The show must go on
The temporary theater, built to host productions during renovations to a permanent auditorium, in London, England
PHOTO BY PHILIP VILE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL THEATRE
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
England's largest publicly funded theater had to shut down one of its three auditoriums for a yearlong renovation. The project sponsor—the National Theatre in London—didn't want to halt performances for an entire season, however. It needed a temporary replacement.
In 2012, the National tasked Haworth Tompkins, the London-based architecture firm designing the renovation, with building an interim on-site structure by 2013, when the permanent space would close.
With just one year and a £1.2 million budget to build a theater that could seat at least 225 people—the minimum number of ticket sales to meet the venue's operational costs—the project team couldn't afford to linger with the concept, design, procurement and construction phases.
“If we tried to go through the usual linear process—come up with a concept, draw up a brief, get input from writers and producers, flag any potential difficulties, plan more, make revisions, etc.—there's no way we could've done it in a year,” says Paddy Dillon, associate director, Haworth Tompkins,
Mr. Dillon secured the smallest team possible—two people from the National, two from Haworth Tompkins and one theater consultant—so they could make decisions quickly and nimbly adapt to changes. Fortunately, theater clients are quite familiar—and comfortable—with a flexible project management style, Mr. Dillon says.
“If we tried to go through the usual linear process, there's no way we could've done it in a year.”
—Paddy Dillon, Haworth Tompkins, London, England
“They're used to managing projects because every show they put on is a project,” he says. “And they're used to dealing with risk because theater shows are inherently risky. It's what they do every day of their lives, so they're comfortable with not always knowing and having to remain flexible.”
A Shared History
The project team had just one day to hire the contractor. That's all it needed.
“We were originally only going to speak with one contractor but instead decided to have three contractors come in on the same day back-to-back. Each interview took about 90 minutes,” Mr. Dillon says. “We chose one that afternoon.”
Mr. Dillon picked a contractor he had worked with previously, in part because of a proven track record of working collaboratively. The contractor immediately joined the team's weekly meetings.
“The level of shared understanding was solid,” Mr. Dillon says. “There was daily communication and shared trust.”
PHOTOS BY PHILIP VILE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL THEATRE
Originally, the team intended to make the space an empty box—adaptable to each show.
“But we quickly realized that, while the building itself would be cheaper that way, the individual shows would be more expensive, requiring more sets, more seating configurations and longer breaks in between shows,” Mr. Dillon says.
Instead, the team opted to have the shows adapt to the space and placed the seats and stage in a fixed position. While the configuration became less malleable, the National remained flexible.
“When we told the National Theatre of the change in direction, they were more than okay with it,” Mr. Dillon says. “Theater projects are like building someone's private home: The spaces are highly specialized and flexible, and the process to build them needs to be as well.”
A Cut Above
When the project went over budget, the team members had to find savings of about 15 percent. So they looked up.
“We all assumed we'd have a full technical level above the stage, complete with lights and catwalks, but that was really expensive,” Mr. Dillon says.
The solution was to build a mother truss, which would carry the lights and be hoisted down to stage level so they could be changed and then put back up again for performances.
“It meant the ceiling would be lower but was far more affordable,” he says. Because the lower ceiling called for fewer materials, it resulted in lower costs.
Topping It Off
As the project neared completion and the budget reached capacity, only essential items made the final cut. The theater, designed to look like a giant red box, wouldn't look quite right without a matching red top, but because of time and money constraints, the fate of the red roof deck hung in the balance.
“The red roof deck served no functional purpose but was important to the final look of the building,” Mr. Dillon says.
He waited until the last possible moment to make the call: Either leave the actual roof exposed, or build the roof deck and complete the look of the lumber-clad red box. With only days left, the team determined there was enough time and budget to construct the deck.
“Theater companies don't just cast a show, practice it, then perform it. People and elements are being changed until the lights go on,” Mr. Dillon says. “This ability to experiment and change as you go is something project managers could learn from.”
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