Inside Look: Performance Spaces: Flexibility Is the Name of the Game in Today's Campus Theater Configurations

By Whylly, Lynn Russo | University Business, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Inside Look: Performance Spaces: Flexibility Is the Name of the Game in Today's Campus Theater Configurations


Whylly, Lynn Russo, University Business


The top trend in college performance spaces today is the flexibility being built into them. From adjustable walls and seating that can accommodate a variety of performance types to acoustics that adapt to handle everything from African drums to an orchestra, theaters are expected to match specific events.

"We see more and more educational users asking for fully flexible 'black box' type spaces, where the stage and seating can be rearranged for each production," says Robert Shook, founding partner at Schuler Shook, a Chicago-based theater planning consultancy.

One factor driving this shift is an increase in the diversity and variety of arts classes--everything from dance to set design to creative writing is taught in today's theater buildings. Once designed solely to accommodate orchestra music, theaters now might have a play one week, a soloist the next, and an orchestra the week after.

Participation in the performing arts is on the rise at all schools, including institutions where theater and music are not offered as degree programs, Shook says.

With more diverse performances, drawing a broader audience also has become a priority. Amenities such as more inviting lobbies and more comfortable seating are increasingly common. "Modern theater seating systems today provide more comfort with thinner and lighter-weight materials and construction," he says. They also are incorporating power and IT wiring at every seat.

In addition, with the population getting taller and wider, the average seat width and row spacing have increased.

Projection and direct-view screens are popular on stage today to enhance viewing and create a more exciting experience. Intelligent lights--which can be programmed to pan, tilt, zoom, change color and produce other effects--and environmentally friendly LED lighting also are finding their way into performance spaces.

Motorized rigging--which is used to raise and lower everything from curtains to lights and other set materials to actors themselves--has become safer and less expensive.

Modern theaters have multiple wheelchair positions and assistive listening and closed-captioning systems for hearing impaired patrons. In addition, stages, control rooms, orchestra pits and other backstage areas are designed to be open and free of barriers to help the physically challenged move around, Shook says.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Modernizing shared space

The orange ceiling panels in the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University (Mo.) create a solid catwalk flooring to ensure maximum student/staff safety for this theater space, which the campus shares with The Repertory Theatre Company of St. Louis and the St. Louis Opera Company. The walls of the theater move to expand and contract seating. A $5.4 million renovation in 2002 upgraded the dressing rooms and costume shops, and added a shock system below the floor of the dance studio to reduce injuries. Architect: Mackey Mitchell (St. Louis)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Marrying old with new

Built in 1932, the Paramount Theater, in the heart of downtown Boston and part of Emerson College's Paramount Center project, maintains the facility's art deco history while meeting the institution's current needs. The original 1,700 seats were reconfigured into a 590-seat performance venue. A new building constructed on the site of the former Arcade Building on Washington Street includes a 170-seat film screening room, a black box theater seating 125, a sound stage, a scene/prop shop, rehearsal studios, practice rooms, classrooms and offices. The upper four floors of the nine-story building are now dormitory space for 260 students while the lower level is configured for a restaurant and student cafeteria. A restored rococo fan that was previously used to push organ music toward the audience now functions as an acoustical reflector above the forestage. …

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