Inside Look: Performance spaces

Flexibility is the name of the game in today’s campus theater configurations
By: | Issue: February, 2014
January 30, 2014

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.