More Room, More Seats, More Money

by Randi Minetor
in Feature
The Staging Concepts Seating Wagon in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis moving into place.
The Staging Concepts Seating Wagon in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis moving into place.

Make your theatre more versatile with convertible staging and seating

Few performing arts venues have the luxury of being one thing or the other. A concert hall may also need to present full-scale theatrical productions, and a black box may be an area’s only place to bring solo musicians, small ensembles and lectures with projected slides. School districts know the benefits of housing a “gymnatorium” rather than two or three separate rooms for the cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium.

For larger venues and professional halls, having the flexibility to add seating, extend the stage or reconfigure the floor plan can increase revenue in a space. Closing an orchestra pit when it is not in use can mean additional seating, which means more tickets to sell—which means more money for the presenter. Converting the floor of an auditorium can create flat space for banquets or dinner theatre. 

But how can one facility serve so many masters? Are large crews required to make the conversion from one format to the next? And where do venues keep the extra platforms, risers and seats? There’s a whole industry devoted to solving these problems.

A number of manufacturers bring clever engineering and ingenuity to the question of converting a space from one thing to another. Not only do these suppliers create solutions that are easy to install and store, but some also make sure that the temporary pieces look as though they are permanent parts of the space.

Filling the Gap: Orchestra Pits

When it’s time to mount a big musical, filling an orchestra pit with 70 musicians can be a thrilling experience. The rest of the year, however, the gap between the stage and the first seats in the house can look like a yawning chasm to a facility manager who has to meet a budget.

That’s why companies like Staging Concepts in Minneapolis make a system called a pit filler, a modular staging solution of platforms, supports and stair units. Closure panels mask the vertical gaps between horizontal pieces, giving the system a finished appearance. All of the elements break down into stacks that fit onto storage and transport carts, which can be stored out of sight in the wings or under the stage until the venue requires them.

“We customize the look and feel of the platform to match the venue’s stage floor, so it looks like part of the stage and doesn’t look temporary,” said Bob Randall, Staging Concepts vice president. “This helps create a versatile type of venue, one that doesn’t look like it’s pieced together.” 

The platform and closure panel surfaces used in schools, civic auditoriums and performing arts centers are made of rigid materials like solid, tongue-in-groove hardwood, black SC90 polyvinyl, or carpet over a rigid surface. Staging Concepts provides platforms with a sanded plyron surface as well, which allows the end-user to refinish or paint the floor as part of a play’s set design.

The pit filler can extend the stage floor to provide more acting and performing space—making a limited stage large enough to hold a full orchestra, for example, or creating more area for dance or large productions. It also can create space for additional seating in the front of the house. 

In some houses, the time required to assemble and dismantle a set of pit filler platforms and supports can simply be too long, however. Theatres that run in rotating repertory, for example, do not have the time required between shows to put up and take down that much equipment. Staging Concepts has a solution for these crews: a pit platform on a scissor-style lift. “We call this an Uplift,” said Randall. “When it’s not in use, it’s in the lowest position, which matches the floor of the pit. Then it’s raised easily with a couple of handles and moved up to 48 inches high, parallel with the stage floor. It uses gas-assist springs and T-handles, so it can be popped up or pushed down into place.” 

Seating Wagons: Larger Audiences Buy More Tickets

Some theatres store wagons of seats under the stage, and move them out and up to the house level with orchestra pit lifts. In the reconstruction of Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, for example, the first three rows of seats are actually installed on a Staging Concepts Moda seating wagon that has been finished to match the rest of the hall, making it a visually seamless part of the auditorium. When a production requires the orchestra pit, the wagon can be lowered on a remote-controlled pit lift and slid under the stage by as few as two people.

“We are very happy with the way the chair wagon works,” said Justin Burke, Northrop Auditorium’s technical director. “Three or four people can move it easily.”

The process begins with assembly of a rail system the keeps the wheels on the correct path. “The rails pin into the floor, and you need a couple of people to put them in,” he said. “Then they guide the cart, so it can’t move from side to side. The cart has tri-casters, so it moves easily once you get it going. It’s pretty much worked flawlessly.” (See the Northrop seating wagon in action at www.stagingconcepts.com/products/moda-seating-wagon)

Moving the wagon is the easy part, Burke noted. “The thing that takes the longest is that I use that area under the stage for storage. There are 160 orchestra chairs and 160 music stands under there, and a couple of Marley carts.” As these items are only used when the orchestra pit is employed and the seating wagons are stowed under the stage, this rarely causes a crisis. 

Burke cautions that venues need to take storage into consideration, however, as the seating wagons need to live somewhere when they are not in use. Another section of Northrop’s seating can be removed as well to accommodate a full orchestra in the pit, but it involves seven carts that must be stored. “Three go into the crossover—so that’s the end of my crossover,” said Burke. “Four of them go on the loading dock. My first idea was to put them all into a semi-trailer truck, but they’re just a little too tall, so we’d have to take the seats off the high side. So storage is something that people should think through.”

When budgets cannot accommodate the price of a wagon, portable platforms can serve as additional seating risers by extending the seating area over the orchestra pit—but not at the level of the stage. Instead, the platform supports can be set to match the height of the auditorium floor. The wagons are built with wheels or air casters, so stagehands can move the seating wagons out onto the platforms with minimal effort.

Seating wagons can be finished to match the audience flooring in the performance hall, whether this requires matching carpet or a custom hardwood or veneer. 

StageRight’s Telematic 100 seating riser in storage mode and with the risers extended. (Though the seats are still folded.)
StageRight’s Telematic 100 seating riser in storage mode and with the risers extended. (Though the seats are still folded.)

Telescoping with Lasers

Some flexible seating requires people-power to move it into place. Other seating products take an ultramodern approach, using lasers as navigational tools to move them correctly into place.

StageRight developed the Telematic 100, a flexible, telescoping audience riser originally conceived for gymnasiums and arenas. Then they adapted the solution for black box theatres. “We created an amazing, high-end, permanent feel audience riser that doesn’t even compare with what we would call high school bleachers,” said Kip Weis, StageRight performing arts market manager. “It can incorporate high end seating, so you can get a large-scale theatre feel.”

The automated system comes with a pendant controller with two buttons—one to move the risers into place, and one to retract them. When the user pushes a button, the laser-guided drive system guides the unit’s movement along the same axis every time, preventing misalignment as it travels.

The risers stack one inside the next like a telescope, minimizing storage issues. “The risers will fold up in such a tight envelope that it will clear the room,” said Weis. “If you have several units, each one comes with its own pendant, or you can put two together and move them as one.” 

The risers can be installed during new theatre construction, or they can be built to fit an existing space, provided it has a flat floor. “We can work with a major seating company, or we can do different things to accommodate your seating and storage needs,” said Weis. “We have a state-of-the-art paint booth, and we’ve done carpet surfaces. We can even do lighted steps.”

Innovations in risers, wagons, and platforms have made the difference for many theatres looking to maximize the use of their spaces. If this is the year that you will look into the doing the same, there are many options that turn idle spaces into ticket sales for venues.