Kevin Willmorth has a long and interesting article on his blog in which he argues for the recognition of professional lighting designers, and what a professional lighting designer is and is not. The post echoes Chapter 1 of Designing With Light, and many of the things I’ve written in the book’s blog, including promoting the lighting design profession, the value of professional lighting design, the need for projects to use a professional lighting designer (here, here and here), and those other than professional lighting designers making design decisions, among other topics. I don’t have much to add to Kevin’s post, except to say that it’s well worth reading.
Most of the arguments I’ve made about architectural lighting design apply equally to professional theatre consultants at all levels. At the professional theatre level (commercial theatre, regional theatre, or opera house, for example) no client or architect would begin a project without a professional theatre consultant on the team. However, the farther one gets from these projects, such as community or school theatres, the more likely we are to find owners and/or architects who think they an save money by not engaging a theatre consultant, or an architect who uses sales reps and manufacturers in lieu of a professional theatre consultant. We’ve seen this manifest itself in several ways, all of which are short sighted for a number of reasons, as we’ve outlined here. The most common arguments are below.
The TD, production designer, or other in-house person can do it
“Theatre consultants won’t listen to us, so we’ll do it ourselves.” I’ve heard this argument many times, and some theatre consultants may have a tendency to think that they know best. There is also a very strong ethic of self-reliance in the theatre. In many, many cases what the design and production team dream up has to be built from scratch, so there’s a great deal of knowledge and a can-do attitude in most theatre organizations. It’s easy to see how that self-reliance would be applied to a theatre construction or renovation project. However, there are two reasons to avoid that path.
The first reason is simple scheduling. A theatre’s staff already has a job designing and producing the season, and designing or renovating a theatre is a full time job. Studio T+L values the input and collaboration of a theatre’s staff, in fact they are essential to a successful project, but the staff needs to focus on productions while we focus on the theatre building.
The second reason is that most people in the theatre don’t have a thorough understanding of architecture, mechanical systems, construction techniques, etc., any more than architects and engineers have a clear understanding of theatre production and operations. Theatre systems must be integrated into the larger building, which requires detailed knowledge in order to effectively communicate and collaborate with the building design team. The alternative is likely to be miscommunication, lost time, and wasted money.
The architect can do it
“The architect has photos of theatres they’ve designed in their portfolio, and they say they can do it.” Theatres are highly specialized buildings, second only to hospitals and laboratories in their complexity, and must meet the unique requirements of the theatre companies or artists that use them. Architects are experts in overall building design and the key contact between owner and design team. However, architects don’t design every building element themselves. They hire a team of specialists that includes engineers, interior designers, landscape designers, and others. The space planning and production systems design of a performing arts venue are best met by knowledgable specialists such as theatre consultants.
This hold true even for smaller projects. In our opinion, there’s no such thing as “just” a community, school, or black box theatre. Theatre as a process, “making theatre”, happens within an understood framework, but the specifics vary widely. A theatre building that is organized along generic or outdated principles will work against the production and the production process. People who have no experience making theatre don’t understand the difference.
My local vendor can do it
As with a technical director, a local equipment supplier has another job. He or she also has other priorities. An equipment supplier has a financial interest in selling certain manufacturers or products. A professional theatre consultant has no such conflicts of interest, and focuses on selecting the right system for each project. In addition, a supplier may be able to assist with a one-for-one exchange of old equipment for new, but is certainly not able to invest the time and effort needed throughout the design and construction process.
But the fees
Yes, theatre consultants insist on being paid for their work. However, consider the cost of not having a professional theatre consultant. The theatre will be in use, as designed, for decades. How much is lost if the space planning interferes with backstage operations or the production process instead of supporting them? What is the cost of production systems that are too complicated, or insufficient for the production’s complexities? Whose audience will return again and again if there are poor sightlines or badly arranged audience amenities?
So, call us. If you don’t call us, call someone. But don’t embark on a theatre design or renovation without the expertise needed to do it properly and see it through to completion.