In designing theatres they should be adequately adapted to distinctive productions. So long as the present competition and strife between theatrical syndicates and managers persists the public will never enjoy the privileges of knowing beforehand just what sort of amusement to expect at any particular theatre. An ideal step would be the creation, by legal enactment or mutual agreement, of an advisory board, to determine in advance the theatre best suited to the requirements of each individual play. Then theatres might be better planned to meet the needs of special types of entertainment, and the section behind the curtain line could be properly proportioned and equipped for that kind of performance. Such an arrangement would create an incentive for designing the theatre exterior in a manner to suggest, at least, the form of entertainment housed therein.
The salient points of theatre designing cannot be mastered by even the most competent architect who is not a theatre specialist, through the aid of ordinary architectural or engineering books, although this may be the case with other types of buildings. The architect should not be one who has built one or two theatres in his life time, but must be a specialist whose practice and energy has been devoted to designing theatres, and to whom the problem has become a perfectly clear and definite task, which will enable him to summarize the practicality of the type to be designed, the chief legislative requirements and the economic possibilities of the venture. Correct theatre designing depends largely upon careful study and systematic correction of the faults in preceding theatre structures, and therefore is a subject requiring an intimate knowledge of theatre construction.
Most of the theatre deficiencies in this country are the result of a woeful lack of qualified specialists in this line of work. Specialization is as needful in theatre architecture as in other branches of industry. It brings with it an expert knowledge of conditions and details that may always be employed to the owner's advantage. The need of specialists has been convincingly demonstrated by the unfortunate experience of a highly reputable firm of architects who were commissioned by a group of multi-millionaires to build the Century Theatre in New York City, and to spare no expense to make it a success. Although millions had been spent in its erection the theatre was a failure, largely through the firm's inexperience in theatre construction. A futile attempt had been made, probably at the demand of the promoters, to build it large enough to house properly all classes of productions, from grand opera to light comedy. The result was an auditorium of such immensity that defective sight conditions and faulty acoustics were produced. The latter defect has been corrected by an acoustic specialist, but the theatre has, nevertheless, encountered repeated failures because, of its other faults, although vast sums have been often expended for extensive alterations. Now it has been again remodeled as a music hall on continental lines. The plan of this theatre is illustrated on the page preceding Chapter I as the most recent development in theatre evolution. This, however, refers to the form. Whatever its other faults, the theatre has an excellently designed auditorium.
After the site has been selected, the first consideration in laying out a theatre is that of size and scale, and this is a matter too often slighted in theatre planning. These are subjects that call for the utmost attention, not only from the architect, but from the owner as well.
The requirements for grand opera and dramatic productions are very dissimilar. The opera house for grand opera (not under consideration in this treatise) requires a special form of building to accommodate the necessary tiers of private boxes and to furnish special acoustic properties for singing. A spectacular or large musical attraction also demands a building different in size and proportion from one devoted to light drama, comedy or farce. Aside from the relative proportions of the various types, the necessary differences in stage equipment must be considered. The spectacular and large musical shows require an ample audience hall and an equally large or larger stage, especially equipped for each kind of performance, while light drama, comedy or farce demands a smaller or more evenly proportioned stage, not so elaborately equipped. The motion picture house necessitates still another form which will be considered in a later chapter, devoted to the motion picture theatre.
In connection with the size and the relative proportions of the various departments, the architectural treatment of the building must be considered. There should be no "fussiness" about a theatre design. All unnecessary ornament should be avoided, as tending to distract attention from the central or dominating motive, and every other feature should be likewise subordinated. When a single architectural idea is well expressed, the result is always simple and good.
The exterior, while it should be inviting to the spectator, must be designed with sobriety and offer an outward appeal to the eye reflecting the ideals housed within. It should never excite expectations that are to be dispelled by a display of cramped meanness in the interior. If the theatre is to be devoted to spectacles or exhibitions on a grand scale, or designed for popular patronage at low prices, it should be impressive in style and massive in its proportions. If it be designed for light drama, comedy or farce, its design should be smaller and more intimate in character. If it is to be used for melodrama or musical shows, it should be constructed of medium size, with every evidence of refinement and comfort. In each instance great care should be exercised to proportion correctly the different departments.
Whatever the size or character of the theatre, it should be suited in every respect to the reception and comfort of its patrons. The element of safety is the most important in theatre construction. The building, together with its contents, should be practically fireproof, and the public must be carefully guarded against danger from fire or panics occasioned by alarms of fire. If it be possible to convey an impression of security by structural appearance, so much the better. Problems of construction, fireproofing, electricity, plumbing, heating and ventilation are not different in a theatre than in any other building. The consideration of comfort, also, is essential. Both safety and comfort are treated separately in later chapters. The question of acoustics, too, always a serious one in designing theatres for the spoken drama, will be taken up independently in a special chapter devoted to that subject.