The Planning Behind the Performance

The complexity of theatre design and construction projects is so great, notes Chris Wineman of Semple Brown Design, that a board member with a medical background once remarked, “this is the only thing I’ve ever seen to compare with a hospital for complexity.” So what makes theatre construction projects so complicated?

Theatre Design Challenges

The multi-use nature of a theatre imposes several design considerations: A/V effects, HVAC, front-of-house, and back-of-house all must be considered. Each of these factors has their own demands, plus there’s the unknown. As Wineman explains, “We design with the idea that we don’t really know what the theatre design folks are going to put into the space in terms of scenery and special effects.” Venue purpose is important: Actors want a soft subfloor, so they can screw into it, while musicians want a hard wood for acoustics.

To create a front-of-house, designers must think about the size of the space and seating requirements, the width and legroom of seats, and the sightlines, which are maintained by varying the slope of the floor and adjusting the height of the stage. A properly designed theater allows audience members at the back of the room to see well, with few obstructions.

Given the interplay among of all these systems, theatre designers must keep the big picture in mind, even if they’re only working on the design for a single system. Says Wineman, “You can’t have a conversation that’s narrowly restricted to acoustics, because their input will have an impact on what the structural, mechanical and interior design team members are doing. So, a lot of our coordination work involves multiple parties and multiple review paths.”

Theatre Construction Challenges

Something audience members don’t realize is the complexity of structures that support a great theatre set. Catwalks and multiple floor levels are essential in any functional performance set, but these are difficult to build. When constructing all parts of a set, builders must keep geometry in mind both to generate sight lines for the audience and to direct sound (either reflected back or absorbed by the set).

Theatre vendors further complicate the matter, because systems aren’t standard throughout the industry. Thus, a build team needs to understand all the different options out there and how they work together to achieve the same end result when encountering different lighting systems or curtain controls in various theatres.

“Sequencing in a theatre is important because layering is really the way to execute,” explains theatre construction expert Kyle Tillery of Adolfson & Peterson Construction. If contractors don’t follow proper sequencing, they could create an obstacle that complicates the build. “You need to have an initial paint layer installed on the high structure work because after you install the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire sprinkler rough-ins, getting back up there will be quite complicated,” says Tillery. What’s more, improper sequencing could actually put workers at risk. Ideally, all the higher structure work would be finished before workers move into finishing out the floor-level work. Otherwise, a worker could be hurt if something falls from above.

“I think everything for constructing a theater really comes down to pre-planning,” Tillery says. He recommends 3D scanning to verify measurements, bringing subcontractors on site early to confirm the systems and scope, and creating mockups of walls, lighting, and curtains using building information modeling.

As Wineman notes, “Each project is unique – and a chance to do something we’ve never done before.” While novelty adds to the complexity, for industry employees it builds skills and keeps workers flexible to the changing demands of each job site.

UNC Theater Performance

UNC Opens Showcase Performing Arts Facility

Adolfson & Peterson Construction recently completed the University of North Colorado’s new Campus Commons – an innovative campus navigation and support center for students, a new gateway facility to welcome visitors and a showcase for the University’s highly regarded music and theater programs.

The theater and support areas are a dramatic reflection of UNC’s outstanding performing arts and visual arts programs and the arts-rich community. Its complex rigging, lighting, controls, acoustics, fly gallery and custom AV layout is state-of-the-art in performance quality. Designed for flexibility, a moving orchestra pit and an elaborate weighted pulley system backstage creates a spectacular gathering place.

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