A venue, simply put, is the place where the play, event, etc. will be presented to the audience. Generally, a play, musical, opera, or ballet will be presented in a building specifically built to accommodate such a performance: a theatre. However, almost any place can be a venue. I have worked on theatre and dance productions in warehouses, hotel ballrooms, night clubs and even outside in a park. Even when working in a traditional theatre, there can be great variation in the space and restrictions between different theatres.
Most venues that regularly have performance in them have a standard set of drawings, and a book of useful information. In the old days, these drawing and books were copied and mailed to the production team in advance of a show. Today, many theatres have these documents on line in a .pdf form so that they can be downloaded by anyone.
Even if you are able to download exceedingly detailed information about the venue, nothing beats visiting it in person. Key production personnel, including designers, directors, and production team heads should try to visit the venue in person. The section of this chapter called “non-traditional venues” details the key information the site visit should gather.
In the “Additional Materials” at the end of the chapter you will find links to some websites containing the typical information for a venue. Let’s take a look at what you can expect to find.
There are several technical drawings that any venue will have. The first is the ground plan. This is a view of the theatre looking down. Often it will only be of the stage space, but some venues will have more complete drawings. The drawing will be in scale, meaning that a specific measurement in the drawing directly translates to a measurement in the real world.
A second essential drawing is a center line section. This is a drawing from the side that shows everything from the middle of the theatre (called the center line) to the outside wall. This drawing will also be in scale. Between the plan and the section, many people can have a pretty good idea of the size and shape of the theatre and the location of much of the technical equipment.
Many theatres today will also have computer files that contain a scale three-dimensional representation of the theatre. These are called CAD files. (CAD is short for Computer Aided Drafting.) There are two primary software packages used to read these files: AutoCAD (made by AutoDesk) and VectorWorks (made by Nemetschek). Even if you do not own the software to edit the files, both companies make free down-loadable viewers that allow you to read the information in the file.
Alongside the drawings, a theatre will upload a Technical Package, sometimes called a rider. This document will contain important information such as:
- Contact information for key venue staff
- Detailed measurements of critical parts of the theatre
- Inventories of existing equipment
- Rules and regulations of the venue
The Technical Package may also include helpful information such as parking (and rates), rental rates for the venue, local places to get food etc. These are often “living documents” that are updated on a fairly regular basis. Even if you have long experience with a particular venue, it is a good idea to review their current tech package on a regular basis. I recently had the experience of working with a theatre where I have worked annually for about four years. Assuming, that not much had changed between the previous year’s production and this one, I prepared and submitted my materials. Only then did I learn that the theatre had made a major purchase of new lighting equipment which meant our production did not need to rent as much equipment as we had in previous years. The important lesson is to regularly review all the technical specifications for any venue you are working in.
If the production you are working on is happening somewhere other than a theatre, it is called a non-traditional venue. Sometimes, this non-traditional venue will have a technical package and drawings. This may be the case if it is a hotel ballroom or convention center. It is, unfortunately, more likely that the venue will not have any of the information the production needs. Even when a technical package is available, they are often not as accurate or detailed as one would expect from a theatre. For example, I once designed lighting for a musical in a hotel ballroom. At the site visit, the entire design team learned that the wall that was to be the back of our set was completely covered with mirrors. The mirrors were not indicated on the drawing, and we had to develop a plan to deal with the unexpected reflections (in the end we flipped which side of the room would have the audience and which side would accommodate the stage).
The first thing to look for in a non-traditional space is how all the technical equipment is going to get into the room. It is important to take detailed measurements of the smallest door the equipment must fit through, and the tightest turn it has to make. Also make note if it is level or has ramps the whole way, if gear must be carried up stairs, or moved through elevators. The next theme for the team to determine is what space will be used for the audience, what space for the performance, and what space for “back stage.” The back stage area will have to accommodate any scenery that must move on and off stage, as well as providing a place for the performers (and crew) to be when not on stage. Lastly, it is important to consider where the cast will change costumes for the show. While the team is figuring all of this out, it is a good idea to make a sketch of the room and take detailed measurements so an accurate plan and section can be generated later.
Another major consideration will be power. Technical theatre generally uses a lot of power, and has very strict requirements. Often, the lighting system and the sound system cannot share power. Even more common is learning that the venue does not have enough power to support even one of the systems. My general assumption, until the venue informs me otherwise, is that all the outlets I find in the room are connected to a single 15-amp breaker. Venues may have a disconnect box where the production can tie directly into the breaker panel giving them more power. Usually there is a fee to use this, and the tie-in must be done by venue staff. Even if the venue will allow the production to do the tie-in themselves, it is important that the production use a trained and qualified electrician do to this work. If this isn’t an option, the production may have to rent a generator. A generator is a device that is often gas powered that generates electricity. They are often noisy, smelly and unattractive. If a generator needs to be used, the venue probably has strict rules about where it can be and what hours it can be run.
The team will have to determine what equipment is needed. If the venue doesn’t own it, the equipment will have to be acquired elsewhere and brought in. This often includes:
- All lighting equipment (including lights, dimmers, and control)
- All sound equipment (Microphones, speakers, and mixing)
- Appropriate cable for the above two items
- Risers to create a stage
- Tables to support the technical equipment
- All the seating for the audience (and risers if needed)
- And drapes to create a “stage” space (and often pipes and bases to support them)
One of the biggest challenges of the production is now taking shape: All of this equipment must be moved into the venue. The production will be paying rental costs while the equipment is loaded-in. It will also take a considerable number of people to move all of the equipment from the trucks to the venue. Often the venue rental and the labor to move the show in (and out) of the venue are two of the highest costs of the production.
The designers will develop a wish list of equipment they need for the show in consultation with the technical heads of each department. This will be developed into a Bid. A Bid is a legal document where-in the production asks rental companies to quote what the costs will be. As a legal document, there are some very important pieces of information that are needed on a bid:
- Names and contact information of the designer(s), lead technicians(s), and producer(s)
- List of all the items that need to be rented including:
- Quantities, brands, and sizes of all equipment
- A note regarding the possibility (or not) of substituting one brand of equipment for another
- The date of pick up and return of the equipment
- The venue name and address
- If the rental company is delivering or if the production will arrange for transportation
There are some items, such as tape and tie line that cannot be rented. They are called expendables because they are consumed (destroyed) in the course of the production. Most rental houses can sell you these supplies. It is often less expensive overall to get as much of the equipment for a show from a single rental house as possible. The larger the volume a production is ordering, the better the discount they will often receive. After the Bid is sent out and quote is returned, there will often be some negotiations between the producers, designers and the rental house to get as much of the equipment the designer wants within the producer’s budget.
If the production is renting a venue (traditional or otherwise), they are racking up costs every moment the production is using the space. For that reason, it is often wise to think about renting equipment that is fast and efficient to load in, even if it costs a bit more to rent. Also, everyone on the production team needs to think about any work that can be done before arriving at the venue to make the load in go smoothly.
Time in the Venue
As indicated above, time in the venue is expensive. Even if the production owns the venue, load-in and technical rehearsal time are days when the theatre is not selling tickets and not bringing in income. Scheduling a load-in is a tricky task. Only so many departments can be working on stage at the same time. The sound department likely needs quiet when testing their system, lighting requires darkness, and costumes usually want a dust free environment. The order that items are moved into the venue is also crucial for an efficient process. The technical director, production manager, and department heads must work closely together to develop a workable, realistic schedule. If the venue is rented, there are also additional fees besides just the day-rate rental fee. Often technical personnel representing the venue must be present at all times the technicians are working the building. Often these staff members are paid an hourly rate, and require adequate meal brakes, time off to sleep etc. This scheduling procedure can be messy, but taking the time to do it well in advance, means a smoother process. It is also important to remember that with so many moving parts, it is easy for the unforeseen to occur. Planning some slop space into the schedule is something experienced production managers do.
The entire technical staff should strive to develop a good working relationship with the venue staff. These staff members have often seen many similar productions come through and have valuable insights into ways to make this production better. Involving the staff in key conversations early on will allow this production to benefit from their wisdom and experience.
- College of the Canyons Performing Arts Center Technical Information