Book Review: The Ultimate Theater Design Guide

May 24, 2024

Written By:

Selma Göker Wilson 

International Associate AIA, RIBA, TMMOB 

Schimberg Group, Sarasota, Florida, USA

The new edition of Theatre Buildings - A Design Guide, like many other publications, suffered a COVID-19 pandemic delay, but it has finally arrived. The book addresses the many aspects that contribute to the creation and operation of theater buildings and is full of information and practical tips to lead to success. It simultaneously challenges practitioners to more critically question the inputs into these complex and expensive buildings, ultimately to serve our planet and community better. 

The previous edition of Theater Buildings (2010) was already a go-to publication for anyone working with theater buildings. What makes this edition particularly useful and commendable is a chapter devoted to an examination of what have become our 21st-century issues, such as environmental performance, social equity and diversity, and the health, safety, and well-being of users. This new edition is supported by 32 new reference projects, all built since 2011. Each project includes a building description, key facts organized in a consistent, logical way, users’  verdicts that provide a frank insight, as well as photographs and drawings that efficiently convey the overall quality of the building. 

Unlike other books covering similar ground, like Theater Planning by Gene Leitermann or  Theater of Architecture by Hugh Hardy,  which act as staple reference books in the USA,  this guide is not constrained by personal views or examples of work from one specialist. The  reader has the luxury of immersing itself in a guide that has been constructed by an army of a team. Under the editorship of Margaret Shewring, the team oversaw a large group of section editors ranging from theater manager, architect, acoustician, production director, fire engineer, accessibility experts, lighting designer, and structural engineer, who were in turn supported by an even larger group of section contributors, all experts in their field. Collectively, the list of over 60 contributors reads like a who’s who in the theater architecture business, all seamlessly collaborating to give their view on the best practice in producing a theater building.  

Special mention also goes to the drawings editor David Hamer. This is a role that is often overlooked in books even when they have a high visual content. All the drawings are to a common scale (1:500 / 1/40”- the best scale for an overall impression of these buildings). In  reality, this is a non-negotiable requirement for anyone wanting to apply critical comparative thinking to a particular building type. What is most appreciated in this book is the clarity and textural quality of the diagrams and plans.  

The structure of the book encourages objective thought. Sections are headed with seemingly simple questions like: “Why do we need a theater?” which the section then sets out to answer. This helps to stay focused on the issue that is in truth quite complex. The reader is never lost. As is typical of books dedicated to a particular building type, there is a section for abbreviations and acronyms, a glossary of theatre terminology, and a helpful further reading list. 

Theater buildings are examined and presented in a multi-faceted approach, considering the spaces and functions from the perspective of the audience, the artistic director, and the operations manager, in a very detailed way. For example, how does a theatre deal with latecomers?, where should the bar be?, how does all of this relate to the catering operation?, what should the building serve?, what goes into the naming of a building?, how will the building be efficiently cleaned (yes, it helps if some thought is given to this)?. There are also big-ticket items like reducing the carbon footprint of these potentially energy-guzzling buildings. Of course, there are also the regular topics of sightline, acoustics, and lighting, which are competently addressed. By constantly providing the background to these issues and exemplifying them, Theatre Buildings is also grounded in context. This sets it apart from books like Ian Appleton’s Buildings for the Performing Arts, which are good at conveying data but not necessarily encouraging an understanding of the topic. 

Theatre Buildings - A Design Guide is a joint publication by Routledge and The Association of  British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), and as such represents the best of the UK theater building industry. It is also valid for the American reader. The book is useful in triggering the right questions for each reader/user to find their own answers, relevant to their own context. Fire  Codes are clearly different in each country. However, the need for fire safety is universal and to read how the contributors approach the parameters that contribute to fire safety is useful, even when the factual information communicated does not apply to your local context. Explaining these issues beyond these technical requirements also contribute greatly to the building’s power and success in a community. 

The chapter entitled “Restoration and Conversion of Existing Buildings,” otherwise known as  “adaptive reuse” in the USA, is particularly informative for American practitioners who do not get as many opportunities or encouragement to work in that field. Although most of the reference projects are from the UK, this does not take away from the value of the book. The way in which the projects are presented engages and exposes the reader to buildings that may otherwise remain unknown. 

In her forward to the book, Nica Burns makes a very convincing argument as to why theater operators, those in architecture and construction, and specialists may need to read this book, but the group that would most welcome this book are educators - in particular the architecture design studio instructor faced with a student thesis project that inevitably pursues the irrelevant drivers, has inadequate planning and/or poor auditorium design. 

This latest edition of Theatre Buildings - A Design Guide is a comprehensive body of information created by experts for navigating the construction of theater buildings in the 21st century. This makes it not just “a” design guide, but “the” design guide for the world of performance arts buildings.