When I was at school, I loved dance and drama. Creating something that you made your own, and being on stage in front of friends and family – I loved it. In contrast to my first tiny regional public high school, I was lucky at my second high school that we had a professional-style performing arts building to perform in, even on our tight, limited site. Back in the 90s, this was a unique opportunity and I still remember the first days the new centre was open with all its rules of no-shoes-here and don’t-touch-that. But all of our practice and learning was done at other spaces on the College, and we only used the centre for major rehearsals and performances.
Fast forward many years and it seems we are currently in a growth period for performing arts building in schools. This appreciation of the role of creative learning and sharing activities within schools is so good to see. The difference I am noticing now however is the linkage between the public performance and presentation function, and the learning spaces, meaning the whole facility is an educational setting, not a hands-off public-only space.
On my recent trip to Melbourne, I was fortunate to explore two new Performing Arts facilities, one at Loyola College, designed by ClarkeHopkinsClarke, and one at Viewbank College, designed by Law Architects. Both centres were on tight sites within existing occupied schools and both uniquely responded to their site contexts. During our exploring, there were a number of things we discovered.
1. Theatre size is a really individual choice and there is no one size which will suit all schools. The Centre at Loyola College included a 500 seat theatre. Their reasoning for 500 seats was based on their previous experience at the public theatre they used for school performances. They identified that they got 2000 audience members for their main yearly performance, and realised that students needed to run 4-5 shows to experience all the ups and downs of a performance, while also not getting so exhausted that the rest of the school suffers. Working backwards, they determined a 500 seat auditorium would work best for them. Across the College, they also had a tiered forum for 200, a hall for 1500, a refectory for 300 and a black box theatre for 100 audience members. So the size of 500 perfectly suited the College requirements, balanced with their other gathering spaces, where they could run year, house and all-of-College group meetings.
In comparison, the theatre at the public Lakeview College was set up to be configurable for groups of 200 or 350 seated theatre-style, or 500 on the flat, and was based on their previously hired facility which had 250 seats. A series of operable walls, portable stages, and retractable seating (including from the side, which I hadn’t seen before) meant the facility could be three separate teaching spaces, or one large auditorium. This flexibility allowed different groups within the College to use the facility at the same time, in separate and different ways, while also allowing for that rare polished, public performance. Although new and probably as yet under-utilised (the facility only opened in September 2018), the set out of the adjoining spaces was really unique, and I thought very practical for a school of this size. I hope these flexible insertions get used more by the school as they settle into the possibilities of their new building.
2. As beautiful and carefully detailed as these spaces are, we need to remember they are learning opportunities, not public performance spaces. An example of this is the use of the orchestra pit. Usually this is significantly lower than (or under) the stage, for effective sound transfer. However, with a student orchestra, the audience (friends and family) are coming to see the performers, so they need to be visible. At Loyola College, this meant the orchestra pit was only set down a metre-and-a-half or so, so most musicians could be viewed from the auditorium. At Viewbank College the stage was extended further back, so when a performance included the orchestra they could be located behind the action, but on the same flat. For both situations, although the orchestra location would not be appropriate for a professional performance, it worked as an opportunity for students to learn, share and promote their craft, which should surely be the first priority for any performance space in a school environment.
3. Both facilities we visited had the learning spaces directly linked (via a corridor) to the theatre space, with the classes doubling as green room/s during performances. Co-locating dance, drama and music with a working theatre has so many obvious benefits. Instruments are easily wheeled between spaces, lighting and acoustics can be tested and experimented with, and a campus creative hub can be developed. Also, this removes the idea (and therefore nerves!) that the performance space is only for those few nights when everything must be ‘right’ and is not just another place where you learn, try, fail, adapt and try again. I think creating this student ownership and understanding of the facility is so important to the learning of creative industries, by practicing and becoming comfortable with the environment as a learning institution.
4. The importance of acoustics can’t be overstated. In these settings we saw many students undertaking a lot of different activities at any one time. We saw students rehearsing drama plays, while next door their fellow students were playing the guitar and recording vocals, and others were studying the theories of dance. In these environments, to ensure everyone can enjoy their best learning experience, it’s so important that rooms (and more importantly, windows) are appropriately acoustically isolated. We saw a few different ways of doing this, with timber windows, double glazing, acoustic panels, and absorbent ceilings. In one facility we noticed that the low sound of the drums could be heard rooms away. Interestingly, the rooms were fully acoustically treated, however the vibrations of the noise were transferring through the concrete slab – I hadn’t considered this before, but will definitely now keep it in mind for places like recording studios.
5. At both facilities we visited, we discovered the popularity of the creative courses has increased, since the facility was built. What a fantastic outcome. At Loyola College, where they have been enjoying their theatre for the past two years, course numbers have increased to the point where they believe they could have used another Multipurpose Room, as their dance and drama numbers are increasing in some year groups. While this is currently managed through timetabling, it is something they might need to look at in the future. This is an interesting concept, where a building is designed for the current and expected trends, but the very fact of the creation of the building means the facility is persuading more students to take up these creative subjects. A factor of ‘if you build it they will come’? I don’t really know how a school allows for this type of growth but it would be interesting to see if this has also happenex elsewhere.
6. One thing that needs to be remembered in the creation of a Performing Arts Centre is that they are expensive spaces. They therefore really need to work hard for the College, as either an often-occupied, timetabled space, or as a potentially public hired building, which is arguably easier within a private school environment than in a public one. If the space is to be fully utilised (ie timetabled) for student learning then the materials and finishes need to be really robust and hard-wearing. If the building is going to ‘pay it’s way’ by being hired out to the public then the materials can probably be more refined but the Centre will need to include things like a fully fitted out Bio box and a flytower. Which is also infinitely helpful to student learning so is a worthwhile inclusion. I understand though the tension of providing a functional space for student learning, while also ensuring you don’t have an expensive facility on site that sits empty. Both the facilities we visited had embraced the opportunities of being more than just an empty theatre, and I believe the learning at each College would be richer because of this.
7. We were very fortunate to share some time with the music and drama staff at Loyola College, who generously chatted with us about their new facility. As always, it reaffirmed to me the requirement of architects and planners to talk to teachers about their spaces, during design. It never occurred to me (though it should, I play the saxophone so I know about cleaning my instrument!) that the 30 students learning clarinet all need to clean, drain and dry their mouthpieces at the end of their class, so of course a band room needs a sink and a drainer. I never thought about that. Also that all doors need to be wider than you think, as the tuba and double bass cases are massive. Once again, I appreciate how well the users of their facilities know their requirements, and so generously share their advice when they are part of the team.
So, that’s my Performing Arts Centre adventures and what I learnt on day 1 of my Melbourne tour this month. Thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far!