The world of performing arts continues to evolve. Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released studies based on surveys carried out in 2012 stating that classical performing arts attendance—including opera, jazz, classical music, ballet, musicals and plays—has steadily declined over the past two decades. We will most likely continue to see a decline in audiences for the classical performing arts, and an increase in attendance and revenue for popular music, contemporary entertainment, and innovative live experiences.

With every show, contemporary live entertainment delivers an updated, but still unique, experience. Operas of the 18th century are the Broadway shows of the 21st century. Orchestras of the 1700s are the Thievery Corporation of today. Lillie Langtry is now Lady Gaga.

Performing arts centers (PACs) must embrace the concept of popular entertainment inside and outside of the audience chamber to keep audiences excited and engaged.

Audiences have changed. Naturally, contemporary entertainment attracts a contemporary audience—a technology-driven generation with a new set of expectations when it comes to a night at the theatre. Our patrons want a holistic experience.

To adapt to this changing landscape—and more importantly, keep theatre doors open and performing arts alive—decision-makers are re-imagining the built environment when designing PACs to accommodate contemporary popular entertainment.

Here are five trends we’ve noted and, in many cases, implemented into our own projects.

TREND #1: Making a Night (and Day) of It With Better Food and Beverage Offerings

Food culture in the U.S. has evolved, in a good way, over the past two decades. The evolution has caught up to the performing arts, which are now placing a priority on the integration of high quality food, drink, and dining experiences for audiences. This first manifested in the offering of premium wines and liquors at PACs. The offering continued to elevate with pre- and post-show dining, food, and drink experiences; wait service within the audience chamber; and an increase in catered private receptions and VIP events. A smattering of civic PACs have had restaurants or cafés in their building for a while. Now this concept is moving into most civic PAC and university PAC design.

Patron expectations have been raised by the higher quality foods being offered at restaurants. The foodie movement is being supported in PACs with the inclusion of spaces specifically designed for these offering—prep or full-service kitchens, coolers and freezers, serving ware storage and cleaning equipment, and foodservice staff support areas. Some PACs have their food branded by star chefs and, in some cases, prepared by star chefs themselves. This level of high quality enhances the patron experience and ups the patron expectation. PACs are keeping up.

One of the early adopters of this trend was Cobb Energy Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a venue that hosts a variety of events, from Broadway to ballet, and offers a comprehensive menu of seasonal, contemporary cuisine. Its in-house, full-service kitchen gives them the flexibility to customize menus for executive luncheons, corporate meetings, receptions, and other special events.

Adding food service opens the doors to new opportunities for daytime patronage as well. The design for Lubbock’s upcoming Buddy Holly Hall includes a bistro café adjacent to the rehearsal room block of the building. During the day, the center’s rehearsal space will be used for children’s dance classes, making the bistro the perfect spot for parents to grab a bite while their children are in class or rehearsal.

The food and beverage trend impacts the audience chamber, as well. Patrons expect to bring beverages—and sometimes food—into the audience chamber to enjoy during a performance. Most theatres do not have any means of holding beverage containers, so they currently require the audience to hold cups with tight-fitting “sippy” lids to avoid the big spills. A better accommodation could be some form of cup-holders for the seats.

Trend #1, Question of the Day: Cup holders on the back of the row in front of you or in the armrest or on the standard of the chair you’re sitting in? 

TREND #2: Creating a More Social Experience in the Chamber and Beyond

With contemporary entertainment comes a new kind of audience experience. During classical performances of the past, theatre attendees took their seats and quietly enjoyed the show. Things have changed. No longer are audiences glued to their seats until intermission.They now have the freedom to move about, dance, and socialize—from the lobby into the performance room—beverage in hand.

One simple way PACs are fostering this dynamic, fluid environment is by adding social-friendly seating such as couches, booths, and box suites with room for food and beverages, inside and outside of the chamber. The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., did just that with its major renovation in 2012 by adding booth seating, tables, and couches to the balcony, where beverages are permitted during select performances. The Kessler Theatre, a renovated historic theatre in Dallas, Texas, and The Joint at Hard Rock Las Vegas are mixed-use venues with versatile performance spaces, private suites, and reserved galleries. With oversized furniture, private bars, and plenty of room for a buffet, these exclusive areas create premium audience seating areas and can easily accommodate special private events, and yes, even allow talking and tweeting during the event.

This trend goes beyond the audience chamber, as well. Private meet-and-greet areas with lounge-type seating are being worked into out-of-the way corners of lobbies so patrons can relax and socialize in semi-privacy before, during, and after the show. These areas provide opportunities for small groups of audience members to cluster to enjoy a premium social experience away from the crowd while staying connected to the event through audio/video monitors. These gathering clusters are also supplemental revenue streams for PACs. Many venues are now utilizing these compartmentalized lounge areas within the lobbies for pre-show receptions and private parties. These areas are a prime opportunity for businesses and other small groups to sponsor vibrant special events. Simply creating an out-of-the-way area and adding a private bar with catered light-bites can easily create a VIP vibe and an unforgettable night.

Trend #2, Question of the Day: Where do you want to place the Twitter and Instagram seating section?

TREND #3: Convertible Audience Floors for More Versatility and Flexibility

The term “popular entertainment” encompasses myriad performances—from Broadway musicals, comedy acts, pops symphonies, and jazz concerts to lecture series and more. Each of these shows comes with its own individual artistic character, production design, and now, seating configuration.

In order to host more shows, both classical and contemporary, as well as to accommodate each of these shows’ individual needs, many venues are incorporating convertible audience floor systems into theatre design. This provides enough flexibility to host a variety of events, plus it gives audiences a unique experience each time they visit.

Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center convertible floor can accommodate just about any kind of performance, whether it calls for theatre-style seating for a classical concert or flat-floor cabaret-style seating for an intimate jazz show. The venue’s motorized chair-wagon system neatly tucks rows of theatre seats into a storage space that hides below the surface of the flat-floor of the audience chamber.

With proper planning and automated lifts, it only takes a small crew and a few hours to completely transform Dallas’ Wyly Theatre to accommodate multiple performances, including traditional proscenium, variable thrust, and open flat-floor/ballroom configurations.

At the push of a button, and some moving of portable stairs, San Antonio’s new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts utilizes an automated system to completely change from theatre-style to flat-floor in just a few hours. Rows of fixed theatre seats in the orchestra section are mounted on lift-and-rotate mechanisms that literally flip the seats into storage beneath what becomes the even floor on top. Attendees at the 2016 IAVM Performing Arts Managers Conference planned for March 7-9 should see the floor conversion during the conference.

This level of versatility can allow venues to rent their theatre for two, and even three, events per day. Imagine running a children’s play with theatre seating in the morning, an art exhibit on a flat floor during the afternoon, and finally, a jazz show with cabaret seating that very same evening. The possibilities are ever expanding.

Trend #3, Question of the Day: Will the crew be upset if we book seven shows, all with different set-ups, over three consecutive days?

TREND #4: Light and Video Animation Onto Interior and Exterior Architecture

Contemporary audiences expect more than just a performance—from the moment they walk onto the venue grounds until they leave the parking lot or the train station. To facilitate an immersive and visually stimulating experience, PACs are utilizing a full range of architecturally harmonized technologies to place animation and light onto the interior surfaces, as well as the facilities’ exterior façade:  animated architecture—arguably the most exciting and affordable current trend.

Advancements in LED technology have granted theatres more creativity and customization through video and even the simple use of light. For example, in lieu of a traditional house drape, Dallas City Performance Hall has an LED main curtain that is used as a kinetic palette for commissioned electronic video art and is simply experienced as an architectural feature of the facility. Additionally, color-changing RGB LED lights illuminate the walls and ceilings throughout the house, creating a distinct, dynamic environment for each performance.

During its 2004 renovation, a colorful lighting design was integrated into the architecture of Devos Performance Hall, a 2,400-seat theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By adding floor-to-ceiling, easily controllable, color-changing lighting to the 60-foot-tall perimeter walls, the space now feels more intimate and warming. It brings life to the gray walls and further connects seating tiers to one another, as well as to the stage. The Tobin Center went further, 10 years later, with color changing balcony faces that make the balcony appear fluid and change with the mood of the moment.

The New World Symphony Center in Miami Beach has incorporated one of the largest permanently established projection surfaces in North America into its architecture. During their outdoor WALLCASTTM concerts, The New World Center projects video art, films, and live broadcasts of events happening inside the hall onto a 7,000-square-foot exterior wall that audiences can enjoy free of charge.

The New World Center has implemented video projection inside the house, too. On select nights, the venue turns into a late-night lounge that gives audiences the opportunity to experience contemporary classical music in a modern way. New World Symphony musicians perform alongside DJ-spun electronic music, while lighting and video projections are cast upon the interior walls to create an experimental, underground atmosphere.

Expect to see much, much more animated architecture in many different forms. Many projects are now in development that will have animated architecture integral to the building design, both interior and exterior.

Trend #4, Question of the Day: How can we give these walls their own personality using just light?

TREND #5: Audience Immersion

To engage contemporary audiences on an even higher level, shows are rapidly becoming multi-sensory, multi-directional, surround experiences. Through video, sound, special effects, scenery, and positioning of actors, patrons are being placed IN the show and becoming immersed through touch, sight, sound, smell, and even taste. (Think Once on Broadway.)  A major U.S. entertainment company has been exciting their audiences’ five senses for years at their theme parks in California and Florida.

Historically, the actor/musician/dancer—the story teller—has been the focus for the audience. When the audience becomes the story, the audience shares the focus and helps tell the story. The story moves from the stage into the audience chamber. Our prediction is that the audience will be in productions in the future; perhaps be the productions of the future.

Sleep No More, in New York, is an interactive, site-specific production that has been running since 2011. Audiences walk at their own pace over the five floors of the “set.” The audience is encouraged to interact with the environment and the props—pick them up, touch them, read them—and, to a certain extent, interact with the actors. The audience enters the show and becomes a part of the show at the end of the evening’s performance.

The show Fuerza Bruta, and De La Guarda before it, are high-energy shows that take place on every surface of the theatre—the walls, in the middle of the audience, even overhead in a pool of water viewed through a transparent ceiling. The audience is literally in the middle of the action; the audience helps to tell the story. These totally immersive shows embrace the audience by placing the audience in the same environment as the actor by being around the audience rather than just in front of the audience. The audience experiences the same feelings and senses as the actor.

How should our PAC’s road houses and multipurpose rooms, as 50- to 100-year buildings, be planned and designed to accommodate yet unknown production effects like, oh say, a volcanic eruption in the second act of a show yet to be written? Our buildings of the future will have to support immersing the audience so they feel the building shake violently, the concussion of the explosion, the smell of sulfur in the air, the after-rain falling from overhead followed by volcanic ash covering the entire audience chamber. Our PAC will also have to support the spectacularly immersive show moving out by 2 a.m. in time for an 8 a.m. crew call to set the stage for the symphony the next night.

Facility flexibility remains the key to accommodating audience immersion in productions. This must be done without every new or renovated theatre costing an exorbitant amount of money to construct “flexibility” or becoming a heartless box with no character. Immersive road houses and multipurpose theatres must accommodate popular, high-energy shows through technology and flexibility without turning their architectural backs on the classical arts. It is our belief that the above trends support, even create, audience immersion and aid in development of younger audiences for the classical arts.

Trend #5, Question of the Day: How are we going to get all that wet ash out of here in time for the symphony tonight?

Whether theatres are hosting a show for one night, a week, or several months, architectural designs for performing arts centers must holistically embrace the new popular entertainment experiences and the new breed of audiences that are here now and here to come.

Final Question: How about dinner and a show tonight? FM