Small but Mighty

by Stage Directions

Stages Consultants (Stages), a theater and acoustics design consultancy, marked its fifth anniversary in business at the end of 2017. The firm is based in Highland Park, NJ with regional offices in Connecticut, NYC, Chicago, and Austin. Led by founders Alec Stoll and Damian Doria, they have nearly 40 years of combined consulting experience paired with another 30 years in the performing arts industry. Having both come from other consulting firms—Stoll from Fisher Dachs Associates and Doria from Artec—the two principals wanted a very client-centered approach. To that end, they are selective about the projects they pursue and accept, allowing them to give focused attention to their clients and to each project’s specific needs. Stages’ projects cover work on performing arts venues of all kinds, from drama theatres to nightclubs—from renovations and adaptive reuse through to the creation of completely new spaces.

“We describe our company as small, but agile,” says Stoll. “Stages provides theater and acoustics consulting on a very high level with a very personal and collaborative approach. We understand that we don’t draw all the lines in the projects; that it takes collaboration with the architect to create the lines that bring the project together. We make buildings that create great art, and the architecture and the design team are part of that art; we need their input because it is collaboration that makes great projects happen.” Doria agrees with Stoll, stating, “We bring the knowledge, creativity, experience and design skills, and combine that with the expertise that our team members contribute. Stages Consultants is able to offer a very high level of attention because of our size and that is a strength for us.” 

Another strength is Stages’ ability to offer both theater planning and acoustical consulting from one firm. Most firms specialize in one or the other. The theater planning side, headed up by Stoll, can develop a space program, conceptual designs for rooms, layout of audience seating for optimal sightlines, and design and specify the theatrical equipment. The acoustical side, headed up by Doria, provides a full range of architectural acoustics consultation, measurements, and modeling. 

“Having both theater planning and acoustical consulting is still pretty unique,” says Doria. “I think that it gives us a great advantage. We don’t come to the table and try to solve the problem as two different problems. We don’t think of theater planning and acoustics as two different, necessarily opposed aspects. We look for where the two sides work together; Alec doesn’t turn off his theater planning brain because I say something should be a certain way acoustically. We look at things from all sides and find solutions that are not necessarily favoring one theatrical function over an acoustical quality or acoustical quality over functional needs. We look for the right balance for the particular project and client’s needs.”

The Stages’ team thinks that it’s important to take the time to listen to their clients, really think through what their unique needs are, and come up with unique solutions for each client. “We go through that real discovery process of understanding what the client’s needs are, how they’re different from the last one, and the 20 years of projects before them, because they are,” says Doria. “Pretty much every client in the performing arts has a slightly different need, even though a lot of them do produce art that is somewhat similar or have similar purposes. Every community’s different, every artistic director is a little bit different, and very often you have the benefit of working with somebody who has an artistic vision. I think we try to embody that philosophy of creating something unique, just as the art that is created within the space is unique.”

When asked what he finds to be the current thinking on theater planning and how schools and theaters allocate their resources, Stoll notes, “The schools that we’re working with right now have several venues. They’re more specialized rooms as opposed to the cafetorium approach, or even the auditorium that was supposed to serve music, band, theater, and musical assemblies. We’re doing projects now that have a theater, a black box, and a television studio or production studio. There are new, what they’re calling ‘one-button studios’ where students can go into a room that’s about the size of an office, push a single button and record a presentation, whether it’s for practice or production. Then there are so many rehearsal halls. We’re doing one project that has, five or six rehearsal halls; band, orchestra, choir, theatre, and dance each have their own personalized space.”

On the technical equipment side, Stoll points to the transition to motorized rigging as really starting to take hold. “It’s been sold as a safety thing, which it can be, but it’s also a real labor saver on the school level,” he says. “The idea that the theater teacher can go into the theater, push a button, fly in two pipes, move the cyc; hang the film screen; whatever it is, easily with minimal labor, as opposed to having to have a crew of people with some on the deck and some on the loading bridge, makes a big difference.”

In fact, Stages just finished a big project at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM) that has installed fully motorized rigging. “The conversation that we had with CCM wasn’t about what’s the bare minimum you can get away with for a motorized rigging system,” describes Stoll. “The conversation was what’s the best system to put in their educational space that their students are going to encounter when they get out into the workforce. Talking with the folks over at CCM, what we determined was that the best thing for those students was that they be trained on a system that they’re going to find when they get out into the field, and that’s going to give both the University and their graduates an advantage.” 

While Stages may appear small they have depth as they have been adding staff, while still carefully managing growth. On the theater planning side is Micah Rahn with a lighting, technical theater, and theater consulting background. Rahn is based out of the New Jersey office. Sarah Martin has joined the firm, bringing her theatrical design and teaching background, along with training as an architect to the team. Martin is based in Austin, TX. On the acoustical side, Evelyn Way, based in Chicago, brings extensive and diverse acoustics experience to Stages’ team. She holds a master of building science in architectural acoustics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

“I think that there’s a couple of really unique things about Stages, aside from the fact that we try to give people a solution that’s really well thought out, and not rushed. Alec and I do bring a huge background of facilities from our respective times with two very busy premiere firms,” says Doria. “We got exposed to a huge number of communities, a lot of different projects, project types, and variations, and have an opportunity to see how things were done in different parts of the world, so I think we’ve tried to bring the best ideas from all of those projects and all that experience together and sort of use them as a palette for our new projects.” 

Stages, certainly has this wealth of experience and expertise they consistently bring to bear on their client’s projects. “It is because we bring a huge amount of information to the table and share that with the design team, that it’s not necessarily a single solution that we come in with,” explains Stoll. “We draw upon our knowledge, including an architect or various designers in the process, thinking through which of these things we’ve done in the past are starting possibilities for this project. It is our starting point but only so that we can build on it to create something unique for our current clients.”

When asked what they would like someone who meets with Stages Consultants to take away with them, Stoll responds, “I want them to know that while we are small, we are also mighty, we’re doing work that’s on a scale with anybody else in the business; we’re working on projects in six or seven countries and many states all across the country.” Doria says that he wants people know, “That we’re experienced; that we are practical; that we have vision, and problem-solving skills. That Stages Consultants has a process to approaching our projects that results in great buildings.”  

Learn more about Stages Consultants at http://www.stagesconsultants.com