Theater design for both public and private high schools has taken an ambitious turn in the past 10 years. Platforms with little to no wing space, once casually attached to cafeterias and gymnasiums, have given way to full-blown theaters complete with fly-lofts, ample wing space and orchestra pits. Most often, high school theaters today are coupled with music rooms that augment back-of-house space such as dressing rooms, costume storage and scene shops. In fact, it’s fair to say that when it comes to design, technology, space planning, amenities and more, many high school auditoriums have now begun to rival professional performance spaces.
This may, at first glance, seem like an anomaly. Budgets are tight and many state-funded educational building programs provide only marginal support for auditorium, theater or performances spaces. So why has the high school theater gained prominence?
One auditorium, many learning opportunities
Renewed enthusiasm for high school performances spaces may come from educators and administrators who recognize that acting and theater production offer a wide variety of educational opportunities. Whether they are on stage performing or running a lighting control board in a booth high above the audience, theater programs afford students the opportunity for hands-on, interactive, multi-faceted learning… the kind of trial-by-fire akin to on-the-job training.
- Teachers are coaches and mentors in this setting as much as they are on the basketball court. They challenge students to push their creative limits, hone their craft and strike a work-life balance.
- A play or musical can draw upon diverse genres – history, classic or contemporary literature, science fiction and more – and require artists to absorb and interpret works through the lens of their own personal experiences.
- Students who appear on stage must build confidence in public speaking, elocution and freedom of expression.
- Every part, no matter how small, contributes to the whole. There may be a star of the show, but no one person or part is taken for granted.
- And let’s not forget multidisciplinary teamwork: practicing and putting together a show requires collaboration among artists, musicians and technicians.
High school theaters: a community asset
Communities have recognized that a well-rehearsed high school production can provide quality entertainment when professional theatrical performances are priced out of reach. The high school theaters of today are also being designed to accommodate touring groups; they are frequently rented out to local troupes, traveling orchestras and national entertainers in need of a performance venue.
Taxpayers, including senior citizens, have supported levies and referendums for massive school building projects because they included a bona fide theater.
In addition to providing a venue for both education and entertainment, a well-designed high school theater has evolved to serve a broader role and a much larger population. In many instances, today’s high schools double as community centers. The opportunities for after-hours uses – mayoral candidate debates, community health fairs, adult education, guest lectures – are endless.
Designing for today’s performance spaces
Because many of today’s high school theaters are not associated with any other assembly spaces within the school campus, they can be designed with one purpose in mind: putting on a show. But this also means that these spaces must have specific parameters in place. And just like an orchestral or theatrical performance, everyone has a part to play and every part has a purpose to contribute.
Recognizing this, architects regularly include specialized architects, acousticians and theater consultants on their design teams. These experts weigh in on everything from space management to sound.
In a high school theater, the audience chamber needs to accommodate a wide array of performance types, ranging from soloists and small ensembles to large bands and amplified music. In addition, it must accommodate lectures and dramatic performances where speech must be intelligible, often with untrained voices. Beyond these concerns are other considerations that are unique to the functionality of the space and its programmed capabilities.
That’s why it’s important to identify the required seating capacity, intimacy and programming needs early in the process. This may result in the need for a balcony, cross aisle, and effect the seating rake or rise, particularly at the back of the house.
Sightlines are paramount and will influence the size of the proscenium – the part of the stage visible in front of the curtain – as well as the stage depth. A stage thrust, which extends into the audience, and the presence of an orchestra pit will likewise influence the audience chamber, as will the size and position of overhead front-of-house catwalks and lighting positions.
Sound and lighting
When designing a high school auditorium’s lighting system, our teams consider a variety of factors. House lighting must be dimmable and is controlled via the stage lighting console, which is typically located at the back of the auditorium, and often, in a raised light booth.
We also ask ourselves and our clients to define how and where lighting should be placed. How robustly will lighting plots be designed? How many lighting batten/pipes are needed? How long should they be? Should we install a single-purchase, double-purchase or motorized rigging system? Where will sound and lighting control positions be established? Every high school’s needs are different, so every auditorium design is therefore unique.
Working closely with an acoustician, a targeted reverberation time – the time it takes for sound to fade away in the back of the audience chamber – should be established up-front. An experienced and knowledgeable acoustician or theater consultant can also plan both diffusive and absorptive materials to control reverberations, echoes and sound reflections.
Other considerations in the acoustic design including the ceiling design. There are two common choices: solid or open with ceiling “clouds” that capture additional sound volume. Regardless of the approach, the ceiling design must provide lighting apertures for the front-of-house lighting positions. As you can imagine, sound, lighting and ceiling design incorporate style choices that are often influenced by other design features in the school.
The backstage area has improved dramatically from the cramped quarters and open corridors used previously in high school productions. Today, male and female choral dressing rooms that can accommodate 10 to 14 performers each are standard. (Why such a specific number? Ten to 14 is typically the minimum number needed for an average musical production.) In addition, one or two private, ADA-accessible, shower-equipped dressing rooms should be provided. When not in use, these rooms may also accommodate star performers that have multiple costume changes and need for additional prop storage.
It’s also common for high school theaters to include a backstage stage manager’s position from which the shows are run. In addition, backstage wing depths are critical for both stage entries and set storage. A large overhead door on the back wall of the stage is a must-have to provide access to a scene shop, loading dock or street. If street access is being provided, the door should be insulated both for weather and acoustic isolation.
Mechanical, electrical and HVAC
Auditoriums are incredibly sound-sensitive, so no matter the size or scope, a theater space’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing system should be designed by engineers who have prior theater design experience. Ductwork must be oversized (and often lined) to eliminate objectionable fan and air velocity noise. In addition, plumbing chases should be independent of both house and stage perimeter walls.
Finding the right team
Each of these parts and pieces must work together in harmony if the space is going to be successful. And that requires finding the right team: architects with theater experience; acousticians who have both sensitivity for natural acoustics, as well as the ability to design sophisticated sound systems; theater consultants who are familiar with the needs of multipurpose spaces; and engineering consultants with prior theater experience.
All must have the enthusiasm to be part of a specialized team and the willingness to work with budget constraints. Your high school auditorium, black box theater or dedicated performance space can’t be developed in isolation; this effort requires both collaboration and cooperation from the entire design team working with your program needs. By working in concert, the whole will indeed be greater than the sum of the parts.
Laura Piersall is a project architect at SHP Design, where she uses her 25 to develop auditorium and theater spaces for a variety of professional theater groups and K-12 clients. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.