Lighting: Sustaining Venues


I am often asked my view of what the theatre of the future will be. The buildings we design at Arup will last hundreds of years into the future, assuming we haven't burnt out the planet before the next generation enjoys them, so we always attempt in programming, designing, engineering, and building to make them operationally sustainable. Sustainability is the new watchword of the design and construction industries, but the buildings we are conceiving now for theatre, opera, music, and ballet must be sustainable programmatically.

When theatre architects Henry Herts and Hugh Tallant in the USA and Frank Matcham in the UK built the incredible palaces at the turn of the last century, they imagined only that the theatre of the future would be more elaborate versions of the same things that motivated the current busy buildings around them. Going to the theatre for a show was an integral part of cultural life. Until the Talkies in the early 1920s, there was little to compare with a Ziegfeld show, so intensely stimulating were the productions.

Just as Al Gore rues the day television overtook the more accessible printed word and removed rational thought from political debate (The Assault on Reason, The Penguin Press, 2007), spectacular movies and, to a greater degree, the sedative, slob-on-your-couch-in-your-underwear television tube, have sucked the magic from theatre and made a visit to a concert, play, opera, or ballet a rare form of family entertainment. It's not just that television offers effortless drivel ingestion, but it is entirely a passive experience. As there is almost zero opportunity for the audience to affect film and television “performances,” like political “debate,” we only receive what an increasingly small number of media moguls show us.

This terrible, depressing slide down into mediocrity will, I believe, be the savior of future theatre. Just as Hollywood movies have become almost too expensive to make a profit without ubiquitous special effects and ludicrous marketing budgets, the producers' and investors' beliefs that mega-shows are the way of the future, and the building of shows that require huge seat counts and unachievable power requirements to illuminate the Hobbits, miss the point of what the “future” of theatre experiences is likely to be.

Any arts building for a cultural world of, say, 35 years from now needs to address the generation that will be buying tickets in 10 years' time, committed subscribers in 20 years, and converting to patrons and donors in their prime pre-retirement years. For this timeline, those donors are just giving up their Nintendo DSs and investing in Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, The Lord of the Rings Online, or, more pertinently and engagingly, Second Life or emergent games such as BioShock or Spore, which offer greater amounts of free-play. The Lord of the Rings Online offers a month of interactive, unfeasibly richly graphic and sonically exquisite play for the price of a family circle ticket to a main repertoire opera at the Met.

At the ISPA conference in New York in January this year, the dean of the Juilliard School stated, in a naïvely uninformed response to a question, that “kids today have a shorter attention span.” This is not true. Kids today have a crisper sense of what is boring, as our media and performance techniques have honed in on what makes a 14-year-old tick. They are not watching TV. They are connected for more hours a day than they sleep to the Internet, living in social networks, uploading their GPS cycle-ride routes to Google Earth, keying in Flickr images, and playing in MMORPGs where they affect the experience they have and, more critically, the experience of others.

So how does this affect the design of buildings for the arts? For a start, our designs should more clearly embrace that the audience experience begins before, and continues after, the actual act of entering the auditorium. MySpace and Facebook are a major source of future audience's understanding of what it will experience and extends the “word of mouth” about one great performance to other potential attendees.

Producers and performance companies will need active and intelligent IT pros to nurture and support the online presence of performances with quality multimedia components that don't patronize their new audiences. Means of achieving this online presence, and the agreements with unions to allow production and dissemination, must be integrated into the performance venues (understood to some degree by AEG and Live Nation with their media control suites) and staffed intelligently.

Venues need to substantially upgrade their approach to integrated digital media: sound, video, and digital lighting. It seems incredible to most Europeans that one of the next great opera houses to open in North America will have barely made a nod to high-definition audio and video broadcast and delivery, and have no installed media server. Often, video delivery in theatres and concert halls is considered to be all about huge image magnification or data playback. I have seen how immersed my sons can be with a multiplayer game on a 2"-wide screen and stereo playback. It's not the size; it's the way you use it.

The quality of audio support in venues for the future will also need to take leaps and bounds to be in step with the expectations of tomorrow's donors. Most young Mac owners are used to melding high-quality images and multitrack sound. Sound design in North America seldom embraces the immersive, responsive nature of soundtracks in games, even that in small handhelds. Cirque du Soleil, with breathtaking work by Jonathan Deans and François Bergeron, raised the bar, but few have managed to vault it since. Most regional theatres have sound systems that are ill-matched to their auditoria (or their shows), and few have really good sound studio facilities. Media creation studios will be a staple of the new spaces we design, where video and audio, and visualization and auralization, can become an integral creative experience for all members of the design and production team. Because the delivery of most media in the future will be on a standardized network using cross-disciplinary protocols, the digital backbone of our current theatres should be a strong focus of the design, with hubs and nodes clearly integrated into the base building design. In addition to dimmer and audio rack rooms, the theatre systems' server rooms should be programmed and logically located.

Lighting consoles will inevitably become more powerful and their user interfaces more intuitive. I watched a 17-year-old master a Wholehog 2 in less than five hours of setup and create and respond to an interactive show in a way I would have no hope of achieving with my command-line mentality. Our future donors have a visual and aural vocabulary that is different from ours — not evolved, but based on a new paradigm of unlimited possibilities through the exponentially higher resolution of data, storage capacities, and visual interface speed.

Perhaps most importantly, future venues will ultimately become smaller. Our future donors and patrons are used to massive online group experiences and being in large group experiences, but the interface is normally a small one: a Wii controller, a DS, an iPod, or a MacBook.

If we wish to engage these sensitive, bright, and technological patrons in a live experience, it will be through a special and respectful interaction, a theatre or concert hall where they feel they are affecting the performance, contributing to the experience of the performers and the audience around them, and the wider audience through streaming and distance broadcast. Michael Tilson Thomas imagines his symphonic new venue in Miami Beach to have performances that can be as small as one-to-one with live people, yet with contributions from other musicians or even the orchestra in this “Music Ride.” Venues that bring a reasonable, but engaged, audience into direct interaction with the artists, supported by the creative media our kids have at their fingertips today and tomorrow, will thrive and nurture the new forms of live entertainment that will draw those underwhelmed by IPTV into the future, not 5,000-seat barns with closed, non-integrated performance support systems.

David I. Taylor is a theatre designer and consultant for music, opera, and theatre venues around the world. He is the sector leader for Performing Arts in the New York office of the international design firm Arup, which is committed to building a better future.

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