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Jokes Land Better in Tight Spaces and Other Theater Design Trade Secrets
Episode 89

Jokes Land Better in Tight Spaces and Other Theater Design Trade Secrets

CI to Eye with Joshua Dachs

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In this episode, Joshua and Erik lift the curtain on the mysteries of theater design. They discuss how seat layout impacts the way comedy is received, why some roadhouses have "absurd capacities," and why Broadway theaters are so uncomfortable.

Erik Gensler: Joshua Dachs, thank you so much for joining me on CI to Eye.

Joshua Dachs: Pleasure.

Erik Gensler: So, as most theaters have been closed since March and, as a theater designer, I’m curious, what has been on your mind lately?

Joshua Dachs: It’s certainly been an odd time (laughs), to put it mildly. Here we are spending decades making places where people can come together and share a live experience and all of a sudden, everybody I’ve ever done a theater for can’t do that anymore.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Have you felt in the last six months you’ve been asked questions that you’ve never been asked before in your career?

Joshua Dachs: Certainly, in a very literal sense, this whole social distancing thing has led to lots of questions about what’s safe and, “Is there a way we can make our 1500-seat Broadway theater socially distanced and safe for an audience of how many?” And, of course, nobody likes the answers to that. I have to say, it’s a very challenging moment for everybody. And here we are in this COVID moment and people want to know what they’re allowed to do, in terms of socially distance seating, and there is no set of guidelines. There’s pronouncements from the medical profession, which is like, “Well, keep everybody six feet apart.” Okay. So, let’s break that down. Does that mean that if I’m walking down an aisle, I can’t have aisle seats because they’re within six feet of the aisle? Yeah, well, probably. Yeah. So, the nearest seat to the aisle has to be six feet away. So, I’ve got to lose, basically, the first three seats along the aisle in every row, if I’m going to be six feet away from that aisle. And then, of course, if you’re going to be six feet from the seat in front and six feet from the seat and back, you’re going to start leaving out rows. Now, how do I get along that row? Surely, it’s not going to be safe to shuffle along the row in the way that we do today and brushed by the knees of the person that’s already seated to get to a seat further along, right? So, what do you do? And if you follow this chain of logic, you end up with, you know, like 7% of the seating capacity of the room, as compared with what had had originally. So that’s hugely problematic. And the very idea of social distancing for live theater is anathema. It goes against the grain and the point is to come together as a community and share an experience and if you have to be physically distanced, how does that work? So, I mean, it’s fascinating because it’s been an opportunity to kind of have everybody do some navel-gazing and try and decide what is important about what they do. And the answer to that question is different for every artist, for every enterprise, for every company. And that’s okay because we have a very diverse theater community.

Erik Gensler: You’ve been involved in the design of a number of venues that offer that flexibility, from The Shed to the Park Avenue Armory. What were those conversations like in the conception of those spaces? What was the need being met? What can you tell us about those projects?

Joshua Dachs: Yeah, well, I mean the, the Armory, I think, is really particularly intriguing. There’s always been a thread of work being done that is site-specific, you know, over the last 20 years, let’s say, or at least outside of a traditional theater venue. And places like the Ruhrtriennale festival—there there’s a building called Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, Germany, which is a big old industrial facility. It was a power station for a steel plant, or something like that. And it’s just a vast, industrial building that has been used for, since its inception, for this festival that happens each fall. And they use it for new productions of opera, theater, dance, spoken word, and because of the scale of the space and the fact that it’s a nontraditional space, they do extraordinary things. And there was no place where that work could come and be seen in New York. And as Rebecca Robertson began to work at the Armory and become the Executive Director at the armory, Rebecca saw this extraordinary building, which was built in the 1870s or eighties, and consists of a drill hall, which is like a European train shed. It’s got a massively big floor that’s nearly 300 feet long and 200 feet wide and 65 feet tall, with bowstring trusses. And it’s gorgeous. And a head house full of the best preserved suite of 19th-century decorative spaces in America, gorgeous woodwork and Tiffany glass, and this is a building where you walk into that space, your jaw drops, and you look at the … It’s one of the biggest indoor spaces you’ll ever be in and it also has a very specific aesthetic quality and it also has these layers of history kind of imbued this space with a very particular quality and every artist that walks in there, their jaw drops and they realize they want to do something extraordinary in it. It provokes a response from artists and, consequently, what we tried to do was to preserve the qualities of this room, but fill in the pieces that were not originally part of the 19th-century construction. But what the place has been able to do is to literally host some of the work that’s created at the Ruhrtriennale festival, like the amazing production of Die Soldaten and in one of the early years, whatever it was-

Erik Gensler: I saw that!

Joshua Dachs: 2012 or something, where there was an audience of 800 people sitting on bleachers that were on railroad tracks, literally. And as they sat there, the audience moved east and west along the 300-foot length of the drill hall to engage performers at one end or pull back into sort of a wide shot so that the audience can go into close up or a long shot. And it was remarkable. And the point of the Armory in places like the Armory is to be able to do things that you can’t do anywhere else, to do things that you can’t do in a traditional venue. It turns out that all of those layers of meaning add richness to everything that gets done in there. There was that amazing performance where a very shallow pool of water was created. You came, you sat in a ring of seats along the outer walls of this vast space, and at the certain moment, you realize that the floor was flooding. I mean, not where you were sitting, but just within a few feet of where you were sitting. And there got to be an inch or two of water over the entire floor of the drill hall, which became a mirror, a black mirror, reflecting the bowstring trusses of the roof. And instead of a 65-foot-tall room, you were in 130-foot-tall room because of the reflection. And then, the pianist walked out through, you know, across the water to the piano that was sitting, actually, now, appearing to float in the middle of the room, and she played for an hour. And it was just amazing, right? So, you can’t do these things in a Broadway theater. You can’t do … Well, not in the same way and having the same meaning. And I guess that’s what a place like the Armory is for. It’s for creating moments that you can’t create with the normal set of tools. And in a funny way, the Armory is a tool that says, “Here I am. What do you want to make of me?” And there are no seats. We have to build the seats every time. A lot of what I do at the Armory, these days, is design seating environments for whether it’s the Ken Branagh Macbeth or something for Bill T. Jones or Laurie Anderson or the New York Philharmonic. It’s like, “Okay, what’s the event and what’s the right way to arrange people for this event?” And those are fascinating questions, and it’s great to have a place that’s set up to facilitate that.

Erik Gensler: In conversations in places outside of New York, some of the regional work you’ve done at theaters or university settings, have you felt like the requirements have changed? Has there been a … for that sort of flexibility, for the ability to have movable seats, do visual and performance types of work? Has that been a trend you’ve seen carry through?

Joshua Dachs: Definitely. Flexibility is definitely a big trend for a variety of reasons. The appeal of the Armory is that it’s flexibility on, literally, an industrial scale, right? So, part of the thing about the Armory is its vastness and the meaning that that can convey. But on a much smaller level, lord knows there are hundreds of little studio theaters all across the country at every college and university that are intended to be flexible. Sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not, but they’re intended to be flexible to facilitate remaking the room in order to tell a particular story in a particular way. But the other aspect of flexibility that is very current right now has to do with economic imperative, really, because when we did Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, which is a literally neo-classical-appearing concert hall, newly built, 2006 or thereabouts, and, you know, intended to be a first class acoustical home for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. At a certain point in the design process, the head of the symphony, Al Valentine, said, “You know, do you think it would be possible to figure out a way to very quickly and cheaply make the seats go away so that we could have a flat floor? Because the orchestra uses this building exclusively and there’s not a whole lot we can do with a traditional concert hall at other times during the day. So, you know, if we could figure out something that we could do with it, like banquets or cotillions or, you know, whatever it is, we could generate some more revenue for the orchestra and that would be really beneficial.” And we figured out a way to do that. The building had been well along in the design process and we kind of remedially went in and did something that would be affordable, which had to do with creating eight enormous wagons and one big elevator and we made a storage garage down in the basement that was column-free. And we were able to, one by one, take these carriages that had five rows each on them down into the basement and store them, revealing a beautiful wooden floor. And they thought, when we started doing this, that they would use it, oh, you know, maybe 11 times a year. You know, “There’s this gala and there’s that gala and we think we could use it 11 times a year.” It turns out that they do it, like, six times a week. They turn over the room. And, in fact, they sometimes do a rehearsal in the morning, they flip the room flat, do a luncheon for somebody, they flipped the room back, and they do a performance that night. And it has proven to be a critically important piece of their economic model. And, consequently, a few years later, when we were doing the Tobin Center in San Antonio, Texas, the folks that were planning the building essentially said, “Do you think we can do what they did in Nashville?” And we said, “Yeah, in fact, there’s another way we can do it that would be more flexible that’s a slightly bigger investment, but I think we’ve seen that the investment is going to really pay back.” So, we did a more sophisticated system that involved a series of elevators. Every row is an elevator and the row of chairs sitting on the elevator flip over and end up hanging underneath the row in a very fascinating bit of choreography. So, it’s a highly mechanistic approach. Both these rooms take 30 or 40 minutes to flip with a small number of people. You know, in the case of Nashville, they do with four or six people; in the case of the Tobin Center, one guy pushing a button and another couple of folks watching just to make sure that nothing fouls on something. And you’re able to take the Tobin Center, which is a multi-tiered, multipurpose venue that, you know, that’s where the symphony, ballet, opera, Broadway series all perform, but they can flatten the floor and they can do lunches or they can do a rock and roll concert for a standing-room crowd on the main level with people seated in the upper levels. And that is also enormously attractive to their presenters and to their audience that has proven to be financially invaluable. So, that model of seating that can come and go at scale, for commercial reasons, has now been fully embraced and is being repeated around the country and in all sorts of ways.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of economic models, I’m curious of the conversations that you’re involved in around figuring out the appropriate size for a theater. Before I started Capacity, I used to work at New York City Opera and at that time it was called the State Theatre. I think there were about 2,500, 2,600 seats. And that fourth ring-

Joshua Dachs: 2,750, originally.

Erik Gensler: Okay. I should know that (laughs). Well, they renovated it and then it got, I know it got down on-

Joshua Dachs: It dropped a bit.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Is that something that you can do? If I named theaters, you know the exact number of seats? Or just-

Joshua Dachs: Not always, but often.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) Close. But that fourth ring was really far from the stage and often very hard to sell, like, on a Tuesday night. And there were just certain nights where there wasn’t enough demand to fill it, even with really creative pricing. And, you know, then you have the occasional production that everyone wanted to see and it would sell. I’m curious the conversations you have around size and how, when you’re going to build a theater, like, what those conversations sound like.

Joshua Dachs: Well, it’s really interesting because it’s evolved over the decades. When I first started working in this field in the late seventies, early eighties, if you were in Fort Lauderdale, having a conversation with the board of a group that was going to build a performing arts center, they would have a conversation with the Broadway presenter du jour, whoever it was. And often, in those days, it was a local entity. Today, it would be a national entity and the Broadway folks would say, “Hey, you know, in order for this to work for us, we need 3,000 seats, minimum.” And you’d challenge them a little bit and say, you know, like, “Okay, so if we built 2,500, would you not come?” And there was that whole thing of wanting to have more seats than next nearest town, because as the tour promoter was routing the tour, they would go to where the highest growth potential was. So, it didn’t matter whether you could sell the seats or not. The question was, could you get the product in the first place? Could you get Phantom to come to your theater? And if, 20 miles away, there was a venue that had 50 more seats, that’s where they would go because the gross potential was higher and they were fairly confident that it would sell out. So, in those days, it was very common to build multipurpose performing arts centers that had, you know, absurd capacities in the 2,500-to-3,000-seat range to serve the Broadway series, which was, in fact, the only economic generator in the building. They made money on Broadway and they lost money on the symphony, opera and ballet, the so called “SOBs.” So, every ballet date was lost revenue for the performing arts center to support itself and they were giving that away for free or at a loss, and every Broadway date subsidized the occupancy by the local groups. So, that was the constant struggle between the SOBs and the performing arts center. The SOBs wanted more dates and the performing arts center wanted more commercial dates so they could support themselves. And over the years, we saw—and some of this was driven by acoustical consultants saying, “You know, we can’t deliver a good experience at those capacities. We’ve tried. Go around the country. You find a 3,000-seat multipurpose room that has good acoustics for symphony and you’re not going to find one—and they started advocating smaller capacities and they started saying things like, “You know, the right capacity is somewhere between 1,800 and 2,200 seats for a symphony,” and that started to have some impact. And, generally speaking, from somewhere in the eighties, and certainly by the nineties, there’s been a downward pressure on capacity and people have chosen the quality of the experience over the gross potential for Broadway as a driver of the capacity question. And people have recognized what you just described, which is, it’s not very nice to have your theater empty for most things. So, it’s like building the parking lot for that one hot shopping day a year when you know it’s going to fill up; the rest of the time it’s bleak.

Erik Gensler: Or the people on home design shows that choose their house cause it’s great for entertaining, but it’s bad for everything else. (Laughs) You know, it’s like, three times a year, they entertain. That’s interesting. Additionally, do you find conversations around looking at the theater for the, you talked about gross potential, like, the financial potential of how the theater is laid out, meaning trying to put as many seats as you can in the orchestra and perhaps the size of the mezzanine versus the balcony, where there’s less revenue potential. How do those conversations play into theater design?

Joshua Dachs: This, of course, is less a question for regional theater, for drama theaters, and it’s more of a question for big-scale venues for opera and ballet and symphony because those capacities are somewhere in the 2,000-seat range so they’re going to be on multiple tiers. But there are so many factors that influence the design of rooms. The biggest determinants, oddly, is acoustics, because if you are committed to making a room that has natural sound and not amplified sound for symphony and for opera, that begins to determine the maximum width of the room. And once you’ve determined the maximum width the room, you’ve essentially determined, more or less, how many seats can be in a row and, therefore, for a given capacity, how many rows there are going to be. And okay, if you know, “All right, we’re going to have to have 47 rows in this damn room because they need to hit this number, how are we going to break up those 47 rows? Well, let’s try not to have more than 30 on the ground floor, cause that’s like a hundred feet. That last row is going to be a hundred feet from the stage and you can’t see facial expressions past 65, but if we put less than 30 on the ground floor, those other 17, the rest of the 47 rows are going to be up in the air, higher and higher and higher. And so, you start juggling all of these things around with each other. And in the end, what shakes out is the right compromise. However, happily and appropriately, for drama we’re not generally talking about those kinds of numbers. We’re talking about 600 or 400 or 200 or something like that, which makes for a very different kind of experience cause it’s a different art form and it’s only commercial stuff that plays to massive capacities and it’s for better or worse. The audiences for straight drama or even musicals is smaller in most regional companies around the country and that leads to better rooms.

Erik Gensler: Why were Broadway theaters designed to be so uncomfortable? Who thought it was a good idea to have so few bathrooms and why do we find ourselves in this (laughs) predicament?

Joshua Dachs: Nobody designed those buildings to be hundred-year buildings. You know, they were thrown up as commercial investments. Some of them were built in a shockingly short amount of time, like nine months, whereas today, it would take us two and a half, three years. There was a lot of, “Order the ornament out of a catalog,” stuff going on. Think about putting up a furniture showroom or a, you know, a car dealership. It was an investment, right? So, they got a piece of land. The piece of land, you know, in New York, the sites were probably 75 feet wide and a hundred feet deep because that’s, you know, the block is 200 feet wide. So, half a block is a hundred feet and the lots are generally multiples of 25 feet. So, you got three of them. So, you got 75 feet and maybe you bought a hundred by a hundred. And then, the architect was told, “Put in as many seats as you absolutely can,” right? And the rest be damned. And, “People are only going to be there for, you know, at most, a couple of hours and women don’t go to the bathroom anyway cause they can’t get out of their corsets,” or whatever their logic was. It was a commercial investment. And it wasn’t about being accommodating. It was about cramming in the seats. People were smaller. People didn’t go home to their barcalounger. People were used to this kind of thing. And today, even today, there are many that argue that comedy plays better when your knees are up against the back of someone else and comedy just falls flat when people are distanced from each other. So-

Erik Gensler: Really?

Joshua Dachs: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, people talk about how … Oh, people riff on this. A colleague, Richard Pilbrow, from A Theatre Project, used to tell us stories about contrasting two theaters. He produced a play and they did it in a contemporary theater and the comedy just was a disaster. It just … they couldn’t figure out why it failed so badly and then they went to a traditional venue where people were packed really tightly and it played like a dream and it was … everybody loved it. And that was his beginning of an inkling that it really mattered how you organize the people. And there was nothing surprising about this and that’s one of the joys of a place like the Globe in London, you see the impact of the groundlings on the energy of the work, right? And you also see the relationship between the writing and the energy of the groundlings, performing Shakespeare in the middle of the afternoon in daylight, surrounded by a group of people, many of whom were leaning on the stage. It … Suddenly, every line makes perfect sense. Soliloquies are not just spoken out into the dark abstractly, but actors are looking specific individuals in the eye and having essentially a dialogue with them, right? So, they’re engaging specific groundlings in what’s going on. Or, I think I’ve seen a Twelfth Night or something and Malvolio was downstage right, near one of the columns, and the groundlings like to hiss Malvolio and he was downstage right and he put his hat down and some kid grabbed it (laughs) and then the actor had to deal with that, right? And everybody loved it. So, there’s a perfect example of how physical proximity and the arrangement completely changes the play and we’re very lucky to have that building because it helps us understand those texts so well.

Erik Gensler: So, when you’re talking to a performing arts center or a new LORT theater that wants to build, I imagine the audience comfort is probably top of mind for a lot of organizations and, you know, they want shorter bathroom lines, shorter drink lines, less crowding. Do you bring up those considerations and having those conversations or is it just like, “You know what? We’re going to make this as comfortable as possible”?

Joshua Dachs: You know, it totally depends on who the client is. There are many that are all about what you just said because their artistic model depends on a certain kind of donor and their ability to retain that kind of donor requires a certain kind of level of airline-lounge luxury, sports-box privilege kind of thing, and so you design to that. And then there are others that are all about public access and community engagement and openness and completely the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of privilege and hierarchy and access, and the work is the most important thing. So, there are all kinds of artists doing all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. And one of the things that makes what I do rich and interesting is, thankfully, we’re not cranking out the same thing every time for everybody. It’s not one size fits all. We really do have to find the right answer for this particular situation.

Erik Gensler: Let’s talk a bit about accessibility and, particularly, old theaters are not welcoming to those who have limited mobility. How do you think about accessibility when designing a theater?

Joshua Dachs: Certainly, our goal is to provide universal access. There are challenges to that, of course, because in order for people to see, you do have to have changes of level. They can’t all be on a flat floor; otherwise, they won’t see well. So, as soon as you introduce changes of elevation, you introduce challenges to people who need to roll to their location. And so, there’s a constant tension between the desire, which we have, to offer a wide range of seating locations to people that are wheelchair users, to be specific, and desire to provide a cohesive and engaged audience for everyone’s sake. Cause the more we’d divide up an audience with cross aisles and whatever, the more we pull them apart, the less well comedy’s going to play, and the power of the experience will be diminished for everyone, including the person that was able to suddenly get to that location. That location will be less powerful for them than some other location might be, so it’s challenging and we do have to work really hard at it.

Erik Gensler: You’ve worked on so many incredible projects over the years, and I know it’s very … it’s going to be a hard question, but what are three of your favorite theater projects or three that perhaps are worth noting, for one reason or another, that come to mind?

Joshua Dachs: I’ve been very lucky that over the course of my career, I’ve had lots of different kinds of experiences. You know, I’m very proud and pleased to have had the opportunity to work with The Public Theater on a variety of things, including plans for the Delacorte, which is a little need of some TLC, because I grew up going there, right? As a kid, one of my fondest early memories going to see Shakespeare in the park and tack going to see Joe Papp’s mobile Shakespeare unit when it came out to Queens, where I grew up, in Victory Field, just literally on the back of a truck that Ming Cho Lee designed. But at the Delacorte, I grew up going there. And so, to be involved in that has been—and modifications and plans for downtown—has been really special. I got to meet and work with Joe Papp and Oscar and George Wolf and that’s been great. And so the idea, as a New Yorker, of being able to be part of the Public and being part of Lincoln Center, where we’ve done so much work at David Geffin Hall and several projects at the Lincoln Center Theatre and expanding Julliard. And, you know, I’m very proud to work for so many of America’s regional theaters, Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre in DC and the Guthrie, of course, and the Old Globe in San Diego, and on and on. And I’m very proud of that, too.I’m quite lucky.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, really great. So, we’ve come to your last question and we call this your “CI to Eye moment,” and it’s an opportunity for you to give any lasting thoughts or ideas to share with the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of thousands of arts organizations-

Joshua Dachs: (Laughs) No pressure!

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) No pressure … when it comes to your world, what nugget would you give them to think about?

Joshua Dachs: I find that my best clients are the ones that have the strongest, sometimes most idiosyncratic, ideas about what they want. And sometimes, my worst clients are the ones that have absolutely no idea what they want and just sort of, you know, “We want a world-class, one of these.” What does that even mean? Theater is not a generic experience. It’s not like flipping on the TV and, and it doesn’t really matter what device you’re viewing it on; it’s going to be the same. It really matters what room you’re in. And there needs to be a relationship between the work that’s being made and the space in which it’s being made and in the same way that there’s a relationship between what Shakespeare put on the page and what the stage was that he was writing for, that’s also true of Pinter and that’s also true of any contemporary playwright. They have an idea about the conditions in which their work is going to be performed and they’re writing with those conditions in mind. So, your job, as the building committee of a theater company, is to create the conditions in which artists will create. And so, you need to have an artistic point of view; otherwise, you’re making a generic space and the work that will be done there will be generic. So, I love it when a director has a strong reaction, “I hate thrusts,” or, “I love thrusts,” or whatever it is, or some weird requests that I’ve never heard before. Many, many years ago, I was making a space with Vinnette Carroll, who was a wonderful director and writer, who had a theater company, by then, in Fort Lauderdale. And she had an idea about procession and celebration and wanted a center line, basically. Most people would never take away seats on the center line, but she wanted, you know, a group of jubilant performers to be able to enter in procession right down the center line and take the stage. And we did that and it was a powerful space for her for that reason. So, I guess, know what you’re about. Have a strong artistic point of view. Now, we understand that people change over time. You know, today’s artistic director will be replaced at some point and maybe two or three artistic directors from now, the building will no longer match their vision and something will happen; either the building will change or the artistic director will change. Who knows, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of making a building, make it a strong one. Make it a powerful one.

Erik Gensler: Joshua Dachs, thank you so much.

Joshua Dachs: You’re very welcome.

About Our Guests
Joshua Dachs
Joshua Dachs
Theater Design Consultant

Joshua Dachs is one of the world’s leading theater design consultants. Drawing on a background as a violinist, an architect, and a theatrical set and lighting designer, he has led FDA’s consulting practice since 1984, providing planning, programming, and design leadership for hundreds of successful projects. He has helped plan and design four opera houses, including the Mariinsky II Opera House in St. Petersburg; concert halls for major orchestras; and the newest Broadway theatre, the Stephen Sondheim. He has worked with many leading theatre companies, including Arena Stage, the Old Globe, the Guthrie Theater, and Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. For Lincoln Center, he is currently working on the re-imagining of David Geffen Hall, and he completed many other projects on the LC campus including the renovation of Alice Tully Hall and expansion of the Juilliard School.

Read more

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