Seats or Smiles?

an editorial by Penelope Johnson

As a representative from the arts council, I was recently invited to attend a joint meeting of School Board #53, the Town of Oliver, Oliver Parks and Recreation, RDOS, and community groups who all had a vested interest in the rebuilding of the auditorium at Southern Okanagan Secondary School. The architect and structural engineer were also in attendance to present some early designs, based on the existing footprint of the previous auditorium. While many of the financial details are still in negotiation and not yet released, there were some illuminating threads in the discussion. Here are some of my personal reflections.

A Multi-Use Facility: There was a strong desire for a space that could serve many purposes and thus attract not only theatre, dance, and concerts but also weddings, funerals, and corporate events. A large airy lobby is proposed, including display areas, concession, kitchen, washrooms,  and a box office. Behind the stage are dressing rooms and a “black box” style performance space intended as a drama classroom, rehearsal area, or even a “green room” area for shows with large casts.  Many of these proposed areas can fulfill more than one function.

An Accessible Facility?: The present theatre design incorporates stairs rather than ramps, as had been present in the old Venables Auditorium. The rationale is that the theatre can be fitted with more seats if the rake (angle of  the floor) is steeper. As the angle increases, ramps become unsafe. Long,  shallow steps descending to the stage are the alternative. The stairs prompted much discussion about universal design and access. An elevator could take patrons to disability seating at the top level (back) of the theatre, but such seating will be limited and could separate families and groups. After community user groups expressing the need to accommodate the large percentage of senior patrons, the architectural firm agreed to consider some minor design changes.

Seats, Seats and More Seats! … or Not?: The current theatre design has about 12 rows of 30 seats, or 364 in total. While most users agreed that figure was plenty for current needs, some discussion focussed on how to increase the number of seats to 400 without compromising the proposed generous legroom between the rows. The consensus was that, to do so, “something’s gotta give”. If  even one more row were to be added, the theatre would lose space somewhere: at the front (the orchestra pit, the false proscenium, the depth of the stage, or the backstage and dressing rooms) OR at the back (the lobby area).

The concern was that Oliver needed the option to have “more bums in seats”, especially for big events attracting big bucks such as business conferences, weddings, or touring professional performers.  The crux of the discussion came down to … What is more important?  What is the chance that the difference between 364 seats and 394 seats would determine whether an event was booked at all? What attracts client bookings and patrons anyway — the number of seats? or having an overall space that balances seating with technical equipment and proper lobby, stage, and backstage dimensions?

A point I raised at the meeting was that, having talked to theatre managers and touring professionals, I have found that performers  overwhelmingly choose a venue based on three things:

1. Technical Specifications : The venue needs to have good lighting and  sound equipment, stage, backstage area, and acoustics.

2. Knowledgeable and Friendly Staff: The rental agent, theatre manager and stage technician need to be welcoming, accommodating, and well-trained. If there are time-consuming hassles, performers go elsewhere.

3. Warm Receptive Audiences: Size doesn’t matter. I’ve talked to performers who will play happily to an audience of 40 or 50, and return over and over again. Why? Because they love the people. Not the seats. The people IN them.  Many pros prefer the intimacy of a smaller venue because the “feel” is totally different.

Now, not even a week after this meeting, a comment arrives at Oliver Daily News, the popular blog “where Oliver gathers to chat”, as its banner headline reads. The comment is from Catherine Laub, a member of the Kallisto Trio who performed here on November 25 as part of the South Okanagan Concert Society series.  The temporary venue was the Oliver Alliance Church. Good sound system, elevated stage, and adequate lighting for a musical concert. “Intimate” seating, seating maybe 300 in a pinch. Here’s what Catherine writes, in response to reading a review of their performance on Oliver Daily News:

“Fabi, Karen and I are in Calgary this week, continuing to perform the music we sang first in Oliver. We just discovered this wonderful and very touching review and would like to thank the whole community for your attendance and support. This was one of the best concerts we have ever sung, and we’ve been talking ever since about how much we enjoyed our trip. Everyone was so kind, genuine and enthusiastic. Furthermore, you really understood what we were doing, and that makes an incredible difference. We loved our time with you so much that we were discussing moving to the Okanagan, and we’re certainly looking forward to coming back to sing again as soon as you’ll have us.”

Now THAT is what draws performers, not once but repeatedly.   Can we provide good technical equipment for most needs? With support from the Ministry of Education, Town and RDOS, and good fundraising by Adopt-a-Seat, yes we can. Will we have a good theatre manager and stage technician in place? I, for one, hope so. Will we have warm receptive audiences that ensure bums in seats (even if only 364 of them at a time)? You betcha!

1 thought on “Seats or Smiles?

  1. There are three capital expenditures for a public space that will pay enormous dividends: acoustics, acoustics, and acoustics. No amount of elaborate and expensive sound equipment can provide listenable sound in a box with parallel walls, floors and ceilings and no acoustic treatment. The Venables auditorium was a very good acoustic space, but its expensive sloping floor and canted walls are usually foregone in favour of a cheaper ‘box’ shape so distressingly common in modern designs of large public spaces. Consider the Oliver Community Centre, the Medici restaurant and the Oliver Arena: difficult acoustic spaces, where a large PA system simply can’t overcome the long reverberation times and painful resonances.
    While a design providing good acoustics WILL be more expensive than other designs, it will provide listenable sound to its users over its lifetime, and require a minimum of ‘help’ from its PA system.
    For a practical example of this, the Sonora Room restaurant at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is excellent: a large, nearly square box with hard, parallel surfaces: the worst possible design from an acoustic standpoint. A VERY expensive retrofit of absorptive materials brought many of these problems under control, but problems remain: it’s impossible to acoustically treat windows. The shape of the room cannot be retrofitted; it must be chosen before construction.

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