The Play's the Thing

The designs of campus performance spaces and their interiors are important on various levels. First, there’s the crucial need to have attractive, well-equipped facilities well suited for academics and productions. Then, there’s also the prestige factor, balanced with cost. There’s also the need to establish or maintain the status of being not only an active part of daily life on campus, but quite often, a vibrant regional performance arts center as well.

Some experts offered insights to College Planning & Management, describing the process both in terms of broad design dynamics and interior details.

For many campuses, there is also the need for flexibility — that the space be designed for a range of functions, such as plays, lectures, and recitals. That requires adjustable acoustical systems and perhaps an adjustable proscenium, which enables either the stage or the seating area to be extended as needed, says Charles Cosler, principal, Cosler Theatre Design.

Design With Community in Mind
Cosler’s firm, along with RMJM/Hillier Architecture and sound consultant Creative Acoustics, worked on a case that speaks to various current dynamics: Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater. First, the interior design of the 500-seat auditorium features a “lively color,” with rich, deep reds counterbalanced with dark chairs. The building’s wide lobby, behind an exterior with broad glass, has high ceilings and contains glass-paneled cases for art displays. Cosler has been noting a growing interest on campuses for plenty of glazing — transparency enabling views of “the life of the building,” he says — and opulent lobbies that serve as salons, reception areas, and art galleries. Such interiors contribute to such campus theatres being de facto “bridges to the community,” hosting public events.
Across the country, Three Stages at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, CA, by LPAS Architecture + Design (shown above), is a campus and regional performance center with three dedicated theatres (hence its name) including a main theatre with 850 seats, an orchestra pit, and a full fly tower. There are also separate facilities for rehearsal, production, and teaching, and therein lies another dynamic: Budgets are always a factor, but every space can’t be designed, at least not well, to meet every purpose, argues Adam Shalleck, AIA, principal and president of The Shalleck Collaborative, which consulted on the project. Incidentally, dedicated spaces reduce the number of scheduling headaches, he notes.

On the other hand, Shalleck says that interior designers, architects, and others should acknowledge the dynamics that administrators can face on any campus when making decisions about the construction or renovation of any campus space, including square-foot cost per student, enrollment, and revenue.

Whatever the precise arrangement, Shalleck argues that there are five aspects to theatres that work well and thus, last: access, that is, efficient and attractive routes for both performers and audiences; dimension; engineering capacity, in other words, do the structure and systems have what it takes?; flexibility; and audience environment. In his view, combine these things — Shalleck calls them “the core aspects of production capabilities and theatre quality” — and you have a facility that can persevere. As Shalleck adds, “Sustainability means that we don’t have to renovate it soon.”

Behind the Scenes
Components within interiors also present challenges and opportunities. In most auditoriums, the stage’s front curtains are the most conspicuous, and costly, part of the traditional system of stage masking and framing fabric that includes stage teasers, legs, tabs, and borders. Patterns on those curtains are quite rare, at least in the experience of manufacturer Drapery Industries, which has worked with general contractors and architects of campus performance spaces.

The manufacturer indicates that standard and custom colors are more common — campuses, to hold down costs and extend aesthetic longevity, tend to keep it simple and focus elsewhere. Curtains should be colorfast and inherently flame-retardant, as opposed to treated, so that fading is not an issue and re-treating will never be required. Such curtains are costly, with prices for small- to medium-sized campus theatres, such as synthetic velour systems Drapery Industries has supplied, ranging from $10,000 to at least $40,000 for the front curtain alone, depending on the size of the stage.

Like curtains, acoustical shells, in addition to their primary function of directing sound, must comport well with the interior design. To do so, “many shells incorporate custom features, colors, and finishes to complement the hall’s interior,” says Mark Ingalls, product manager, Performing Arts, for Wenger Corporation. Painted surfaces, veneers, and laminates present options. He describes another requirement of shells: “Multipurpose performance facilities are a campus trend. Events have varying acoustical requirements — from symphonic bands to lectures — so acoustical shells must be versatile enough to accommodate this variety. The number of acoustical walls and ceilings can be adjusted to suit the size and nature of the performance.” It takes the right mix of aesthetics and technology.

Behind-the-scenes, technological advances continue, with motorized rigging systems — they hoist scenery, curtains, and other stage components — that can be programmed for speedy, safe functioning. “We expect (motorized systems) to eventually become standard in the United States,” Ingalls adds.

Take a Seat
In terms of another essential, seats, campuses tend to use metal and plastic systems, as opposed to woods for civic venues. Doug Oswald, Architectural Environments market manager at American Seating Company, sees no prevailing trend in terms of textiles, other than preferences for durable, affordable products and especially the increasing use of sustainable materials. In fact, educational institutions are addressing sustainability more than any other seating system market segment, according to Oswald. It’s a movement that suppliers of interior materials are both fostering and reflecting with their products.

By the way, Oswald is watching what may be an uptick in interest in large patterns of various kinds in textile components. No telling if this trend will last, he notes, because “there’s always interest in new and different things.”

However, one thing lasts longer on many campuses: “historic awareness,” Oswald says. That is, a sense of how premier performance venues have looked and an expectation of continuity after renovation — incoming undergraduates may not have that knowledge, but administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and the local community do. Thus, suppliers need to offer products that, while inherently modern, do not present a radical departure in terms of interior design.

American Seating encountered a case in point several years ago when it supplied 4,281 chairs for a highly unusual venue: Michigan State University’s Fairchild Auditorium (seen above), which has two auditoriums of different sizes sharing one stage. The renovation’s specs required a replacement plan that was “keeping with the historical presence of the building,” according to the supplier, which had some insight into the matter: American Seating was replacing its own chairs, from 65 years previously, when the building opened.

There was more to it: Michigan State needed the seating capacity to be increased, and for the chairs in one of the auditoriums to be removable. The supplier custom-designed seats by combining elements from three models, including one that closely resembled the seats from 1941. The company also worked with Stage Right, a performance space and public assembly supplier, to design a plan that used risers to increase capacity.

Finally, it’s fitting that the seating area of such a space was made larger. Because in a broader sense, as Oswald adds, such spaces are “big statements on campuses. They are the marquee venue, and always have been.” Thus it bears repeating that their designs, both inside and out, are important on various levels. 

Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.