggest issue is in knowing how many hours the lights will be used. If you're off much there then none of the rest matters! Dimming just makes it worse.

Comment by Erich Friend on December 5, 2012 at 6:00pm

Due to lack of any good material out there, I have developed my own proprietary spreadsheet for my calculations.  The elements I addressed that seemed to be missing from many other calculations are:

  • Energy savings due to reduced heat being introduced into the building envelope.  For every watt you reduce on the lighting consumption side, there are several watts of power not needed to remove that heat.
  • Energy savings due to improved controls when you retrofit the lights (motion sensors, daylight harvesting, easier to use / access, etc.).
  • Labor savings due to extended service intervals is significant in high ceiling auditoriums and gyms where it takes several workers to erect and move scaffolding / man-lifts.  Particularly if the floor is sloped, too.
  • Labor savings in the supply chain to order, inventory, and deploy replacement lamps.  It's not just the lamp cost.
  • All of the above as it relates to fluorescent / HID ballasts where they are used.
  • In new construction, if dimmer racks are being eliminated with individually dimmed lights (dimmer in the fixture), then the dimmer rack becomes a panelboard, and the power transformer is reduced, as well as wire and conduit.  This reduces the cooling load, so all the panelboard, transformer, conduit, and wire associated with the AC can possibly reduce, too (doesn't do anything for the heating, may even be a negative offset - in the winter you can't rely on the 'curtain warmers' to warm anything).

Additionally, there are other intangible benefits that may come in the form of better, brighter light with less glare and less 'dark spots' due to burned-out lights that have not been replaced.  And of course, you have built-in ghost lights, too, as it's not a problem to leave a glow at the edge of the stage when the facility is not occupied, so safety is improved.

Potential savings can also come from the elimination of the Emergency Lighting redundancy, too.  This takes some finagling with the AHJ and EE, but it is possible.

I've found that once you explain to the maintenance department that they won't have to change the 'light bulb' for twenty or so years, they'll sign-off on the design regardless of up-front cost or long-term operational savings.  They'd rather go fishing.

Comment by Alex Senchak on December 5, 2012 at 5:19pm

Hi All. I am looking for any excel or calculation tool for quantifying the operation and capital cost difference of LED versus standard incandescent lighting fixtures to confidently say when the payback will be secured (3, 5, or 10 years). Anyone have this?

Comment by Erich Friend on January 31, 2012 at 2:13pm

This is a important distinction that is not understood by those outside of the construction specification environment.  A person that can design lights for a show may not have the knowledge base required to design a system of equipment and detail how it is to be installed so that it is integrated with the building and it's other systems.

Even those versed at 'putting together a rig' for portable touring are challenged when it comes to composing a set of construction documents for a fixed installation.

The world of conduits, back boxes, wire fill tables, and building codes is complex and not something they teach in any college.  It is something that is learned through professional mentoring and practical job experience (i.e. - "That's not what I intended, I better make a more complete detail of that on the next project drawings.")

The corollary to this is that electrical engineers typically understand little about theatrical operations or creative lighting design, nor do many structural engineers understand stage rigging and draperies.  This is where an experienced Theatre Consultant brings value to the project - they can bridge the skill sets of the two industries and see that both the artistic and engineering needs are met without compromising safety, serviceability, and applicability.

Another element an independent consultant brings to the project is that they are there to author a fair and equitable set of drawings and specifications so that the various bidding contractors and their vendors can present (bid) proposals that are comparable apples-to-apples. They are there to referee the process and see that the shop drawings and installations meet the intentions of the project documents.

When a vendor designs a system for a building owner and it goes out to bid, it is a very awkward legal and ethical position they are put in should another company be awarded the contract.  Is the designer to approve their competitor's shop drawings?  Inspect their installation?  And act solely for the benefit of the owner's best interests?  Would the successful contractor want their competitor overseeing the project?  This can become even more complicated if the designer was not paid for their upfront design efforts - do you really think that they are going to want to continue serving the owner's best interests for free?

In the case where the successful contractor is the same entity that designed the system(s), who is there to oversee them and check their work?  Again, the project Architects ans Engineers are typically not knowledgeable enough to know if what is installed is anywhere close to what was specified.

You can use a 'free' design, and it is highly likely you will get what you paid for it.

Comment by Stephen Ellison on January 31, 2012 at 12:45pm


Larry's post earlier today used the term lighting system, not lighting design (read light plot), and that is the biggest distinction that needs to be made here. You are correct in your comment about not knowing what each show requires. But as a lighting designer/consultant, it is my job to design a system that will accommodate any use of the space. My knowledge of the types of setup that the director will come up with and styles or types of events will allow me to design a system that will work for any need. I will also recommend an equipment list to go along with the installed system, such as fixtures, console and DMX devices. Typically that is where cuts are made, or I encourage cuts to be made, and not to the infrastructure of the system. I say this because that gear is installed by the end user as required per show.

Comment by Lawrence L. Graham, ASTC on January 31, 2012 at 8:46am

David and All,

Your comment that "If you aren't going to be the lighting designer in the new venue and you happen to know what all of the productions are going to be, and what the set will be, then you have no idea what will be needed" is right on target.

Consultants are faced with two classes of venue design: those that already have a staff and those that don't. For the ones that are already staffed, the answer is listen to the staff and do one's best meet their needs. If there isn't a technical staff in place (which is often the case with new buildings), then the consultant must rely on his/her own experience in scenic and lighting design. In this case, the consultant's own experience in a variety of different kinds of venues and for different kinds of productions becomes very important.

In both cases flexibility is essential. The building must be designed to be adaptable to all kinds of situations, and this is - as you point out - particularly true of a black box. 

Comment by David McCall on January 31, 2012 at 8:07am

Larry, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you aren't going to be the lighting designer in the new venue and you happen to know what all of the productions are going to be, and what the set will be, then you have no idea what will be needed.

This is especially true in a black box.  In fact it is a good idea to strip a black box of all lights, sound equipment, and scenic elements after every show. This allows the students/artist to configure the room to their needs. In a black box a director might choose to put the audience on the floor in the middle and have the action happen around the sides. All you, as a consultant, can do is to provide the infrastructure that allows the flexibility to put anything anywhere and get whatever communications and power to that location.

In a performing arts center the story is somewhat different. This type of facility needs at least a basic plot that will get the stage lit. This can be as simple as a set of PARs that just throw light on stage from appropriate angles, to a full rep plot that gets restored after every project.

There are all kinds of consultants and the can be very valuable in the design of a theater. I'm not qualified to do what you do but I've sure seen a lot of venues that I could have been a help if I had a chance to participate during the design process. 50 years ago I did this in Sarasota when they were designing their PAC. George Eisenhower was the design consultant and even he thought my input was valuable and invited me to do post graduate work at Yale. Sadly I didn't go that route.

Comment by Stephen Ellison on January 31, 2012 at 7:22am

Well put Lawrence

Comment by Lawrence L. Graham, ASTC on January 31, 2012 at 6:43am

When it comes to structural design, stability is usually achieved through even spacing of the structural members. Architects and structural engineers often do this by beginning at the center line of the building and moving outwards toward the sides. It doesn't have to be done that way. It's just as easy to leave the center line open and do some kind of alternate spacing.

This is the sort of thing that has to be gotten right when the building is first being laid out. So is the design of the grid (whether it goes in with the base building or later). The basic structure has to be designed to accommodate it's size, shape and weight, too; as well as the rigging and lighting systems.

The grid, in turn, must be designed to support the rigging and lighting equipment; all in their proper useful positions.

So, ultimately, to get this right, one begins with the rigging and lighting design and backs into the grid design and from there into the structural layout. And that's one of many reasons why you need a theatre consultant at the beginning of the project.

Comment by Rick Reid on January 30, 2012 at 5:02pm

For me the centered support beam is a nice touch but not necessary. The theory I use is that most items and most large items are hung at center. All structures have their weakest and strongest spots. So, why not put a strong one at center?

Has anyone here ever had a grid fail?


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