Venue Considerations for World-Class Performing Arts Centers
Enhancing the Patron and Performer Experience
University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium Interior

Read time: 6 minutes

The choreography of bringing a new performing arts venue to life requires immense orchestration. With a wide variety of programs hosted in a single venue, it can be easy to mis-prioritize scopes that have less impact on operational success. While concessions, merchandise, and space rentals contribute to your revenue, the most impactful investments in your venue will be directly linked to patron and performer experience where the quality, reputation, and sustainability of your organization are most at risk.

Two systems that have the greatest influence on user experience are acoustics and theatrics. These systems are the venue. To equip your facility with the right elements, you need to first understand the programmatic needs for opening day and the future. Missing the mark on these systems will fail the function and goal of the facility. The long-term vitality of your performing arts center hinges on the quality and adaptability of your acoustic and theatrical systems. To ensure success, there are critical nuances to consider when curating your performing arts center.

Harmonizing Acoustics with Architecture

Acoustic excellence for performing arts centers is non-negotiable. “When it comes to acoustics, architectural considerations should be made at the beginning stages of design,” explains Phil Cleaveland, design phase executive with Mortenson. “When programming for optimal acoustics, the shape, dimensions, and arrangement of your performance space will significantly impact sound diffusion and should drive key decisions early on.” Architectural features such as ceiling height, sidewall angles, and stage placement should be considered when identifying acoustic outcomes for respective spaces. Furthermore, the more architecturally complex a venue is, the more acoustic challenges it will face.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, located in downtown Los Angeles, is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Envisioned as “a living room for the city,” the design aimed to create an inviting atmosphere with awe-inspiring architecture. While this venue is visually stunning, it required meticulous planning to guarantee optimal sound quality. With countless irregular surfaces and audacious forms, the team partnered with acoustic consultants to strategically place reflective and diffusive elements in the main auditorium. This included selecting materials to improve sound resonance and absorption such as a custom millwork ceiling with wood acoustical clouds, wood paneling and plaster, and acoustical wall and ceiling panels. Ensuring each element of the hall’s interior was acoustically engineered and built to complement the peculiar shapes, finishes, and arrangement of the space led the Walt Disney Concert Hall to be internationally recognized as one of the most acoustically sophisticated performance centers in the world.

Identifying Key Theatrical Infrastructure

While pitch perfect acoustics are essential, they are one of the many components dependent on a versatile theatrical infrastructure. Developing your program with a focus on how performers will utilize the space will allow your venue to host a wide range of events and meet each show’s diverse needs. “One day your facility may utilize 80 rigging sets to accommodate a Broadway show with countless set changes and flying scenery. The next day, your facility may need specialized spotlights to create silhouettes for dancers pirouetting across the stage. While your budget may not be able to procure all theatrical equipment on day one, its infrastructure should support shows of varying sizes,” says Dan Mehls, vice president and general manager with Mortenson. This could include maximizing circuitry for various lighting capacities, installing flexible stage logistics, or integrating audio/visual flexibility for future sound reinforcement.

In addition, including marketable back-of-house spaces is essential for attracting traveling artists and retaining resident groups. “Performance venues are often located in an urban core and require careful attention to loading strategy,” explains Carolyn Sizemore, market director with Mortenson. “Traveling ensembles prefer easily accessible loading docks with direct, same-level access to the main stage, eliminating the need for dock levelers and freight elevators.” Behind the curtains, welcoming performer amenities such as green rooms and dressing rooms will keep desirable acts coming back.

Hancher Auditorium, located on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, has hosted premiere dance, music, and theater performances since 1972. When a flood severely damaged their campus in 2008, the University emphasized the need for a larger, multidisciplinary performance facility to complement their world-class School of Music which was concurrently being designed. Understanding the need for a multifaceted venue to accommodate university and professional events, the team pinpointed key equipment that required additional capacity and specifications. To host touring productions, the main auditorium required high-capacity fly systems, lighting grids, and catwalks. For ballet companies, our team gave extra attention to the selection of the floor and subfloor, even going as far as creating a floor mockup and inviting dancers to test the spring and traction. Due to the early identification of specialized equipment and infrastructure to meet their program’s needs, Hancher Auditorium attracts top tier artistic and professional talent, making them a leading university performing arts center with international acclaim.

There are a lot of important pieces to the puzzle when bringing a performing arts center to life. The secret sauce to facility success is bringing expertise in early to spur decisions with the most impact.

Creating a top tier performing arts facility is a significant undertaking. There are complexities and, often, competing interests from varying stakeholders. While a multidisciplinary performing arts venue has a plethora of revenue stream opportunities, it is important to remember the ultimate supporters and sustainers of your facility are your patrons and performers. Aligning their needs and expectations with your facility goals will guide pivotal decisions and provide a smooth transition from design to construction, and successful operations.