Artful Theater Design

LPA designers are working with K-12 districts to find creative strategies for delivering state-of-the-art performing arts centers on public school budgets.

When Whittier Union High School District launched efforts to build a new central performing arts center for the district — providing a modern alternative to the existing 90-year-old theater — Director of Business Operations Steven Rodriguez knew his team was taking on a much different type of challenge.

“Our team has built stadiums. We’ve renovated classrooms. We’ve modernized classrooms,” he says. “But this was a little bit out of our wheelhouse.”

Often one of the most expensive buildings on campus, performing arts centers are complex, technology-intensive facilities, serving diverse groups and interests, from actors to xylophonists. Decisions made during the design process can create long-term value for budgets, programming and the overall usefulness of the facility.

On a series of recent projects, LPA designers worked with districts to design performing arts facilities that found different ways to meet their unique needs, looking for the delicate balance between goals and budgets.

“It’s about working with districts to dive deeper and better understand their priorities,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “This is a creative exercise focused on fitting all these different artistic elements within one venue.”

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Theater spaces can serve multiple roles on campus.

Each district is different. Each has its own challenges. But leaders are asking similar questions. What programs should we prioritize? How do we efficiently address community needs? How do we get the most value on our limited budgets?

Key themes typically emerge in the design process, designers say. Everyone must have a seat at the table, and the list goes beyond the traditional music, theater, dance and arts groups. Finding the right size for a facility that matches programming needs with a realistic budget is essential. “You can always add bells and whistles, but the bones have to be there,” says LPA Project Manager Maria Madrigal. “You can’t always build a bigger house or a higher stage later on.”

In many cases, what is left out is as important as what was included. Needs were addressed by multiple-use spaces or off-site solutions. In almost every theater, as priorities were established, making smart choices on elements such as acoustics and a right-sized fly loft dramatically impacted the budget and effectiveness of the center. For each project, acoustics, lighting and theater consultants were involved early in the process, when they could have the most effect.

“The key is giving districts early information so they can make informed decisions,” says LPA Managing Director Rick Musto. “There are no high school theaters that are the same.”

Ultimately, performing arts center design is a collaborative event, bringing together vastly different campus groups to tackle the issues. It’s a once-in-a-generation project with an opportunity to touch a broad spectrum of campus life.

For Rodriguez, the design process for WUSD’s district theater, which will serve five high schools, has brought together divergent groups on campus and strengthened relationships. The process has been an “exercise in perspectives” and ensuring everyone is heard, he says.

“I’m proud of the work we did,” Rodriguez says. “I feel like at the end of it we’ve become stronger, and I think that’s a tribute to our people and the systems that we’re implementing.”

One Theater to Serve Five Schools

Whittier Union High School District | Whittier, California

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Whittier Union High School District is developing a new facility to serve as the main performance center for the district’s five high schools. The design process brought together different groups from across all five campuses, including a committee representing the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA). “For this project it was really important to engage representatives from all the high schools,” says LPA Managing Director Rick Musto.

The 450-seat theater was conceived as a roadhouse, designed to make it easy to load and unload sets and equipment. The individual schools have their own teaching facilities and workshops, so there was no need for a black box space, band rooms, set construction or other back-of-the-house services.

Instead, the design focused on creating a vibrant performance space for the district’s choir, band and theater programs. The design includes a full fly loft and a convertible orchestra pit. Acoustics was identified as a top priority. “We wanted to have a freshman choir be able to perform in there without the requirement of being miked up,” says WUHSD Director of Business Operations Steven Rodriguez.

Outdoor and lobby spaces are designed to host functions and make it easy for students and parents to access the facility. Spaces are flexible and embedded with technology to make them useful for different functions. The design celebrates community and all students; it is a hub for the arts.

“The value in this building stems from the end users telling us exactly what spaces to prioritize,” Rodriguez says.

New Theater Serves the Community, Creates Outdoor Spaces

Blanco Independent School District | Blanco, Texas

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In rural Blanco, Texas, the district had never had a performing arts center. The new 700-seat theater on the high school campus was designed to serve as a district-wide performance space, as well as a badly needed auditorium for the surrounding community.

The district was focused on getting the most-possible seats into a facility they could afford to build — fulfilling the community’s need for a new auditorium was a top priority. “The approach was to master plan for all of their fine arts to be in this building in the future but build the largest theater we could with the most seats and only the necessary support spaces,” says LPA Project Architect Jim Oppelt. To maximize resources, the project was merged with plans to build a new gymnasium on campus — both are now combined in one large facility.

The new theater features a full fly loft, with acoustics tuned for a performance space. There is a shop, dressing rooms and a backstage area. There is no black box, but one could be added in the future, as well as band space and a theater classroom. “We designed the building so elements could easily be added,” Oppelt says. In place of a costly orchestra pit, the side stage is designed to accommodate additional seating or a band.

As an added benefit, the design for the new building creates usable outdoor common spaces on the high school campus. “They currently have zero space on their existing campus for students to be outside,” Oppelt says. “This will change that.”

Finding the Balance of Community and Performance

Somerset High School | Somerset, Texas

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Somerset ISD needed a districtwide community center that also supported the performing arts programs for the high school. Early discussions focused on the dual roles and finding the right mix of performance and acoustic levels.

“We were focused on providing the community with a large gathering space that really meets all of their needs, while not overdelivering something using community dollars,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw.

The new one-story center is positioned on the site to create separate entrances for the campus and the community. Existing music and band spaces adjacent to the site were renovated to complement the new facility. Responding to feedback, the lobby is designed to also serve as a professional development center for faculty and staff and can be reconfigured for catered events and presentations. An entry plaza is designed to host food trucks, art fairs, farmers’ markets and other community events.

The acoustics approach was integrated into the design, creating an economic approach to supporting concerts and theater productions. “Cost-effective acoustical strategies were built into the bones of the space, so there weren’t a lot of extra layers added,” Mraw says.

Flexibility is built into every aspect of the facility, with many spaces serving dual roles. It is also an efficient building. Daylight controls, shades, LED light fixtures and minimizing conditioned space with exterior circulation will help cut operation costs.

A Flexible Teaching Theater with Multi-use Spaces

Milpitas High School | Milpitas, California

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Milpitas Union School District identified a new performing arts center for the district’s lone comprehensive high school as a top priority. At a time of fast-escalating costs, the district was exploring cost-efficient strategies to serve community needs and develop a high-quality performance and training space to showcase a broad range of student talent.

“They wanted this performing arts center to serve all students, not just students that participate in the arts,” says LPA Project Manager Maria Madrigal.

A 40,000-square-foot facility with 550 seats was designed on an existing parking lot. The building is essentially split into two sections, in order to balance the community-facing elements with the focus on student spaces. The main theater and lobby are wrapped by an L-shaped series of classrooms for band, orchestra and choral programs. A glazed lobby, gallery and a courtyard connect the theater to the street. “We wanted to give the performing arts center a community front, but also tie it back into the fabric of the school,” Madrigal says.

The theater is designed as a combination performance space and a theater classroom, offering students hands-on technology and theater experience. While there is a focus on music and drama, the theater was designed around flexibility and an ability to easily host different-size performances. Every support space is a teaching space. The black box theater doubles as a drama classroom. The classrooms function as back-of-house spaces during events, with a direct passage to backstage.

The acoustic strategy, developed with an acoustician, emphasizes quality sound experiences for performance as well as rehearsal spaces. “It was important for students to have the spaces to rehearse and build their skills,” Madrigal says.

The ‘Sweet Spot’ for a Multi-use Theater

Santa Clara Unified School District | Santa Clara, California

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The performing arts center for Santa Clara Unified School District’s new K-12 combined campus serves the elementary and middle schools, as well as the 1,600-student Kathleen MacDonald High School. The 450-seat theater, which is part of the high school, sits on the edge of the campus and gives the school a public presence, with a large wood-and-glass lobby that lights up on performance nights.

The theater is designed as a flexible space to support school presentations and events, as well as theater, dance and music performances. “The big goal was to be smart about where we spent our money,” says LPA Design Director Helen Pierce.

A full-modified fly loft fits under the 50-foot-high standard, addressing the needs of the drama department while cutting the construction costs necessary to support a full fly loft. Perforated and angled veneer wood panels improve acoustic performance and efficiently create a warmer ambience in the theater. The design emphasizes flexibility and multi-use spaces. The black box space also serves as a drama classroom.

The orchestra pit is convertible. Backstage areas include dressing rooms, a scene shop and hands-on maker spaces for students. The key was creating the right-size theater for the programming and education goals, and then maximizing the value of the spaces.

“Too often bigger theaters lose their intimacy and are not pleasant spaces to see a performance of any kind,” Pierce says. “Theaters this size are the sweet spot where you can have all kinds of performances and everyone has a good seat, everyone has good acoustics.”