When Theatre Crafts was launched in 1967, the word “venue” had one meaning: theatre. Forty years later, “venue” encompasses retail centers, themed entertainment projects, houses of worship — pretty much anything with a touch of the theatrical. The consultants engaged in the field have found their places under the expanding umbrella concept of venue design. Ted Ohl, partner in Bronx, NY-based design/build company Pook Diemont & Ohl (PDO), laughingly recalls a moment of crisis when the firm, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next month, was just starting up. “I hung up the phone and realized that I'd called the last person I knew who ran a theatre, the last person we could do some work for.”

PDO still does theatre, including new systems work for Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, which is itself nearly 40 years old. But like other consultants who started in the footlights, it has branched out into casinos, corporate projects, and megachurches. The very nature of the work is changing as theatre fans out. Bettina Buckley, the producer and chief effects coordinator of special effects design and consulting firm WOW!Works in Clermont, FL, says she has added a new role to her consultancy, which is working on the multifaceted Northland Church complex in Longwood, FL. “We're the interpreter, bringing different worlds together, trying, for example, to tell the theatrical team what the engineering group is attempting to say, or what the acousticians are trying to say. There are so many disciplines now, and so many pieces of the puzzle that need to be fit together.”

Adds Heather McAvoy, principal consultant of Landry & Bogan Theatre Consultants in Mountain View, CA, “As the technologies used in live performance become more and more varied and complex, consulting firms need more specialized knowledge in a greater variety of technological areas. Fortunately, in the Information Age, knowledge is a mouse click away and part of being a good consultant has always been and always will be about knowing where to find information quickly, as opposed to just knowing everything.”

The basic client need, Ohl says, remains the same: “They want someone to come in and solve their problem.” What is always changing, however, are the business environment and the technology and its application, and here the future is uncharted territory.

Where the business of show business is concerned, “The typical consultant bid process and contractor relationship is kind of old school,” says Mike Cusick, president of Clifton Park, NY-based Specialized Audio-Visual Inc. (SAVI). “It's still done a lot on very large jobs. I'm seeing more design-build as the systems get more intricate and more complicated. The technology drives a lot of this: We're seeing more sophisticated intercom systems, the introduction of digital video, and so much that can be done over fiber. Owners and venue operators aren't afraid anymore to embrace design/build situations, and there's a need for a more seamless solution from sophisticated customers with high expectations.”

Finding that clientele will be part of the future. “Small construction companies are finding it tougher to stay in business. The large construction companies have made it their business, and I guess you can't blame them for it, to create contracts and insurance situations that push all liability and responsibility downhill, closer and closer to the people who are implementing the work, like ourselves. So you can't keep doing things the way you've always done them and expect to follow the market. What's key for us, and for everyone else, is spotting specialized niche opportunities that are coming up,” says Ohl, citing as one example multiple-use function rooms within large church projects. “Technology is changing substantially in the lighting and audio area, and some in our major area, rigging — but people aren't really interested in spending $100,000 on a hoist that talks to you. We have to be very quick on our feet and flexible to spot where there are needs for new products and applications.”

McAvoy says caution should be exercised in the faster-paced design-build arena. “While these methods may result in tighter cost controls and bring in valuable contractor input into decisions about construction methods and materials early in the project, they can also result in a loss of design control by the architect-theatre consultant team and the owner of the building,” she says. “Preserving the role of the theatre consultant as the guardian of theatrical function is critical to quality design of performance venues, so [design-build] is not necessarily a good thing for the performers, designers, technicians, and audience members who will ultimately use the building.”

However they come about, the “primary building block” of new and future venues is the digital network, “which was certainly not the case ten years ago,” says Cusick. “Networking is the big non-architectural development,” echoes Jim Tetlow, owner and principal consultant of La Jolla, CA-based lighting and audio design specialist Nautilus Entertainment Design. “Not just for lighting data, but also for audio and video over IP. Also, integrated control systems such as AMX and others are becoming more typical and practical as the control systems mature, competition drives prices down, and systems that they control become more complex. The technical challenge will be easier to meet than the long-term operational challenge. As more systems are networked, somebody needs to monitor and maintain them. Converging different systems over the same network is frequently technically feasible, but creates greater operational challenges.”

Tetlow illuminates, as best he can, future trends in energy efficiency. “Metal halide lamps don't have the required color consistency and they are on all the time, which negates their efficiency. LEDs are rapidly improving and are viable for some cyc or scenic lighting, but far from replacing a Fresnel or an ellipsoidal. Fluorescents are fine for small studio applications, but I don't see them being used in any larger applications. The economics and environmental concerns are going to drive this and I'm not sure where we will ultimately go with it.”

Rose Steele, Landry & Bogan's theatre design specialist, picks up on this theme. “As in so many industries, energy efficiency and sustainability will have a huge impact on theatre systems. The use of incandescent lighting will be increasingly limited, so fluorescent and LED technology will have to fill the gap. That has started already, but it has a ways to go. Better, smaller, cheaper, quieter motors will allow for even more automated rigging and moving scenery, and of course, new and sustainable construction methods will be incorporated building-wide.” Tetlow is also sold on automated rigging — “with the cost of it declining and the operational and safety benefits improving, I think there will be a trend toward more automated rigging systems.”

Staying current with the technology is of course important in venue design. Says Jim Hultquist, Landry & Bogan's leading lighting systems designer, “It is our hope that when we visit a theatre ten years after it's built that we don't see big holes in the wall with cable bundles passing through, or pipes scabbed onto walls to form a lighting position. We try to foresee the technological requirements of the next generation of gear and then integrate these requirements into our design.”

There is, however, concern that something critical might be lost as technology enables venues to move beyond the usual mode of interaction. Steele says, “I think the continuing integration of multimedia into all aspects of life will affect our relationship with live performances — the use of all types of media in design is well underway, but what about remote audiences for live performances, or remote performances for live audiences? I don't think it can ever replace the immediacy of performer and audience in the same living, breathing space; at least, I hope not.”

This much is clear: Whatever ups and downs the future brings, these veterans are determined to remain a part of it. Steele says she will leave “in a pine box. I went to college thinking I was going to be an actress. I was a terrible actress, but I've been on some of the best stages in the US!” Ohl adds that industry development rests as much on the next generation of talent, and urges that more consideration be paid to up-and-comers starting where they did, in theatre. The future is theirs.

“For every job there is working in the theatre, there are a bunch of jobs working in support industries. We are really looking for young people who not only have technical training, but can step into a commercial business setting,” Ohl says. “The whole construction industry is suffering from a lack of skilled managers. There are a lot of technical directors and designers being churned out by technical theatre training programs, but not too many who can lay out a lighting system. I teach a class at Yale once a year, and my message is to say, ‘Open your eyes to the opportunities.’ With a technical theatre background, you can do anything.”

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux contributed to this story.

The writer blogs about entertainment at Between Productions: www.robertcashill.blogspot.com