A pencil and ruler sit on top of construction plans.

The process of building a school theatre

By Tarin Chaplin

The vote is counted. The administration and school board have finally agreed to support the building of a new theatre facility or to renovate or enlarge the existing one. Funding has already been obtained. You are delighted. As head of theatre, music, dance, or the performing arts, you’ve been asked to serve on the building committee. You are flattered and excited.

The vote is counted. The administration and school board have finally agreed to support the building of a new theatre facility or to renovate or enlarge the existing one. Funding has already been obtained. You are delighted. As head of theatre, music, dance, or the performing arts, you’ve been asked to serve on the building committee. You are flattered and excited.

The committee has a long list of things to address. You know about acoustics, but not so much about double-sprung floors (needed for dance). Or, you know the lighting effects you want but have no idea of the electrical systems needed to achieve them. People are looking to you for guidance, advice, information, descriptions, lists of needs, and design ideas—and you still have your regular classes to teach and the annual production to stage that is weeks behind schedule.

Okay, take a deep breath. This article can help. We’ll focus on the step-by-step process involved in the building or remodeling of a school theatre space. The specifics of your situation will dictate the kind of facility that’s best for your school, program and community. We’ll cover the role of the building committee (and your specific responsibilities), how to create a vision for the theatre space, terminology, budget issues, key players, and primary aspects of the design and construction process.

Before we get started, bear in mind three things

One, while you certainly have a role to play in each step, it’s important to remember that you don’t design and build the theatre space—that’s the architect’s job, along with various other individuals. You need to educate yourself as to how the process works, be proactive where and when you can be, and, above all else, be vigilant. In other words, pay attention to the process from start to finish to make sure things are going as they’re suppposed to. And by the way, that includes funding the project. While funding is not directly addressed in this article, being savvy about how to gain support and money for a new or remodeled theatre is just as important as the steps we’re going to outline here.

Two, the steps described here may not happen in exactly the sequence suggested. For instance, in an ideal world, a building committee would be formed and would express a vision of the project before anything else. But in many cases, a school board hires an architect first and then a committee is formed and only then are special needs spaces—theatre and otherwise—discussed.

And three, although a new or remodeled theatre might be planned as an independent project, a far more common scenario is that it is just one component of an even bigger project, such as a school addition or renovation that may also include a gym, art studio, student center, and cafeteria. If so, there may be crossover or negotiating issues between any or all of these and the theatre in terms of space, budget, and other aspects of the project. In such situations, you will likely be just one person of a larger group (a building committee and its advisors), each of whom has their own priorities and pet projects. Regardless of whether the theatre is an independent project or part of a larger building plan, the creation of the building committee ought to be the first step in any school/public architectural project once approval and funding have been obtained. Let’s start with a discussion of exactly what that committee does, and go on to the other steps in the overall process.

Step one: Get on the building committee

The building committee is the first line of response in a building project. Oftentimes they will be given a mission statement by the school board (of which they are a subcommittee) that lays out their tasks, responsibilities, and areas of authority. As the individuals who will deal directly with the architect and contractor, they are involved with all aspects of the project, from the initial brainstorming that will help create the vision for the theatre to making choices about design and construction and reviewing progress.

Although the manner in which funding was secured might influence who exactly sits on the committee and how much influence they have (for instance, a large matching endowment from a wealthy alumnus might require some deferential treatment), a typical building committee might include the school principal or headmaster, the district superintendent or a representative of the the school board, members of the faculty and staff, the school’s head of maintenance (or the person who will be responsible for managing the facility), one or more people from the community, perhaps a student representative, and—in the case of a special-use facility like a theatre—someone like yourself. If you haven’t been asked to serve on the committee, volunteer. If you feel it will help, make your case in writing to whoever is chairing the committee, explaining why you think you think your input would be of value to the group.

There’s one other person besides yourself who ought to sit on that committee—or at least be readily available—and that’s a hired theatre consultant (see the sidebar on page 15 and the story on page 22). Make an extra effort to convince your administration of the necessity of obtaining the services of such an individual. The theatre consultant usually functions as the owner’s primary spokesperson for the theatre-related aspects of the project and will communicate with the architect and the building committee throughout the building process, playing a key role in every step described here. What’s more, this person is critical to helping you to define your vision, so the sooner he or she becomes part of the process the better.

The tasks of the building committee are to:

  • Agree on its mode of decision-making.
  • Come up with a project time frame and a sequence of things to be accomplished.
  • Gain a clear understanding of the group’s authority, responsibilities, and the lines of communication within the group as well as between the group and other key players (such as the school board).
  • Determine ongoing roles and, if the committee is large—which is rarely the case—the nature and membership of key subcommittees (design, finances, publicity, liaison to faculty and staff, etc.). With a smaller committee, individuals usually volunteer to take on initial investigation for specific tasks, such as researching and narrowing down the pool of architects that the committee as a whole will eventually interview. Most importantly, make sure everyone is aware of and agrees on who is responsible for what.
  • Act as a liaison to other interested parties who are not on the committee.
  • Create a vision (with the theatre consultant’s guidance), meet with the architect, have input into and review design decisions and the program of space needs, and follow the construction process.

As the primary theatre person on the committee, the amount of responsibility you are personally given can vary considerably—from simply being asked to submit a list of your own specific programmatic needs to being empowered by the school board to gather data and input from other committee members (and beyond) and work closely with the architect, theatre consultant, and general contractor.

At the very least, your job as the performing arts facility representative in this group should be to specifically identify and articulate the theatre’s needs and dreams. In bringing that to the committee, you become the theatre’s advocate, sitting down with people of various persuasions to come up with a comprehensive plan. You will need to accommodate, inform, and convince these people about your concept of the theatre—how it can serve and what it can do for the school and the community. The person capable of articulating what the theatre space needs to be has a much better chance of getting their ideas listened to and their expectations met—that’s who you want to be. And that leads us to our next step.

Step two: Articulate your vision of the theatre

Before you address your fellow committee members in detail, or the architect for that matter, you should have a clear notion of what you want your theatre to be. In other words, you need to have a vision.

To help you come up with and refine this vision, you must build your own support system. Assuming you were able to secure the services of a professional theatre consultant (or if that’s not possible, a knowledgeable technical theatre adviser), work with him to form a support group. Make a list of all the individuals who will use the space—music, dance, and theatre faculty, for starters. Then add other faculty, students, and community members who you think are interested in seeing an attractive and useful performing arts space built. Finally, include on your list the maintenance people who are going to be responsible for taking care of the facility on a daily basis. Together, this group of individuals will serve as a sounding board for you and the theatre consultant. Just remember that it’s part of the theatre consultant’s job to come up with the final vision of your facility. He or she might decide to talk to each individual you’ve listed one at a time, or set up a series of brainstorming sessions in which ideas are exchanged and discussed. Or, that person may let you pull together everyone’s ideas and work exclusively with you on the vision statement.

From an architect’s point of view, the best projects occur when the owner has a clear idea of what they want the facility to accomplish. He or she can’t design and build the theatre you want without a lot of input and information. Assuming you’ve been given the green light by your theatre consultant (or been sanctioned by the building committee), the first thing you will need to do is establish a foundation for your work by creating a space and use needs list for the facility. No space can be all things to all people, just as no performance works for everyone. Remind members of your support group that the theatre plan will not include everything they list, and to be prepared to set priorities. (Be happy if you get a few of those really special things you were hoping for—a trap door, moveable thrust, etc.) Decide ahead of time what is most important and be ready to sacrifice some of the stuff at the bottom of your final list.

Rows of theater seats in front of a green wall with 3 brown doors.Since in many situations the theatre will be used by the music teacher (who will have specific acoustic and staging needs), and the dance teacher (who will have special staging, flooring, and lighting needs), as well as the drama faculty, compromises will have to be made. In addition, the space will likely be used for all-school presentations, graduations, and community events as well. Just make sure your support group includes representatives from every group or department who will be using the facility. This will help insure that a broad range of ideas and needs are aired, considered, and addressed. As a starting point, all of you should consider both general and specific needs and characteristics of the space (see the use and space guide).

Ask each person in your support group to prepare a list of their minimum requirements and grandest hopes, reminding them, again, to prioritize and to bear in mind two fundamental questions:

What are the current and future needs of the space? Among other things, you need to consider what subject disciplines will use the space and how. For example, will your department use the theatre both for performances and classwork? Will you share the space with other performing arts programs, such as dance and music? What support spaces (dressing rooms, costume shops, scene shop, etc.) are needed? Will other non-arts classes or extra-curricular programs be using the space? Incorporate both present and future curricular needs. What kind of shows do you usually produce—primarily big-cast musicals or small-cast one-acts—or do you usually schedule a broad range of plays? Do you anticipate new theatre courses will be added to your curriculum in the near future, particularly technical ones? Will the space also be used for things like general school assemblies and showing films?

2. Who will the facility serve? Of course the theatre will be used by students and faculty, but in some smaller towns, such a space can serve as a gathering center for all sorts of community events—everything from concerts to town meetings or memorial services. So it’s important that you consider not only the size of your student body (and the likelihood of future growth) but your community as well. Also, what’s the largest number of people (or the largest event) you would like the theatre to serve? And bear in mind that the larger the facility and the more frequent its use the greater the cost to maintain it year-round—a full-time manager may be needed. What’s more, bigger isn’t necessarily better—consider whether or not you want to build a smaller space that is better suited to a broader range of productions, instead of a larger auditorium that will hold the entire student body but will only be used to capacity a few times a year.

Make a point to find out the next closest performing arts facility. After accounting for your own school and community needs, it might be possible to generate revenue by renting the space out during non-scheduled and/or vacation periods. This can both help pay for the maintenance of the building and add to its value by supporting a larger constituency. Conversely, look at what other nearby venues offer—there’s no use trying duplicate what they already do.

Once you have everyone’s individual lists, especially if you are dealing with a multi-use facility, see where needs overlap and prioritize them as a group for presentation to the architect.

An experienced architect will help you by asking the right questions and challenging many of your assumptions. The architect/design team should be searching for the unique features of your facility. But he or she is just the first in a long line of people who work on this process with you and the other members of the building committee; others include the general contractor, engineers, theatre consultant (or technical consultant) subcontractors, clerk of the works (see the sidebar on page 15), and the construction and landscaping crews. All project decisions made by these people should work together to support the overall vision.

Conclude your vision work by creating a document that specifically lists the wants and needs you and your collaborators have settled upon. Again, your theatre consultant should take the lead in the creation of the vision statement, as it is that person who helps oversee the building process.

Step three: Choose an architect

Choosing an architect is usually done by the school board (in the case of public schools)—or the trustees of a private school—through a proposal and/or interview process. So this is not a task that you and the building committee necessarily have a direct say in. However, if the board asks the committee for guidance, here are some suggestions:

  • Ask friends, and theatre colleagues for recommendations. If you already have a theatre consultant on board, get his or her input as well.
  • Look at recently completed public projects (especially ones that include theatres), identify aspects that appeal to you, and find out who did the work.
  • Call the local or regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects (see the resources sidebar on page 21) and ask for firms that specialize in theatres, specifically ones that have designed several different types of theatrical spaces—proscenium, black box, thrust, arena, auditorium, arts centers, all-purpose rooms. The more of this experience they have, the greater help they will be.
  • Talk with folks who have used the architect you are considering, people whose jobs and responsibilities most closely parallel your own. Get their assessment of how the facility works for them.
  • Consider your personal and/or the committee’s “gut feelings” about a potential architect. You will be working together closely; make sure it is someone you not only have confidence in, but with whom you can communicate well.
  • Be sure the architect you choose will be available for the entire project, through the construction as well as the design, drafting, and pricing phases.
  • Be ready to take the architect’s advice on qualifications and specifications of contracts, materials, etc. You are paying for that expertise.

Step four: Teach and learn terms, know systems

Theatre speaks its own language—apron, wings, legs, fly space, green room, teaser, ellipsoidal, grand drape, scrim, and so on. Just because an architectural firm has designed another theatre, don’t assume they know all the terminology. Be patient, particularly if your architect has never built a theatre space. You or your theatre consultant may have to talk them through some needs and terms. They need to not only know the definitions of such terms but must understand any particularities of their use in your situation.

Similarly, the design and construction fields have their own terminology and the more familiar you are with the lexicon the better you’ll understand the process. For example, as-builts refer to drawings of existing conditions of a building; change orders are changes in a project cost after a contract has already been awarded; reverberation time is the time it takes sound to bounce off a surface and back to a given point.

Whenever the architects, contractors, or builders use a term you are not familiar with, ask what it means and write down the answer so you’ll have it to refer back to when you have to explain it to someone else. There are no stupid questions, only things you don’t know; that’s why it is so important to get an architect who is a good communicator as well as a great designer.

You also need to learn about theatre systems as they are identified as cost line items by architects, theatre consultants, and contractors. When a theatre project is broken down into cost items, broad technical systems are identified and each item within the system is assigned a dollar amount. A lighting system package, for instance, will specify everything in the facility related to the theatrical lighting (for example, dimmers, control board, cabling from dimmers to batten raceways, and the lighting instruments) that will ultimately be bid on and awarded to a single lighting vendor who will supply and install the equipment.

Your goal in regard to theatre systems is to educate yourself and become a knowledgeable consumer. That way, when it’s time to make choices and concessions you’ll be ready to advocate for the equipment and systems that support your vision. A Google search using the keywords theatre lighting, sound equipment, acoustics, rigging, drapes, and seating will direct you to sites of major manufacturers where you’ll find lots of general information plus many more useful links. You can also contact any of the manufacturers’ representatives for answers to general questions, even if they don’t relate directly to their products.

If you want to talk to a knowledgeable individual on what is normal and best in theatre technical systems like the one you envision, try contacting the designer or technical director in the theatre department at a college or university near you. Generally they love “talking tech,” and it is part of their job to stay current on what is happening technically in performance spaces. If you’re lucky enough to have the time and financial support, consider attending the annual United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) conference and trade show. It’s a great opportunity to talk to theatre systems manufacturer representatives and attend workshops and presentations on every aspect of facility and equipment design. You can even find theatre consultants in attendance who will be glad to talk and answer your questions.

Local lighting and sound dealers in your area are another good source for information. They can probably give you a pretty good idea of what an average minimal system consists of and how much it would cost installed. Certainly, the information they offer will be a bit biased toward the specific products they sell, but they also have a vested interest in helping you and your building committee understand the current state of theatre technology so that you can appreciate the value of well-engineered and field-proven equipment. The local equipment dealers can also direct you to all the recent high school and community theatre building projects in your region.

Step five: Familiarize yourself with the architect’s process

Assuming you’ve refined your vision, prioritized your goals and expectations, and created a document that reflects these things, you and the theatre consultant are ready to talk to the architect. Again, remember that it’s the theatre consultant who will take the lead in this process. If you’re still not quite sure what you and your colleagues want, the architect should ask you questions and perhaps show you examples of other spaces.
Once you and the architect are absolutely clear about what you want, he or she will begin a series of steps that will further refine your envisioned space. These tasks are things that any architect includes as a routine part of their services. The steps are as follows:

  • A construction worker sands the ceiling in a dimly lit room.Feasibility study. A determination of the viability of the project, analysis of the existing facility (if appropriate), a code review, and the creation of a program of space needs, which is the primary thing you’ll be involved in. The program of space needs is distinctively different from the vision statement you and your colleagues have created.
    The vision is about ideas and focuses on qualitative issues. For instance, “backstage areas can be rough finished, except for dressing rooms and costume shop,” or “we want a spacious feel to the public areas,” or “we’re interested in a traditional-looking theatre but want it to have a sense of intimacy.” The program of space needs, on the other hand, defines specifics and includes quantitative information—the nuts and bolts of what needs to be put into place to achieve your vision, such as “dressing table space for six people,” “1,200 square feet of storage space for props and costumes, including thirty line feet of fixed racks for hanging clothes,” “a compact construction shop with large doors opening to the outside.” Space needs also address amenities of the space like counters or closets as well as the size of rooms, how many seats in the auditorium, how wide and how high the proscenium should be, and minimum depth and width requirements for the stage. While the architect will write the program of space needs, you (or your hired theatre consultant) should be prepared to furnish him or her with whatever details are requested.
  • Schematic design. The creation of a rough sketch of the building concept, which may take the form of plans, measured drawings, elevations, three-dimensional sketches, and/or a model.
  • Budget. The architect will establish a preliminary budget, procuring a detailed cost estimate, and update the budget throughout the design process.
  • Design development. A fine-tuning of the schematic design and determination of materials and engineering considerations.
  • Construction documents. The written details that form the basis for the contract, including detailed drawings, specifications, and pre-qualifying (getting qualification statements from interested contractors, which will be used to determine who the owner is willing to entertain bids from).
  • Contractor selection. Finding qualified bidders and/or construction managers.
  • Bidding and negotiation. Calling for contractors to state a proposed fee for the project, and adapting the scope of the work to the budget, schedule, etc.
  • Construction and administration. The actual building phase and construction process. The architect will be involved during the building phase to help assure that the building takes shape consistent with both the contract documents and the original design.

In addition, many architects have a professional interior designer they work with. Such input may seem like a luxury, but is actually fundamental to the project; public interiors require special design considerations.

Step six: Review the budget

Although it may sound obvious to keep your eye on the budget, this is where skills of flexibility, negotiation, and prioritizing will be needed most. Getting it right the first time will avoid headaches and costly revamps later on.

Wise planning and budgeting considers how a design can accommodate current, future, optional, and unforeseen needs, including expansion or redesign. Play devil’s advocate as a way to take the future into account now. As discussed earlier, this may include considering other possible uses, projections for changes in size of student body, curriculum, community needs, the maintenance budget, and programs. Don’t forget that this theatre will probably outlast you, your students, and everyone else involved. In other words, if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make suggestions or recommendations about the major monetary allocations and functional properties, give some serious thought to their soundness as a long-term investment.

Farsighted budgeting also means putting environmental costs and resources into the mix. Theatres use enormous amounts of energy. It is often cheaper in the long run to make some larger investments up front in the form of alternative or energy efficient design. Check to see if your state has any special incentive programs that encourage energy efficiency. Some architects make it a point to look at the “embodied energy” costs, which Keith Robinson, a partner at Black River Design in Montpelier, Vermont, defines as “the amount of energy and resources used to manufacture a product as well as the energy used by the product itself.” This is an even larger overview than short versus long-term costs, and is the type of environmental impact thinking increasingly being applied to large projects.

Step seven: Review the construction contract

While an attorney will assess its legal aspects, you should look over the contract documents to make sure you (and the rest of the people on the building committee) know what is covered and what is not. Specifically, does it include the features you discussed and agreed upon with the architect? Be sure to specify all the architectural features—interior acoustic treatments, etc.—before work begins and make sure to review each one of them in the contract. For instance, are the grand drape, scrim, teasers, seats, and carpeting included in the bid? Is plug-in equipment such as microphones, lighting instruments, and mixing boards part of the total? Individual components of the sound system might be part of the infrastructure or might not. Clarification on such issues up front can avoid misunderstandings and extra costs later on.

Step eight: Keep involved in the construction process

Throughout the construction period there will be regularly scheduled weekly meetings of the whole building committee with the architect (who sometimes functions as the project manager), general contractor, the clerk of works, the project owner (or a representative such as a board member or district superintendent), and often the construction crew foreman. Somebody with the legal jurisdiction to make monetary decisions about the project and sign off as things move along will also always be present at these meetings. The minutes of each meeting become the agenda for the next meeting.

Additional people are brought in to participate depending on the current phase and concerns of the construction. These might include your theatre consultant (or another tech theatre specialist, such as an acoustician), support engineers (mechanical, structural, etc.), subcontractors (electricians, plumbers, etc.), or others, depending on the focus of the meeting. The theatre consultant, for instance, does not generally need to attend a meeting dealing with exterior structural issues.

All construction issues are addressed at these meetings, including:

  • Progress on, and delays in, the construction schedule
  • Unexpected exigencies that demand immediate attention
  • Changes to the scope of the work
  • Clarification of issues which might not be clear from the contractor’s plans
  • A basic question and answer period

Essentially, the meetings deal with what is relevant and timely as the work progresses. While you will certainly not be expected to attend every meeting, and may not ever even be called in, with your specific interest in the outcome of the project, it is a good idea to stay in touch and attend the meetings whenever possible. If you can’t attend, stay in regular contact with your theatre consultant and ask him or her to keep you abreast of what’s going on.

One other thing you need to be aware of that is generally not part of these meetings but goes on parallel to the construction phase is something called the “submittal process.” This refers to all paper work that is turned over to the architect for review by the the general contractor, subcontractor, or specialty engineers in things like sound, lighting, and rigging. Basically, these say, “I’ve read your specs. Here’s what I am providing.” The bottom line is that the architect, the general contractor, and the sub-contractor’s specifications should all match.

Step nine: Set a realistic timeline and first production goals

Always allow more than enough time in your show production schedule for the construction, since it is a given that building projects take longer than expected. Ideally, of course, you will align the construction season with the school calendar, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will happen. While it is important to agree on a reasonable timeline that anticipates delays, many unexpected holdups, ones which may not be within the control of any of the main players—everything from materials acquisition delays to inclement weather—can set a construction completion date back.

Put this rule of thumb at the top of your list: assume that something will go wrong. This view does not come from a point of pessimism but rather is a way of insuring that your surprises will only be pleasant ones. After all, problems are a regular part of the game.

Don’t let your excitement overtake practical considerations as construction nears completion. If you are the one responsible for mounting the first production in the new space, choose a simple play with staging flexibility. Resist the temptation to show off all the bells and whistles of the new technical gadgets. There will be plenty of opportunity for using the lighting, sound, and staging systems as time goes on, and you don’t want to be rushed when it comes to ironing out the kinks.

Step ten: Know how your facility works

Before the architect, the theatre consultant, engineers, and sub-contractors all sign off on your building project, make sure you know everything works, and how. In fact, handover training should be part of the contract. For instance, the lighting and sound equipment contractors should provide training for you and other users (students and faculty) on how to use the new systems.

If a new or renovated theatre might be in your hoped-for future, start keeping a file right now. When the time comes, you’ll be happy you have it as a starting point. Do your homework. Gather photographs, articles, ads, and catalogues of theatrical equipment. Ask other performing arts teachers to do likewise in their areas of specialization.

One way or another, try to be involved in the entire process from the start. If you are not, you may find it impossible to have any special requests incorporated. Design and construction can be a very flexible process so long as issues are brought up at the appropriate time. If specifics are introduced too early, they may be forgotten in the quest to make sure all the big things are dealt with. On the other hand, if you wait too long, the building process can bypass you, making it very expensive or impossible to make changes and incorporate details. As mentioned earlier, visit other facilities in your area to find out if they’re a good model for the sort of theatre that you envision. And make it a point to talk to other theatre teachers who have gone through the same process to find out what went right and wrong, and pick their brains for any advice.

As is true of a theatrical production, the preparatory phase is where the greatest amount of work has to happen in order to make the final product a success. Just remember to ask questions and be patient. If you take the time to familiarize yourself with each of the steps described in this article, you’ll be ready for the long haul and you’ll get what you want and deserve: a new theatre that you, your students, and your community can enjoy for years to come. Good luck!

Tarin Chaplin is a freelance writer living in East Montpelier Center, Vermont.

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