First Step in Building a Theatre: Know Thyself


We’re still under the food coma from our lunch at Guisado’s. It is midafternoon, and the California sun is already hanging it up for the day, which is crazy to see during the winter months. The marketing and leadership teams log on for the most important meeting of the week. The stakes are high because our founding principals are delivering the closing session for a conference in 72 hours and we haven’t finished their speaking outline yet.


Yikes.


Conference programming segments got shuffled around last minute and we were asked to fill in. We were slotted to speak about the thought process for creating spaces that can host a new age of artists and experiences. It’s a great topic with a lot of fodder for discussion, but it’s easy to fall into the shiny object syndrome. Building for the future isn’t about metaverse streaming capabilities or fiber-networked audio systems. Don’t get us wrong; we’re as tech-obsessed as the next consultant. We’re always looking into our crystal ball for the future tools that will benefit venue operators and artists, but there really is no replacement for knowing who you are and what your art is. Developing the performance spaces of the future begins with the deep internal work, being truly honest with yourself as an organization and asking the right questions facilitated by the right people.


We Build Homes for Artists

We find that what we do is a response to artists and creatives as opposed to dictating what the building should be. We’re not necessarily thinking about a physical structure in the beginning. We’re asking questions about the client’s performance DNA. Do they create a circus in a park or Shakespeare in a thrust theatre? Are they an opera company that must do multiple productions in repertory or do they present children’s marionette puppetry in a renovated strip mall? Those things tell us what we need to drive the project towards. Ultimately, what we do is build homes for artists. It’s not our home. We’re building their home—an artist‘s home.




Building the Church for Easter Sunday

Whether we need to design the most high-tech whiz-bang streaming event space, or simply be conscious of where the building’s front entrance goes so it can serve a dual purpose as a performance space, it’s all dictated by what we find in our getting-to-know-you meetings. It’s very important that we understand everything about the client so we can create a facility that responds to that. It always comes down to the space planning. Unfortunately, it’s none of the sexy stuff, like the remote-controlled PTZ came ras the marketing team is going to use for streaming or the tour-grade Vari-Lite spots that the LD is going to individually name like their own children.


No. It’s all about the infrastructure. We repeat: THE INFRASTRUCTURE.


It’s making sure the right type of spaces they need are there. It could be making sure their dressing room count is right. We can’t tell you how many times we hear clients ask for enough dressing rooms to accommodate 100 people. When we dig deeper on that capacity number, we find the client says that because they have an event one or two times a year that has that many backstage performers. Great venue planning is not building the church for Easter Sunday, but building one that will work for most days.


As you can imagine, no one has too much money and no projects are over funded, so it’s critical to get the balance right. Whether it’s an indoor performance or one staged in a field, the same fundamental planning questions and knowledge of what you really need remains paramount. We’ve all seen the results when these questions are not asked. We’ve walked into theatres and said…

“Why is there no wing space?”

“Why aren’t there choral dressing rooms?”

“Why are there so many choral dressing rooms but no storage?”

“Wait. That’s your loading dock? Come on, man!”


The Story of the Cherry Picker

We had a wonderful client looking to build a new facility, upgraded from their current one which was old and too small to support their growth. When we did the preliminary questionnaire with their production manager, we asked about their needs for scenery builds. The PM gave us a few parameters but stressed that they needed doors and a pathway going from the scene shop to the stage that was twenty-six feet tall. We thought, “Great! We can work with that.” We appreciated that they already had this information available and knew specifically what they needed. You don’t often get that with clients.


Well, fast-forward six months and we see that the costs are spiking. We investigate value engineering opportunities, and the architect identifies that thirty-foot-tall hallway between the scene shop and the stage. In an attempt to shave dollars, they ask if the structure can be shortened. We say, “Maybe? Let us circle back with the client and ask.”


So, we do more investigating into the actual scenery dimensions the client produces and find they aren’t making anything over eighteen feet. We go back to the client with our findings and say, “We can’t see the apparent need for an area that high. Why does the door need to be twenty-six feet tall?”


The client replies, “Well, we have a cherry picker that is stuck in the upright position and that’s how we focus the lights, so we need to be able to move it from the scene shop onto the stage.”


To which we say, “Well, what if we just get you a brand-new Genie lift so you don’t need to use the broken cherry picker?”


The client says, “That’s great! So no, we don’t need the hallway to be twenty-six feet tall anymore. Nineteen feet is fine.”


Sometimes it’s about asking the right questions, pulling out the right information, drilling down. And that takes time. It’s the time required to get into your headspace as an operator or content producer and to truly understand your motivation for doing or wanting things a certain way.


If we had proceeded with the thirty-foot tall hall from the original note, it would have resulted in a custom-engineered solution and increased construction costs by ten percent. That means they would have gotten less building for their budget. We are trying to help you get the most for your money. We don’t want to design something that’s beautiful and somewhat functional but will cost you that extra rehearsal hall or make you cut the guacamologist from the opening night gala.



You’re Asking Me What I Want? Well...Okay!

We once asked a client that resided in a small tertiary market for their preferred stage size, and the dimensions they gave us were larger than that of Radio City Music Hall.


(Awkward silence.)


It was safe to say it was going to be more than they could afford and probably more than they would have ever needed. But as you know, when you ask any good stagehand or technical director what they need, they’re not going to give you a small answer. They will give you a checklist from their life of everything they would fix if they ever got a chance to build a building.


That’s the benefit that we bring to the table. We are those guys. We worked full-time in venues for decades before going into consulting. Even now, we will do individual design projects occasionally, posting up at a lighting console for hours on end. Not only do we have the visceral memories of how painful it was not having enough wing space, but now we have done a few hundred venues and added to our knowledge with each one. The design specifics for each building may be different, but the goal of creating a proper home for whatever artist inhabits that space remains the same for all.



When Do You Know Enough?

How long it takes to get to know the client’s true needs and desires depends on the type of project and its complexities. Smaller projects could take days and weeks. Other projects take weeks, months, or even a period of years. There are projects where we are asked to accommodate a community-style use of the building, where there are a few resident companies or numerous smaller art groups who all get blocks of dates. With these project types, we’ll interview thirty to forty groups to figure out how they intend to use the building to make sure it works in the community where they’re placed. Sometimes we have to revisit specific topics over and over again. In those moments, it’s kind of like theatrical therapy.



And the relationship development process doesn’t ever stop. It’s not like we do this research in the beginning and then never see the client again once the building opens. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and in some cases, it’s twenty-five years long. Leadership changes and so do the business goals, which affect operational use. What we thought worked well in 2016 is not necessarily going to work in 2026. A great consultant is always willing to be your sounding board and ally when you need it.


The Takeaway

Having a rock-solid sense of who you are and what’s needed to produce your kind of art is the very first step on a long journey to designing your creative temple. Aristotle put it another way: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” It is a timeless principle that is applicable to every industry.


We’ve been framing this discussion through the lens of the owner’s perspective, but it is easily transferable to our own shop. We’ve spent a significant amount of deep work on who we are, the work we want to provide, and to whom. It’s our intention to work with innovative architects, enterprising owners, and artists who are looking to build bespoke performance spaces. And do you know what the best part is? We get to do it the right way, working with a small, special selection of clients from our home in Los Angeles and taking a boutique approach to crafting the perfect design for their needs.


Now for those getting ready to build your next theatre, remember these other key points as you embark on your journey.

  1. It’s all about the infrastructure. THE INFRASTRUCTURE.

  2. Make design decisions based on 365 days of operation and not just special one-off events.

  3. No cherry picker moments! Drill down and keep asking questions until you find what's driving the request

  4. Get the most building for your budget. There must be a balance between functionality and design.

  5. Empathy makes the best partner. Work with vendors who have firsthand experience with your pain points.

  6. The dialog doesn’t stop after opening night. Don’t be afraid to call on your friends.