Baby Boomers no doubt recall their high school auditoriums with a mixture of fondness and dread — fondness for the memories of all those school plays and concerts, dread for the fact they were often the ugliest spaces on campus, sharing duties with the gym or cafeteria. These days, however, high school students are often spared such unpleasant surroundings; new schools now have separate, well-appointed theatres with the latest in technology.
Recently, Entertainment Design editor David Johnson sat down with several New York-area professionals who specialize in such projects to discuss some of the issues involved in putting them together: Charles Cosler, principal of Charles Cosler Theatre Design (who graciously offered his conference room for the roundtable); David Holowka, assistant director, office of capital administration/division of school facilities for the NYC Board of Education; Rolando Kenny, principal of SBLM Architects; Timothy Ng, director of design, architecture, and engineering, New York City School Construction Authority; Eric Seifert, principal, Acoustic Dimensions; and Alec Stoll, associate, Charles Cosler Theatre Design.
David Johnson: What prompted this trend toward the larger, technically complex theatres in today's high schools?
“Multiple use of space is as prevalent today as it was back then. We're just trying to provide a new tool box using today's tools to help the newer generation of students.”
Charles Cosler: We found that the independent schools, in their competition for students and desire to have newer and better schools, led the way. That filtered over to the public high schools and to those communities where high schools provide perhaps the largest assembly venue in the area. We're doing a couple of projects in Connecticut right now, Wilton High School and Oxford High School, which are de facto performing arts centers for the communities with pretty sophisticated 800-seat theatres.
Alec Stoll: Additionally, the technology has become much more accessible to lower-budget buildings. You can get a state-of-the-art dimming system now for a price that's affordable to the average community, as opposed to the half-million-dollar systems of the past. They can do most of the tricks that a Broadway theatre can do.
DJ: You mentioned earlier that with pre-war schools, a lot of theatres were larger, more ornate, and self-contained, but then there was a period where we got away from that.
AS: That's right. Schools that were built before the war had big, beautiful state-of-the-art (for their time) auditoriums. For some reason, I think we got away from that in the 60s and 70s. The ‘gymnatorium’ and the ‘cafetorium’ became the end result.
CC: I think maybe the Baby Boom, when GIs came home and started families, combined with the Cold War and the push to put money into defense, led to a situation where schools needed to be built cheaper and faster. The idea was to try to find the cheapest model possible, and that's when you got into the combinations of cafeterias and gyms with stages in them, anything but to build a separate, well-made theatre.
Eric Seifert: Yet those variety of uses still occur today. With the typical high school auditorium, you can have concert bands, an orchestra, your yearly production of Guys and Dolls, all the way on to regular assemblies, film series, and community outreach events. Multiple use of space is still as prevalent today I think as it was back then. We're just trying to provide a new toolbox using today's tools to help the newer generation of students and teachers today, who have all been exposed to newer types of technology.
Rolando Kenny: I think the community is involved more, and their expectation of the school districts is really oriented to the best education system that they could possibly provide.
Timothy Ng: Usually these plans lead to a first-time experience for children in a theatrical space. That's why the technology has been advancing in such a way that the auditoriums now are more in line with technical requirements, besides meeting all the community needs and the after-school activities. It gives the children a sense of, ‘Hey, this is my first time to be up onstage.’
DJ: David mentioned that it's not just the theatres, it's also the libraries and the other aspects of the schools that are being used to reach out to the community.
“A school district developing a school will get zero dollars for its theatre, yet the community wants it to be as big as the student population.”
David Holowka: Right. We're also sharing gyms and libraries after hours with the community. I think traditionally auditoriums have had sort of a community function, and they are generally located near the entrance of the building. But some of them are trying to discontinue it for that issue of public access, even in some cases having an alternate entrance into the auditorium that doesn't link into the school, perhaps adjacent to the school entrance so that after-hours security isn't an issue. Ordinarily, if you're going to have the lobby entered after hours, you need a security staff person there full-time.
In New York, especially with the site coding, it's a difficult issue because sometimes you can't put the auditorium right on the first floor. There are so many things that vie to be in that location, sometimes it makes sense to put the auditorium in the basement because it's a space that otherwise doesn't fill up with the program very well. Auditoriums don't have to have windows, so they can go in a space like a basement. We're always looking for something to put there, to fill out the footprint to reduce the size of the building on the upper floors, and perhaps then increase the play area. And then it becomes an issue of how to get the public downstairs into that space.
DJ: What are some of the other basic challenges in planning and designing a high school theatre, as opposed to a regular theatre? Is there anything specific that you have to keep in mind when you are going through this process?
AS: Generally speaking, a high school auditorium is going to be a multi-use, very flexible space. It is going to be used for dramas, musicals, bands, choir. Every arts program in the school is going to perform on the same stage. When we design specific theatres or professional auditoriums, there is a specific purpose in mind for that space, whereas, in a high school auditorium, it's a much more scattered-gun approach. You have to be able to create a space that is adjustable to its various uses.
RK: We've had many standard plans for auditoria where stages open up to the cafeteria and the gym. But on recent renovation projects, they're asking us to take their auditoria and convert those spaces to full theatres. We just finished a job like that at Alfred University, where they had a stage opening up to the cafeteria. And actually it works pretty easily.
One thing that they also like, and I think it relates to some of the latest cinemas being built, is stadium seating. They know it costs a lot more, but they're doing it. But when you introduce stadium seating, the accessibility issue needs to be addressed.
CC: There are a couple of issues involved in seating for high school auditoriums. Number one, most educational specs call for a seat per student in the school; if you have an 800-student school, that means you need 800 seats. And then you need another 50, 75, or 100 for faculty and staff and so forth. We always challenge that, and say that if they built half as many seats, they could get a much better quality space. And they would have the ability to do two performances, so that the students who perform would get twice the opportunity. But this argument seems to fall on deaf ears most of the time. So we end up building these fairly large auditoriums that are really not funded as well as they should be, for what they are trying to do.
When you get into a larger auditorium, then this issue of stadium seating, and a flat rake for the seats to accommodate handicapped access, gets into direct conflict with each other. One of the things that we've developed is that the area down in the middle is on a fairly gentle slope. That way, people can roll in and roll down to the front. We have a cross aisle that navigates that whole area, so that they can go around that seating and get to the stage; the stage and the entry is at the same level. Then the seats in the back raise more steeply. Sometimes, too, we've taken the back rows and stacked them over to the top, just to get everybody close to the stage. But doing a balcony in high school auditoriums is sometimes an issue. Some schools are afraid that they are opening themselves up to a liability issue; by having kids up in the balcony, they are going to throw things over it or they are going to fall.
You have to strike a balance. And it has to do with capacity too. [But if you can have] a really wonderful intimate theatre, where you can see the eyes, people's expressions and so forth, [that] is what theatre is all about.
ES: Yes, you have to be cognizant of the young performer too, knowing that they are starting to develop their tools, and perhaps will carry on the profession some day. You want to try to make the rooms as intimate as possible. You want to bridge the gap between the performer and the audience and make that gap as small as possible, and pull people in so that everybody feels this unified experience. That makes it a lot more comfortable for the performer, and I think provides a better educational experience.
RK: There are two other interesting things to deal with when you design outside of New York City. One is the issue of air conditioning. The trend now in all the schools that we are designing is air-conditioned environments. But the superintendents are getting really nervous, because once we build them their schools, they're not familiar with the operating costs for the air-conditioned building. In New York City private schools, there is year-round instruction, and I think New York City is also going to year-round.
The other trend is really difficult, and it has to do with the way state schools are financed through the State Education Department. Theatres get no aid, no state aid whatsoever. A school district developing a school will get zero dollars for its theatre. So when we talk about how big you want your theatre, the community wants it as big as the student population. However, when we do the state aid analysis, we tell them that it's a big hit, because they're spending about maybe twice as much a square foot for construction space. So we find, in New York anyway, that they tend to compromise somewhere between ⅓ and ½ of the student population.
ES: The funding aspect is interesting, because the these public projects are usually funded based on a budget that has been developed on a very, very early schematic design process. That budget is then established, and is put up for a vote. And many times, specialty consultants haven't really been consulted at that point. It's usually the architect and the contractor who is developing the place, or the cost consultant who is developing it. As soon as the specialty consultants get involved, everything starts to take a higher and higher hit, which means that something else has to be given up. This is a bit of a plug, I guess, for those architects who might be reading this article: Get your specialty consultant involved as early as possible, so that the desires and needs of the end user are met.
TN: There are a whole host of issues that are raised with the larger theatres and the impacts that pop up that involve acoustics, lighting, and also maintenance. For instance, in the case of lighting, there's the problem of how the building engineering staff tackles and maintains that. But these additional issues can be overcome, and you're right that acoustical consultants and theatre design consultants should be contacted early on, to try to rein them in and assist in the developing of these basics.
AS: I think that a high school auditorium or a college theatre building, or even a civic theatre, tends to be a showpiece for the community or the school. That is another reason they want to have it on the lower level, in the front of the building where you come in — it's a luxury space, and it is finished that way for a reason, which is that the community is likely to see it. They're not likely to see the computer lab or the locker rooms. What they are going to see is their kid performing in the show. So they are going to sit in those seats and look at those lights. And they want to see that their money has been well spent.
DJ: But isn't there a concern that if it's too ornate, parents might say, ‘Why did they spend all this money on this theatre, when there aren't any computers in the school?’
DH: Well, I don't think that there is a lot of envy going on of money being spent elsewhere. I think that in general, the community is very grateful for whatever goes into the auditoriums.
CC: I'm a great believer in starting out simple and small, and thus providing infrastructure, so that if you need to expand, you can. One thing that Tim was talking about was flexibility in terms of a high-volume space, getting to lights and so forth. We have routinely tried to put catwalks in, not only for the stage lighting, but also for the house lighting, to be able to access and relamp easily. Sometimes, again, school boards and parents are a little bit afraid in terms of liabilities involved in having kids up on the catwalks. But we do have codes that we have to conform to in terms of railing heights and safety issues.
“The high school auditorium needs to be a showcase for the community.”
ES: There is also the larger issue of safety while providing the flexibility and technology to achieve the level of sophistication to which the students aspire, but still having the controls and mechanisms in place to provide ease of use. There are going to be students and teachers who will have a higher level of sophistication than others. So I think we are all very aware at the onset of a project of trying to develop who the users actually are and their sophistication. Because we are specifying equipment and systems that need to work with people's expectations, and yet need to work easily.
DJ: I wanted to bring up the technology aspect of this, because there is a such delicate balance here between trying to buy the latest in equipment that the students can learn from, but also making it not so complex that they need a Ph.D. to learn it. How aware do you have to be when designing these projects of balancing this brave new world of technology to the students?
ES: I think there is a line you have to draw. That line is where do you now get professional people onboard to help staff this place. At the very beginning of the project, we'll sit down with the end users and go through a very exhaustive study of needs and desires. We'll actually help the users prioritize what is the most important thing to be supported in these spaces. Sometimes you can see it very quickly, because at that meeting, that is when all the doors are open and the vision is out there in the clouds; it is kind of our job to take that vision, download the needs of the users, and pull it together in some kind of cohesive design.
CC: One of the things that we are finding — and Eric, you might want to speak to this — is that there always has been the problem where high school students do not have developed instruments, vocal instruments, and they cannot project very well, so they can't be heard.
DJ: Some would say that is still going on today, on Broadway.
CC: Well, it's this whole thing about miking, and on Broadway, of miking every performer now. This has spilled over into high schools, where the first question they want to know is, how many body mics are we going to have in our sound system?
ES: There is a direct responsibility for us to see what's happening now; it's this whole idea of being exposed to technology. Given the size of some of these spaces, you have to put in an audio system; there is just no way around it. This is the size of room that is not going to lend itself to natural projection. So we have to find ways to develop the infrastructure to a level of sophistication that will allow the end user to expand their capabilities as technology advances.
“In performing-arts magnet schools, they generally understand that they have to have staff to run the systems. They usually put the staff on to protect their investment.”
Technology is a moving target. Often the products we specify at the beginning of the project are completely different at the end of the project. So you've got to shoot your arrow, and try to hit somewhere in front of where you can go.
DJ: What about the schools? What can the schools do, or what are they doing in regards to this technology? Are they keeping a close eye on it, to balance what they feel is appropriate for the students versus what is important to the overall package?
DH: We rely very heavily on our consultants. We have a standard auditorium layout that they receive, and actually we have been encouraging them to mediate from that and customize the auditorium. We are very dependent on their expertise and the quality of the people that they bring in.
CC: We were looking at the specs for the New York City school auditoriums, and the basic parameters of what needs to go in there. And one thing that jumps off the page was the clock. The clock is usually on the simplex system, and it has the self-adjusting mechanism. And it makes a lot of whirs and clicks and bangs and so forth. And when outside groups come in to use the auditorium, that clock in particular is usually a real bone of contention, because there doesn't seem to be any way to turn it off.
ES: I loved that clock when I was in school: Tick, tick, tick, time to go.
CC: Right, exactly. Time to move on. When I was in school, they used a bell system to indicate class-change time. And to get that bell to be turned off in the auditorium, or to get the bell out in the hall of the auditorium not to resonate through the wall and disturb the rehearsal or performance in the room, was an important thing.
DH: Acoustic separation is very important. In the site specs that we've built in New York, very often there is the impulse of stacked, long-span spaces. So you might end up with a gymnasium over an auditorium, or a cafeteria, which is also a very noisy area.
RK: I wanted to add to something you said about the programming of the technology. One thing that we do on all of our projects involves the bidding of the technology package. With most high schools, the process usually runs about two years. In that first bid, we calculate everything they might need, and then we let the construction go. We also put in approximately 5% of add-alternates toward improving the system. Because the technology is changing so rapidly, usually at the end of that cycle, we end up buying more than had we gone out to bid earlier. The costs go down when you are not buying super-A-model technology, and the district gets a lot more money, a lot more equipment, and better equipment for the price than they started off with.
ES: I think it's up to us at the beginning of the project to explore and present all the possibilities to the end users, in terms of how technology can change the way people communicate in a room. A lot of the end users have worked in environments that haven't given them the technology, and therefore they've grown themselves within a box and are forced to make do with what they have. Everybody does it and things work out great. But all of a sudden, they're not opened up to the potentials out there now: Distance learning capabilities, the use of film and video in presentations, and some of the more theatrical effects that are out there, high quality sound systems and surround systems, automated lighting boards, etc. If we can explore all the possibilities and put them on the table in terms of functionality, not in terms of actual equipment and model numbers. But more of a ‘what if?’ Do you see this happening in the future? And then as Chuck was saying, we can provide the proper infrastructure, which is very inexpensive to do, once a building is being constructed, to allow for that growth to happen. Who knows what is going to happen 20 years from now? There may be holograms on the stage, for all we know.
CC: In terms of dimming, rigging, drapery, those things that we routinely specify in our office, those are all fairly modular systems. So it's easy to specify dimming racks, and have a certain number of modules that are active in that rack, and a certain number of spaces for future modules. But I think where it is really hard to do a modular design and provide for future infrastructure is with the sound systems. In a smaller high school auditorium, what are the variables that can be mixed and matched to get a big bang for a buck?
ES: Well, again, it's all contingent upon the use of the space, and what that space is being designed for. If the use of the space is primarily speech reinforcement, that is going to lead you into one particular design. If it needs to cover a whole range of audio quality for music, that leads you into another more sophisticated arena, again to gain the level of quality that people expect nowadays.
There are lots of basic components to a sound system that just come along for the ride. You have amplifiers, speakers, a control system, and the source material, the microphones, and that kind of thing. There is also a range of outboard gear that can come along for the ride, and has varying cost benefits, depending upon the use of the space. We tend to try to build in infrastructure, to allow things like conditional microphone placements or outboard gear, to be provided later. In any given room, the sound system provided has to be able to cover the area. That dictates the type of loudspeakers used and where they are placed. It doesn't change really from room to room.
Where we get into the complexities is when we start talking about where else in the space do you want the sound to go and why? For example, you might want to tie the auditorium to the rehearsal spaces. You might want to provide a small recording facility that is tied not only to the auditorium, but also maybe to your band room or choir room. You might want to have a tieline up to your gymnasium to allow for overflow, or a portable system in your gymnasium to do other kinds of activities. And you might want distance learning to occur in certain facilities, and certain spaces within the school. All require a different level of sophistication in terms of how the infrastructure is designed.
DJ: What is the feedback that the schools are getting from the faculty and the students, and the parents, I guess, about these spaces? Are they embracing it? Are they saying they want more? Or does it depend on the project?
TN: After a project has been completed, we put out a post-occupancy evaluation, and try to solicit opinions: What are some of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly stuff that pops up. In general the new schools that we have constructed have been embraced. There are certain minor issues that do pop up, and most of those include acoustics. The background noise of an air conditioner provides a constant hum. The lower portion of the seating space is at the level of the basement area, and adjacent to the mechanical equipment room; that generates a low-frequency noise and then that travels through the structure, and you get this very low hum. If the acoustic materials were just a little bit better than out in the corridor or around the cafeteria, then it can provide separation from the outside.
A lot of concerns have also been maintenance issues. Plus the fact that when you do have these very large spaces, you now need specialized people to handle the more sophisticated sound system and the lighting. The majority of the time it is the faculty as well as possibly the seniors in the school itself who will operate this equipment. So you do have to provide that safety net. They are still children; they are not yet legal adults, so you have to provide that supervision.
AS: High schools have been getting by using their maintenance people and janitorial staff, and I hope in the next few years that we are going to see high schools hiring full-time technical people so that we can design to a level of sophistication that the users are expecting, and have someone maintain it.
DJ: Is that feasible?
TN: Anything is feasible. It sounds like a good idea. But it sort of brings in another level of employment models that may pop up. But the idea is very, very sound.
CC: It's interesting: They talk about magnet schools now, where you take a school and develop a particular interest — environmental studies or sciences, or performing arts. In those particular areas, usually, they tend to then put on staffs that they really know they need. And in performing-arts magnet schools, they generally understand that they have to have the staff to be able to run these systems, because they're just more intense, the equipment is more sophisticated. So therefore, they usually put the staff on to protect their investment.
AS: I think it is important to note that 95% of theatres are set up by people who weren't there when they were built. You can't design to the lowest common denominator, but you need to design to the sophistication of the area, the budgets of their shows, and the quantity of shows, more than to the individual users.
DJ: Gentlemen, thank you for your time.