We are pleased to announce the publication of Building Better Theaters, by Michael Mell. A title within the Consultancy Series, Building Better Theaters describes the process of designing a theater. From the initial decision to build through opening night, Mr. Mell’s book provides a step-by-step guide to the design and construction of performing arts facilities.
Building Better Theaters includes chapters discussing: assembling your team, selecting an architect, different construction methods, the architectural design process, construction of the theater, theatrical systems and equipment, the stage, backstage, the auditorium, ADA requirements and the lobby. Each chapter clearly describes what to expect and how to avoid surprises.
Building Better Theaters is a must-read for architects, planners, performing arts groups, educators and anyone who may be considering building or renovating a theater
We would like to thank 'Theatres' Editor Paul Connolly for inviting us to review this book by Michael Mell. Arts Team has more than 35 years experience as theatre architects and have been involved with the design and construction of many successful performing arts venues around the world.
This light-hearted read provides a good point of reference for the first-time client who is considering building a theatre. Initially, however, it is uncertain to the reader who this book is aimed at. This could be more clearly stated in the introduction or in the book title itself.
The author's history, from theatre performer to stage hand, lighting designer through to theatre consultant provides an interesting, although at times slightly technically biased perspective, on theatre as a whole. This becomes increasingly evident as the book progresses.
The first chapter of the book offers some useful advice to the reader (anticipated as being the theatre owner) on the key members of the design team. The author places emphasis on good working relationships between the team and the importance of feeling comfortable with the various 'players'.
In this chapter the author notes, concerning the theatre consultant and the acoustician, - 'they are your friends!'. One wonders why only these consultants are identified as the client's friends. Perhaps the author has bad previous experience working with other 'players' within the team or is it that the author considers the reminder of the design team less significant. The author makes the assumption that the client would be appointing a consultant team with no theatre experience which would provide a 'pivotal' role for the theatre consultant. This is not always the Case.
Chapter two provides good advice to the client at the early stages of a Job - research, vision, budget, and most importantly the author places emphasis on the client remaining involved in the whole process of design and construction of the theatre.
Chapter three, 'Assembling the team', again illustrates the author's bias as a theatre consultant, but provides good advice on interviewing and requesting qualifications from the team members.
Different types of construction procurement are discussed in chapter four. This information, in addition to a longer-than necessary technical section on 'codes', is not entirely specific to UK practice. The author seems to advocate design/build procurement but does not discuss the architectural implications of such a procurement selection.
The guide to the different work stages included in chapter five, although again not specifically relevant to practice within the UK, provides the less knowledgeable client with a good insight into the design process.
Earlier in this chapter the author includes 'A Quick History of Theater Design'. Rather disappointingly, this is conveyed using 11 separate images of different theatres from different periods and locations with little supporting text. One feels that this is a missed opportunity to discuss important issues of how theatre design has evolved over the ages - what makes these theatres unique' This 'missing' information would have been a valuable asset to a book with this title.
A rather brief chapter entitled 'Building the Theatre' provides some good advice to the client on allowing float time in the programme for commissioning and to allow the owner sufficient time to get to know their new building. (Personal experience with theatre projects has shown us at Arts Team that this is invaluable.) The author also recommends 'wiggle room' in the project budget and discusses the importance of budget contingencies.
The chronology of the seven chapters that follow (Theatrical Systems and Equipment; The Stage; Backstage; Auditorium; Lobby; Administration; and Outside the Building) further emphasise the author's background and preoccupation with the technical aspects of theatre. Perhaps if this book had been written by an architect these chapters would have been arranged differently.
In summary, this book provides good background advice to the first-time client giving a good description of the process from selecting the team to the opening of the theatre. The book addresses the technical issues associated with building a theatre very well. However, the author misses the point that creating successful performance spaces requires the vital input of architectural sensibility. Good performance spaces consider ambience, spirit and materiality which combine to create a sense of occasion and event. This extends beyond the technical aspects of the theatre rigging, the stage, and even beyond the auditorium - the theatre building in its entirety should evoke this sense of spirit and occasion.
Often client bodies consist of different members with distinct roles. Two examples are: Director of Operations, with a clearly defined technical agenda; and Artistic Director, who may have more aesthetic concerns. This book is probably more suited to the former of these two who should definitely have a copy of this book in their back pocket.
Miles Griffies and Julian Middleton of architectural practice Arts Team