by Jez Bond

Today we were privileged to have undertaken a tour of yet another theatre – I will tot them all up in a future blog but with the Arcola and RSC coming up we must be approaching double figures.

I don’t wish to put down any theatre, not least one that has obviously struggled so long and hard to pull together the finances to equip itself and open its doors. But it has to be said that this was not the best designed by any means. I think, when one looks at these buildings, one must try to compare like for like. That is to say the facilities of a 300 seater are not expected to be as grand as the facilities for a 3,000 theatre (though of course I appreciate that there are some basic requirements and sensibilities). For a new theatre of this scale – and by scale I refer to both auditorium capacity and capital cost for the build – I was shocked, as I believe were all the people working in it, that there was no backstage crossover. That is to say that unless you build a crossover into your set, there is no way to exit the wing SR and enter SL without traversing the entire foyer (not a particularly quick affair).

I’m afraid it was a rather a useful exercise for us in how not to do things. As such there were some lessons learned:

Don’t go for cheap digital code locks for the doors – as this theatre so aptly demonstrated with its array of doors missing locks which had broken.

Don’t go for magnetic locks without a push release button –  the doors get forced open and the housing holding the mechanism breaks.

Don’t overcomplicate the rig – a tension wire grid or simple catwalk will be a cost effective solution and one that will require little or no training for working at height.

Don’t go for flip up bench seating in the stalls – many theatres do this at circle level, and indeed most likely we will. But here there are specific reasons to do with regulations of seat-ways versus sight-lines. At stalls level they look tacky and are without any benefit.

Have clear signage backstage and front of house – at circle level a series of four doors all next to each other, off the foyer, saying ‘Staff’ summed this up. Not the most user friendly! We were reminded of some other theatres with their clear colour coding and signage on all doors.

Perhaps the most striking image in my head will be the props room. If anyone has seen ‘Being John Malkovitch’ they will understand the reference to the seventh and a half floor. A full height set of double doors, complete with glass vision panels, proudly faced us. On it a sign displayed ‘Props’. Our host gave us a knowing look and opened the doors. We stood staring at a wall underneath which a person could bend down and walk, if not crawl, inside.

To end on a positive note there were some other things we learned that were done well. Most interestingly these included latching points precast in to the concrete on the back wall of the circle and upper circle on which harnesses can be attached. Latching on to these fixed points then enables safety and security when leaning over the front balustrades for rigging and focussing the lights.

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