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Building a Small School/Community Theatre


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Hello all http://www.blue-room.org.uk/public/style_emoticons/default/rolleyes.gif

First post, although I have been reading threads on here for a couple of years, since my interest in theatre became more of an obsession!

I am Head of the Arts at a school in Hertfordshire for pupils with Moderate Learning Difficulties and I have enjoyed putting Performing Arts at the heart of what we do over the last 4 years.

Now it is time to begin planning a project I have wanted to run since arriving at the school.

As with a lot of similar old school buildings, we have no real performance spaces. We have a crumbling school hall and a tiny make-shift drama studio I have created in an old classroom (black paint and a few lights, just big enough to work with a full class).

I am looking to begin sourcing funding for a small community theatre at the school, that can be used for our purposes and may be booked-out by local community arts groups. There is nothing similar in the immediate surrounding area, only a much larger town-centre theatre, out of the price range of most amateur organisations.

Looking to build a 150-200 seater black box theatre that could be completely flexible in use. Therefore, would foldaway seating be best?

I am really looking for some useful hints and tips on starting this process and perhaps some sort of idea of what sort of financial investment it would need?

We have a suitable spot of land next to our performing arts block and I am hoping that we can link the new building into the old, so that the classroom and rehearsal rooms could be used as dressing rooms. We have a small selection of stage lights, but would need to budget for a sound and lighting system. We have a selection of vocal and instrumental mics, alongside some wireless handhelds, but the rest of the equipment would need to be purchased, also.

Looking forward to hearing the thoughts of you experts!

Thanks very much for your help,


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I might as well be 'Mr Gloomy'...


...a small community theatre at the school, that can be used for our purposes and may be booked-out by local community arts groups....build a 150-200 seater black box theatre that could be completely flexible...what sort of financial investment it would need...have a suitable spot of land...link the new building into the old, so that the classroom and rehearsal rooms could be used as dressing rooms.


A 'typical' build like this would need five general areas...


1) Outside space - car parks, access roads, footpaths, assembly areas etc

2) FOH space - foyer, bars, toilets, etc

3) Auditorium

4) Stage

5) Backstage - workshops, stores, dressing rooms etc


It sounds like 1) and 5) are sorted although you will likely need some specific storage. For instance, where does an external hire store their costumes during the day during a run of shows?


So let's put some numbers on 2), 3) and 4).


2) FOH space for 200 people. Typically, on a small build like this, 1 sqm/person @ £1000/sqm so that's £200k


3) Auditorium (equipped). Typically 1sqm/person to allow for aisles etc @ £2000/sqm so that's £400k


4) Stage. How long is a piece of string? Do you want to make a space that people will any difficulties and/or no training can use? Including areas like the grid and lighting bars? If so, you're looking at things like tension wire grids and wide catwalks with lifts to the 'top'. I'd budget around £800k for this bit.


So that's £200k + £400k +£800k = £1,400k plus you ought to allow around 20% for fees so a total of around £1.7M


I've made a few assumptions...


* enough water/power/sewers already on site

* finish is around the 'painted fair-faced blockwork' level

* no allowance for landscaping



I'd also query you use of existing school space for dressing rooms etc. In my experience, there's nothing put off an outside hire more than a caretaker standing their at 10pm jangling his keys because he finished his shift an hour ago. And what time would those hires get access to the classrooms to set up for a Friday evening performance.


...but the rest of the equipment would need to be purchased...


I think that's the least of your worries :)

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The quickest and simplest means of getting a ball-park figure is to check around the costs of building village halls and sit down while doing so. Brian's guesstimate was the bottom end of estimates for our proposals and we too had the land available. Services and access will cost a fortune and where you are I suspect finding reasonably priced building estimates would be difficult.
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I get to be the "not so grumpy" guy for once.


Building theatre's / performance venues is weirdly expensive because of the extrems equipment has to operate within and because of all the regulations involved - a fairly crappy "theatre seat" (plastic, like a football stadium) will cost you over £100 each, something padded and comfortable like a traditional theatre or cinema seat will be anything from £150-400 each. You could look at using traditional school "stacking chairs" but you'll still need to modify them slightly to comply with theatre regulations, will need to build some sort of terrace to put them on (which has a host of regulations as well) and before you know it you will be spending as much if not more than "proper" theatre seats cost.


You'll spend £20k quite easily just getting the needed electricity supply to the building - expect to spend as much again installing the cabling inside the building just to get power in to all the places a fairly basic theatre needs it.

A simple set of curtains (that comply with relevant regulations) plus the associated tracks & equipment to hang them from just to give you the most basic stage shape is going to knock out another £20k


All that outlay and all you've got is a curtained room with chairs in it - lighting, sound and all the gadgets you need to actually present a show will quickly take you close to a 6 figure sum.


Obviously if you're building a facility that's in use for shows several times per week (thus producing thousands of pounds in ticket revenue each week) then these costs aren't all that significant but for a small occasional use space it's prohibitively expensive. Such a building would also have fixed operating costs of £30-40k per year which would have to be met out of school budget whenever the hire revenue didn't cover the expense.


As a side note - whilst "shared facilities" like dressing rooms, storage or toilets sounds like a good idea it just doesn't work in practice as the last thing anyone wants to be doing is spending an hour tidying up and resetting classrooms and theatre stuff after every performance. Just adding 100m2 of extra space to the "theatre" building would give you enough exclusive venue facilities to make everyone's life much easier and pay for itself a dozen times over.

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Services and access will cost a fortune...


Indeed. Were this a green/brown-field site I'd probably have put a figure of around £100k in the budget just to get services onto the site. One of my (unstated) assumptions was that car parking would be by way of the existing school car parks along with the associated roadways. On a virgin site I'd not be surprised to see a figure of around £3k per car parking space to cover the cost of the space, the circulation space and the landscaping.


Building theatre's / performance venues is weirdly expensive because of the extremes equipment has to operate within...


And not just those sorts of special buildings.


Commercial buildings are expensive; £100k, which will build you quite a nice house, gets you nothing. And it's the little things that soon add up...half-decent door handles, a catch and hinges for a domestic internal door will costs around £15; fit those in a public building and they'll last a week. A suitably rated set will set you back closer to £100.

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I drove passed the old Bobsleigh Hotel (Bovingdon, Herts) today and thought what a lovely performing arts/community centre it would make. Posts like above bring me down to earth with a bump http://www.blue-room.org.uk/public/style_emoticons/default/rolleyes.gif


Not sure where you are and how (or indeed if) it would work inter-school, but Rudolf Steiner school (Kings Langley) have a nice theatre that I know local theatre groups use/rent.

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Thank you all for your feedback so far.


The assumptions that the school has access, car parking etc. are correct, there is plenty onsite. I only suggested the dual use of existing rooms since this is the model that a school theatre on the other side of Hertfordshire uses and it seemed like a good idea. As I said, still at the very early stages of planning.


A new theatre space is appearing in Hitchin next month (The Factory Playhouse, Hitchin: http://www.factoryplayhouse.com/). They are converting the first floor of a dis-used factory into a 180 odd seat space for their own theatre school productions, will be interesting to see how that will work. I believe the ground floor has already been converted into some rehearsal studios. What are forum members thoughts on converting old spaces, not previously used for performance?

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They can work really well, or be a pain. The real issue usually lies with the architect. Some really understand performance spaces and others think they do. Frequently educational architects produce terrible designs, because they don't understand specific needs.


As an example, they love light, bright, chrome and glass, when conversions to older building would frequently be better dark, and dim. If you have an enthusiastic bunch of kids, then a black box space that they can paint can be really rewarding. Black or very dark blue walls, ceiling and floor produce cosy spaces, and if you need one wall white for a particular production, then paint it. Quite a few years ago I was involved with a conversion from an engineering space, full of lathes and machinery into a performance space - and it worked so well, I copied the idea in the late 90s somewhere else. We painted floors and walls - the kids creating swamps, woodland, flowers etc whenever it was needed, and then painted it out after each production. If you go with this idea, then you can save some of your budget. For your specific needs, you need access and that's it really - you can take a space, and experiment dividing it up. There is some really nice very cheap design software that can do plans and 3D views and walkthroughs and this can let you experiment with how it will work - look up sweet home 3D.

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I agree with Paul - if you have to involve an architect, make sure it is someone who understands theatres.


as regards seating, I wouldn't personally go for pull-out seating, as I think this usually limits your options to "seats" or "no seats". If you go for a system using modular decks, then you can be much more flexible - in the round, three-sided, traverse, end on with big stage / few seating rows, end on with small stage / lots of seating rows, and so on. Steeldeck can provide a complete package including seats, decks, steps, handrails and everything you might need. The disadvantage with this is it takes a while to change from one set-up to another, and the manual handling risk assessment can be a bit frightening. Storage of the bits you don't need at any given time can also be a pain. There are other modular systems which are a bit lighter and easier to use, but perhaps don't offer quite as many options for customisation.


Dressing rooms / ancillary spaces: try to provide at least two dressing rooms that aren't shared with the school as teaching spaces, especially if you are thinking of establishing a professional programme with visiting theatre companies.


As others have pointed out, don't underestimate the finance required. But equally, don't be put off by the challenge. There are many sources of funding if you can make a case to prove you are providing a much needed facility for the local community - local government, charitable trusts and foundations, fundraising events, buy a seat, etc etc - limited only by the imagination of your fund-raising team.

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As it's a build from scratch, and indeed, a whole new way of working for the school it may be a good idea to talk to several people who have done similar things, and I'm not talking about just meeting the head teachers or receptionist in charge of giving people tours, I mean talk to the users of the theatre/performace space. THEY are the people who can tell you what is wrong with their building, and what works well. Sharing classrooms and dressing rooms will pretty much exclude outside companies from using your space except during holiday times for instance.

Never trust an architect when they say they understand the needs of theatre and performance. 9 times out of 10 they don't, and there are endless anecdotes on these forums to prove that point.

Don't forget wing space and back stage crossovers, architects will view them as dead space, they will look up wings on wikipedia and think they are simply a place where the actor stands before they come on and allow you a massive 3 and a half feet each side with a head clearance of 7'10", which is what I have inherited, and not consider how that actor reaches that place unseen.

Don't get drawn in to lovely, wonderful, flexible performance space designs if it means you can never do a decent end-on show properly. Almost all outside users will want to do end-on with proper masking.

Don't be afraid of asking someone to explain something. None of us know everything (although some people are sure they do), so asking your contractor to explain exactly why you need to have this very expensive piece of kit as opposed to a more simple, less expensive solution for example will give you the info you need to make your own choices.

Spend the money now and do it right, it's amazing how hard it is 2 years after the build is finished to convince the school to cough up more cash to buy this wonderful piece of kit which will make you life much easier. They will say, "What? We just gave you 2 million pounds, and now you want more??" Trust me, consider budget for kitting out your theatre alongside the budget for building it and present the powers that be with the full cost of getting a working theatre as opposed to a theatre in potentia if only it had some lights to go in it.

Only a few hundred pounds more to get a motorised winch bar as opposed to a hand-wound or drill powered one? Spend it. Just a little more to get 96 channels of dimming as opposed to 72? Spend it. Can't see a need why you would ever need 12 DMX break out points when you only have 4 LED parcans? Get them anyway. Spend the extra money know on infrastructure which will allow you to grow in the future. There is no point in fitting out a new theatre with your current production needs in mind, you need to be fitting it out with your production needs 15 years from now in mind, because that is the next time you'll ever get any money to expand your infrastructure.


I may sound like I'm encouraging you to spend, spend, spend but what I want to actually say is this; If the school is fund-raising £1,500,000 and your ideal theatre costs £1,750,000 then get them to raise the extra quarter of a million, because you can be damn sure of never getting it in the future. It is easier to raise funds and apply for grants to build something from scratch than it is to generally improve an existing facility.


I'll shut up now.

Good luck and keep us posted, because as you can tell almost everyone on these forums is passionate about new theatres being built the right way because we've all had to work in too many that weren't.

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We have steel deck plus seats by auditoria ( I think) that are basically very heavy mobile pull out seat banks. Ours are in banks of 50/100 and we can therefore do traverse/round/ end on but they are very heavy and require a lot of (non specialist) manpower to shift them. They also have a tendency to settle into our cushioned flooring so are a bugger to get moving after they have been sitting. They pull out when in use but need a store if you need all the floor space.

Changing room wise would you be happy with kids changing in rooms with windows in? With the public walking by? Adults from an external wandering in to the school to use the toilets? I would have thought that some toilets and changing /dressing rooms could be easily afforded compared to compromising the schools "security"

You need to decide what level of space you are after A room with lighting bars, a truss that comes down on winches, or a twg ( big wire net to walk on) School room with hire options or mini arts centre?

Once you know, look at schools that have similar new facilities ( they will have built on the existing land) and ask about budgets, problems, and take a look around.A local private school near me have a very nice 400 seat traditional prosc space but I bet it cost 5-7million

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Once you know, look at schools that have similar new facilities ( they will have built on the existing land) and ask about budgets, problems, and take a look around.A local private school near me have a very nice 400 seat traditional prosc space but I bet it cost 5-7million


+1 for that, just have a look at other places, I am sure they would be willing to let you have a wonder about and see what they have. Granted they might be on the north side of big for your want, and have a premo finish but you will at least come away with a ball park and some names and things to really avoid. There is / was a time not so long ago where everyone was given money to do something similar, then some kinda finance crisis happened and it all went to hell.


In terms of venues to look for have a look at jobs IN private schools they mostly will have a technician full time for the space.

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Number one - don't use an architect. Set out the plans yourself - after talking to actual users - and then find somebody who can realise them for you. The thing to remember is that the audience don't come to look at the space.


This is in a school. The one thing most school have is plenty of rooms so you can ignore costs for things like Dressing Rooms etc. Also with a bit of thought existing public areas can double as foyers etc. As it happens I undertook just this process in 1990-1992 and the costs though not inconsiderable were controlable just by stripping things out. For example it may be that if you build onto existing buildings you may well have two walls or most of them already. We did this by building into a corner site with the doors opening onto an existing corridor.


I agree that a rectangular space is best and that many users will want to work end to end. Don't bother with a prosc or anything like it you can deal with masking later when you know just what sorts of things are going to be done in the space Providing you have the height I'd go for folding bleacher seating with all performances taking place on the floor. No special floor surfaces and certainly not any kind of floating patent dance floor. Note Dave M's comment above we had exactly the same problem. No windows at all and interior finish black.


For me the most important cost consideration and one which these days I'd consider essential is trying to fit the place out so that there is no need for access equipment. The theatre I was involved with had lighting bridges linked by a a central gangway at 5 metres high. his was simple stuctural steelwork which was installed as the walls were built. It seemed a significant initial cost but the savings in time and ladder work over the past 23 years must have paid that back time and time again.


In the past I'd have considered a control room a key thing I don't think I would now having seen sound desks out front in many professional houses.


In short if you start by asking yourself 'what do I really need to put on a show?' and start from there.


That being said I think even with a bare minimum facility venue you are talking significant investment. The re-vamp of a parish hall near here ran out at £200,000 for a new foyer, heating system, internal refit, re-wire and new fenestration - going 20% over budget. I looked on their behalf at a basic lighting installation and some staging and that would have added £35,000 (with a good deal of that labour). A new church/community centre here is budgetted at £1.7m. I reckon on past experience it'll be £2m if they are lucky.


If you make your plans and decide on the bare minimum you need and it looks too much money than you can realistically raise don't go any further. The parish hall I spoke about bankrupted the church.

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For example it may be that if you build onto existing buildings you may well have two walls or most of them already. We did this by building into a corner site with the doors opening onto an existing corridor.

I don't know if the VAT rules have changed recently but one of the last building projects I was involved in had the option of extending an existing building or knocking it down and starting from scratch, with the new building incorporating the space that was in the existing one. The latter option ended up being cheaper as VAT was due on an extension whereas it wasn't on a new build.

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