FURNISHING AN AUDITORIUM

Was your school’s auditorium furnished so long ago that the last time your senior class put on MacBeth, Shakespeare himself was directing? The sight is common enough — torn, threadbare velvet stage draperies and scarred seats that do little to present a positive appearance in what may be the most publicly viewed area in your school.

Now, new schools being built nationwide are replacing aging buildings, with many also being designed to serve as community centers. As such, school auditoriums are expected to accommodate everything from spelling bees and band concerts to community theater.

Whether it’s new construction or major renovation,“everything in the (auditorium’s) environment has to enhance its purpose,” says Gregg Nelson, group product manager for Minnesota-based Wenger Corp.“The auditorium often is the centerpiece of a school.” On the whole, “it’s very expensive construction.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be confronted with sticker shock when you see the price tags, but furnishing an auditorium will require a major monetary investment if you intend to do it properly.

WORKING SPACE

Strictly speaking, almost any school auditorium can be classified as multipurpose. Professional performance areas used for dramatic productions have different design requirements than those designated for musical performance.

That said, K-12 schools generally don’t have the luxury of or the budget for custom tailoring space for each specific use. School auditoriums must serve a multitude of uses, including assemblies, band concerts, choral performances and school plays.

According to Nelson, you’ll usually find the truly multipurpose auditorium on the elementary school level, either as a “cafetorium” or large commons area. Though considered the least desirable scenario, occasionally, that auditorium space also may share accommodations with the school’s gymnasium, as well. “It’s (functions as) just about anything,” he says, and for those areas, flexible furnishings are the key.

Middle and high schools tend to move toward a traditional auditorium using proscenium theater design, Nelson explains. This type of auditorium requires the furnishing of two distinct areas, the stage house and the audience house. When you think of furnishing an auditorium, you have to consider everything, not just those seats and drapes. Include in that list your lighting and the riggings to hold those, as well as any scenery for school plays; in addition, there’s carpeting and other types of surface coverings. All of these are needed to “furnish” your auditorium.

You have to address the question, “How do you make a space functional?” Nelson says. Then, of course, you have to determine what will fit into your school’s budget. The most flexible element in any auditorium design, be it proscenium or multipurpose, is the acoustics, he adds.

Some furnishing choices are determined by the auditorium’s structural design, says Kurt Schindler, a principal of ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkley, Calif. The structural soundness of the roof over the auditorium’s stage, for instance, can dictate the type of rigging system it can support.

Also to consider, according to Nelson, is that in about 80 percent or more cases, “Most of what is needed in the audience house is under contract,” often being specified down to the brand as part of the room’s design. “Just because it’s a chair doesn’t mean it’s sold as furniture,” he explains.

ON STAGE AND OFF SIDES

Draperies are probably one of the first auditorium furnishings you think about — the elegant and dramatic sweep of fabric across a stage. The most common main drape is made of cotton velour, says Schindler. Other stage drapes made of cotton, however, not only serve to hide props, equipment and the multitude of activities going on in the wings, but also absorb sound.

Schindler says draperies are best purchased from a theater supply company and can cost approximately $30,000 to $50,000.

If your auditorium project comes with a big budget, you might want to equip the “fly loft” with flown acoustical towers, a rather pricey luxury item, Nelson says. You also may want to invest in customized stage extensions and orchestra pit covers.

No deep pockets? You still need a rigging system over the stage to suspend lights, draperies and scenery. Riggings are a series of pipes that may be hung linearly or in a grid. Schindler says those can run about $10,000.

Stage lighting can be either fixed or retractable and is connected to a dimming system that can cost anywhere from about $2,000 to the $40,000 range, depending on the number of dimmers in the system, he adds.

Most school auditoriums are designed for the spoken word, so stages are fitted with sound-absorbing materials to eliminate echoes. While this works well for awards assemblies or speakers, it’s not optimal for a choral program or music recital.

To achieve the proper sound reflection properties for musical performances, you can purchase an acoustical shell. A standard shell ranges in price from $5,000 to $6,000, while a full-stage fixed shell can cost as much as $80,000, Nelson says.

Then there are the dance productions. An auditorium stage can be damaged by dancing feet, not to mention the toll on the dancers from its unforgiving surface. A Marley floor — a heavy, impact-absorbing mat that goes across the stage — is the recommended remedy.

Another stage essential is risers, which can be either choral or seated performance risers for instrumental use. Both types generally are purchased in sections, based on the number of persons to be accommodated, and are completely portable. Nelson says these can cost anywhere from $800 to $7,500, based on their configuration and durability.

MOVING UP THE AISLES

Making sure the audience house is conducive to creature comfort is no small matter. Your auditorium should have comfortable seats, good acoustics and line of sight, as well as flexible seating to meet any special needs.

Achieving acoustical balance can be done with a variety of materials, including carpeting aisles and using sound absorbing and reflecting materials on the walls. Schindler says this

can be accomplished for as little as $10 per sq. ft.

In the classic auditorium, the most common seating is fixed, usually bolted to an inclined, or “raked” floor and can cost between $150 to $200 per seat, says Schindler. But, he adds, you sometimes can get theater seating for free or at a nominal cost when theaters renovate.

These opportunities, however, are scarce, though there is a huge market in refurbished theater seating. Schindler says schools often can get better quality seats for the same price as newer ones of lesser quality.

When dealing with a multipurpose space or commons area, as well as transitional seating areas in an auditorium, it’s all flexible seating. Schindler recommends easily storable stacking chairs that can be interlocked to prevent them from being moved around while in use. He says they are more comfortable than folding chairs costing $10 and up, and reasonable quality chairs can be purchased for $60 to $70.

The audience in multipurpose performance spaces also may need a boost with risers to create the appropriate line of sight. In those instances, portability is the key. After all, tonight may be a patriotic play… and tomorrow, lunch.

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