Members of the public generally think of theatres in terms of their own experiences. Public spaces – the lobby, audience chamber, restrooms, and refreshment areas – are typically the only familiar areas. When a performance ends, the audience immediately leaves the building.
In fact, audiences usually view good performances as completely effortless, fresh, and new. Theatrical illusions are carefully crafted and the methods used to produce them are artfully hidden from the audience. These “tricks” are the things that the audience does not see.
Often, when new theatres are being built or old ones updated, the people making decisions about these projects have only had the “audience experience.” They know very little about how the illusions of live performance are created. And yet, the success (or failure) of any new performance hall will depend largely on how well it supports the necessary theatrical operations. When a new theatre building is being planned, the factory component of the theatre (necessary design components) should not be overlooked or under-funded.
The first thing any good theatre building provides is isolation from outside influences. This allows the audience to concentrate on the play, suspend their disbelief, and enter the “never, never land” of theatrical illusion.
In the darkened auditorium, where no outside sound or light can penetrate, the audience waits. The lights come up on the stage and before a word is spoken, the “stage picture” tells us where we are and what the physical place is like.
Besides the actors and director, other theatre professionals are at work backstage, out-of-sight to the audience. Designers and stage technicians design and “manufacture” scenery, properties, lighting, costumes, and sound effects. If the theatre is a “residential” one – a regional theatre, community theatre, stock company, or educational operation – everything needed for a production will be manufactured in-house. The term “in-house production” leads to the concept of the “theatre as a factory.”
Scenery is designed, framed, covered, and painted within the theatre factory. The scene shop, or factory floor, must be large enough to accommodate these factory operations and simultaneously be efficient. Often, several tons of scenery must be moved through darkness in a matter of seconds. The theatre’s stage machinery – the rigging, special stage floors, lifts, and turntables – makes these scenery changes possible.
Costumes move from the costume shop to the dressing rooms, similar to products moving to the next station on an assembly line. Every night, costumes are retrieved, cleaned, laundered, and/or pressed for the next performance – all steps in the theatre’s production facility.
The lighting department creates or manufactures the “atmosphere” on the stage through the use of extensive wiring, portable stage lighting fixtures, and sophisticated computerized lighting controls.
The sound department is charged with producing “atmospherics” and “effects,” like explosions or thunder in the distance. This department is also responsible for reinforcing the performers’ voices and mixing orchestra sound. In a live performance, the sound department operates the communication system that links all the theatre’s technical departments.
This backstage “factory,” unseen by the audience, is a vital part of every theatre’s operation. With careful attention to detailed “factory planning,” this part of the theatre’s operation can turn what might be a mediocre theatre into a spectacularly successful one.
Lawrence L. Graham, A.S.T.C. is a senior consultant at CDAI Integrated Technical Solutions (www.cdai.com), an Atlanta-based specialty engineering firm that provides comprehensive consulting and design services in presentation and performing arts technologies.