Best Practices for Theater Design

It’s fair to say that after 18 months of isolation, people are ready to see a show. There’s an eagerness among audiences to return to live performances, which in turn has led to a renewed enthusiasm for and interest in upgrading public, private and community theater spaces. And when it comes to design, technology, space planning, amenities and more, many high school, college and community theaters have begun to rival the bright lights of Broadway.

In addition to providing a venue for both education and entertainment, a well-designed community theater has evolved to serve a broader role and a much larger population. For example, a well-produced high school, college or community production can provide quality entertainment when professional theatrical performances are priced out of reach. Performance spaces 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.  And in many instances, these spaces double as community centers, playing host to mayoral candidate debates, community health fairs, adult education, guest lectures—the possibilities are endless.

While new or renovated performance spaces can be designed with just one purpose in mind—putting on a show—that doesn’t mean theater design is one-size-fits-all. Here, our experts spotlight a few trends and best practices when designing performance spaces.

Audience chamber

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 or cross-aisle and could affect 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 theater or auditorium’s lighting system, our team considers 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 client’s needs are different, therefore, every design is 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 panels. There are two common choices: (1) solid or (2) 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.


The backstage area has improved dramatically from the cramped quarters typically associated with most backstage areas. 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 standard. When not in use, these rooms may also accommodate star performers that have multiple costume changes or additional prop storage.

It’s also common for 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’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.

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. An 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.