THE first and one of the most important essentials in the erection of a theatre is the selection of its site, which must be large enough to encompass the proposed scheme in its entirety. For architectural and other reasons an isolated site is preferable, and the more exposed the site the more imposing may be the finished structure. A corner site with attractive facades on two streets is next in desirability.
Sentimental reasons are often greater than structural reasons for the selection of a theatre site, yet structural restrictions to a location are neither so great nor so frequent as it is generally supposed. It is possible to construct a playhouse with proper regard to correct planning and the safety of the audience, where the site is only partially isolated or even almost inclosed. The party wall without openings at the rear of the stage, for instance, very slightly adds to the risk from fire or panic, although close proximity to adjoining property might materially affect the architectural appearance of a theatre. In fact, there would be no serious objection to both the front and rear division walls of a theatre being party walls, provided the side walls were left free for exits. So far as the convenience and safety of the audience are concerned such an arrangement, with a lobby in the rear and entrances at each side, with abundant exits on both sides of the theatre opening directly on to the street, would be excellent and would permit of the theatre being emptied in record time in case of danger.
Another important requisite is the location of the site. Much depends on the kind of theatre to be built. If it be a central or general theatre for the patronage of the masses, the site should be on a well lighted thoroughfare in a populous section of the community, and large enough to permit of the erection of a massive and imposing structure of great capacity with all the alleys demanded by law. The presence of street cars or other means of transit is a decided advantage. The size of the plot would be governed largely by the capacity required. A plot 120 feet wide by 175 or 200 feet in depth for the auditorium and stage, with ample space on the street for a commodious lobby, would be sufficient for comfortably seating over 2000 people. The lobby section is the only part that need be located directly on the street, so long as provision is made at all necessary points for numerous passages reaching the open streets.
For a medium sized theatre intended for the patronage of a special class or neighborhood the site should be located in the busiest, best lighted street in that particular section. Its size, to seat about 1100 to 1300 people, should be 100 feet by 120 feet for the auditorium and stage, with an entrance space on the street of not less than 25 feet in width.
Should a smaller form of theatre for the display of motion pictures or for other uses be desired, it would be well to choose a site of sufficient size on the busiest shopping promenade of the district to be exploited, large enough to accommodate a house of the requisite dimensions, with such alleys or courts as are demanded by law. Long and narrow plots should be avoided, as an auditorium whose width approximately equals its length is more symmetrical and serviceable. Even where extraordinary length is demanded in a picture house to secure increased capacity a rectangular-shaped auditorium will not seriously matter, provided there be ample width.
While the public will go anywhere to witness a successful performance there is not the slightest doubt that given the same play, the same actors and the same management, the theatre in a good position must show considerably better financial results than a badly located house.
The physical nature of a plot often seriously affects the plan of a playhouse. A steep surface incline of the premises will frequently influence the pitch of the floor and thus regulate the relative position of the stage and entrance, provided a change of the location of these would not seriously affect the commercial or artistic aspect of the theatre.
In the absence of streets, municipal regulations usually permit the substitution of open courts or alleys; still an alley, however wide it may be, never affords the same opportunity as a street for a becoming building elevation, nor does it allow equal facilities for safety.
A topographical survey of the plot should be made before definite plans are prepared, indicating in cross and longitudinal ten-foot sections the ground conformation and various levels, in order properly to determine the foundation and grade lines, and to estimate correctly in advance the depth for sewers and water connections.