Theatre Design: A Guide for the Perplexed

By:  Keith Gerchak, for Lighting and Sound America


Building Better Theaters by Michael Mell

Cambridge: Entertainment Technology Press.

May, 2006  162 pages. ISBN # 1904031404


Targeting an audience of theater owners in the early stages of a building project, Michael Mell's Building Better Theaters is a concise "how to" book for the uninitiated. Both in content and style, this book caters to those unfamiliar with the building process and the performing arts facility as a building type. In clear, accessible language, Mell writes a practical guide, espousing the philosophy that alignment of Owner and Design Team expectations will lead to better theaters, and this can only occur when both sides are educated in the processes of the other.


The first half of the book gives an overview of the design and construction process. Step by step, Mell's disarmingly anecdotal style makes the complex undertaking of building a new facility less intimidating. The cast of characters on the Design Team are introduced and their roles explained, with advice offered on how to invite, interview and ultimately select candidates. The phases of the design process are described, the differences between construction delivery methods and the subjectivity of building codes explained. Construction is described from an administrative viewpoint, introducing the various methods by which the building process is monitored: RFI's, change orders, shop drawings, site visits, equipment commissioning and punch lists.


Along the way, the book provides interesting side notes on the history of theater design and the design process in other countries, as well as visual examples of the documents used in the United States. A particularly helpful chart is the comprehensive list of soft costs, often representing one-third of the project cost but falling outside the purview of the contractor, design team and cost consultant - leaving its determination to the owner. Mell also makes an important argument for maintaining contingency funds for both construction and soft costs in the throes of what is ironically called "value engineering."


The last half of the book defines the fundamental aspects of theater design, from the proper planning of backstage and front-of-house circulation and program spaces to theatrical equipment components and operation. These are described in basic, easy-to-understand language that may be obvious to theater owners but could prove helpful in educating their architects about this building type. Hiring a design firm with a portfolio of performing arts center work does not mean that the staff assigned to the project with have prior experience; nor does it mean that those with related experience have as intimate an knowledge of theater operations as one would expect.


Mr. Mell is an established and knowledgeable theater design consultant and lighting designer and his publisher, Entertainment Technology Press, produces books of real, practical use rather than glossy coffee table picture books. The strength of Building Better Theaters remains as a primer for theater folks who are not in the day-to-day business of building buildings and for the architects they hire who do not put on shows. A such, it is an educational tool that introduces the basic structure of the design and construction process, explaining its complexities so that an owner may establish realistic expectations and be prepared against ill-advised compromises of theater function. An informed client benefits all parties involved and we can applaud Michael Mell for his contribution towards this common objective. 

Book Reviews

By:  Stephen Peithman for Stage Directions Magazine


Experience comes in all forms, and when it comes to planning a new theater, it's not unusual to hear someone say, "We work in the theater every day. We know what we want. Why hire a consultant?" However, as Michael Mell points out in Building Better Theaters, while theater people know how to put on a show, they may not know how to "put on a building." He helps jump-start the process by explaining essential planning components, so that a company can do its homework and provide the consultant, architect, builder or equipment vendor with the information needed. Topics include assembling your planning team, selecting an architect, different construction methods, the architectural design process, construction of the theater, theatrically systems and equipment, the stage, the backstage, the auditorium, ADA requirements and the lobby. [ISBN 1-90403-140-4. Entertainment Technology Press]

Book Reviews

By: Miles Griffies and Julian Middleton of architectural practice Arts Team for THEATRE MAGAZINE


This light-hearted read provides a good point of reference for the first-time client who is considering building a theatre. The author's history, from theatre per­former to stage hand, lighting designer through to theatre consultant provides an interesting perspective, on theatre as a whole. 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'.


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', 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 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. 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.