On the surface, there’s physically not a lot of difference between many contemporary churches and a performing arts center. Sure, the purposes of the facilities are different, but the functionality is basically the same.
So while there are similarities, the differences are important enough that oftentimes hiring someone with skill and experience in designing and building houses for worship can make the difference between having a facility that helps to encourage the worship experience vs. a place that is merely a performance space where people “do church.”
Designer enlisted a diverse group of people to discuss this topic: Janet Bartlett, Business Administrator with 20+ years of production service at Hilltop Community Church, Richmond, Calif., and Pastor Nehemiah Rogers, newly appointed creative communications director of Hilltop Community Church—both are Creative Arts team leaders at Hilltop Community Church; Gregg Nelson is a senior Market Manager with the Wenger Corporation of Owatonna, MN; John Loufik, Senior applications engineer, Community Professional Loudspeakers; John Storyk, founding partner, Walters-Storyk Design Group, Highland, N.Y.; Tim Tracey, executive director of worship, Northland, A Church Distributed, Longwood, Fla.
DESIGNER: How is a church's worship space or auditorium stage similar to a performing arts venue? How is it different?
Bartlett/Rogers: Aesthetically, very much the same. We have individual seats instead of pews. We have sectioned seating vs. the typical center aisle church layout. This disappoints many wedding planners but is better for church service settings. No one likes to preach to an aisle-way. Our stage provides an extension of about 12 feet beyond our grand curtain when it is closed. For community events where a smaller stage area is needed, this is a perfect fix. A way that it is different: It serves us well when we are in set construction. We pull the curtain and move our band and even choir to the front of the stage area. Set construction can continue without interruption or the need to tidy up for church services each weekend.
We also allowed room on both sides of the stage apron and main floor altar areas to accommodate more people. This space has served us well in varied settings. We once had a very popular group come do a concert. To [our] surprise, the minute someone hit a drum, people rushed the main floor stage area. This space has proved essential on all settings, for those who may need special prayer in a service setting, in theatrical settings we have offered special lighting for various vignettes to be presented, and in a concert setting, a chance to rush the stage.
Loufik: What is the same: From the perspective of an audio designer, acoustic imaging is always near the forefront of my mind when considering loudspeaker system placement. I am always considering how the audience will perceive the sound generated by the PA. Will they hear all of the sound as emanating from the performer, pastor, choir? Or, will the speaker placement detract from the perception of sound localization?
What is different: Theater seating and staging are usually optimized for audience viewing and hearing. In theatrical settings, the platform (stage) is the main focal point. All supporting equipment (lighting, curtains, sets, and PA) function only to support the creative presentation on-stage.
Conversely, church floor plans are based primarily on theological notions and traditions. Some are very symbolic in nature, such as a cruciform floor plan and high arching buttressed ceilings. Some are not symbolic, but seek to serve a sense of community such as ‘fan shaped’ floor plans, which are sort of like a big campfire setting or amphitheater setting that helps instill a sense of community and connectedness.
Finish materials common to worship spaces usually are not acoustically absorptive, which leads to various acoustic problems. The leading problems are excess reverberation levels (excess time for sound to decay) and spectral reflections (strong echoes that interfere with listeners both on- and off-stage). Problematic finish materials include not just ‘hard’ materials like stone and tile, but also include materials that resonate sympathetically and create their own acoustic anomalies.
Storyk: In many instances, there is little difference. Church worship space, like auditorium stage design, first has to deal with programming. Acoustically and electro-acoustically it must address what is taking place in the venue/church. This is always the first question to ask. Many worship spaces today have very complex music requirements, including electronic music; large choirs; etc. At the same time, they typically have very exacting speech intelligibility issues, as sermons and other spoken word presentations are primary concerns.
Tracey: We did not start our design with a stage at all because, frankly, nobody would build a 110-foot-wide stage. We started with the seating of the congregation that we wanted. That’s what we cared most about. The first thing we wanted the congregation to do is to connect with each other visually. So from that standpoint, it’s inverse of a performing arts center where they start to build a stage and then they build seats around sightlines to the stage. We built the seats and then, OK, how do we fit a stage on here. It’s very similar in that we’re talking about a performance space and our space has been used a lot by various symphony orchestras, theatrical touring situations … so it works well for a performance space, but it was originally designed for the congregation to connect with each other. And we put a stage at the end of it.
Often for us the stage environment is mostly, primarily, used to create, to facilitate an environment for the congregation to worship so we use the stage to encourage the congregation to participate—and I think that’s what makes worship energy uniquely different. We don’t want to draw attention to the stage as much as we want the stage to be a catalyst or a vehicle by which the congregation is able to engage in worship. And so the stage can inspire at times, the stage can draw attention—maybe through word, visual, through a song—to a particular attribute of God that people can focus on. In that sense it could be very much like a theatrical space where a character is telling a story. And ultimately that’s really what we’re doing every week, engaging a story and so, in that sense, it’s very theatrical. The difference is, when I go to a theatrical performance I pay $200 to hear professionals sing and I don’t want the guy next to me singing the songs. But, it’s just the opposite in worship. We really come to hear each other’s voices and to encourage each other’s voice in worship. That’s why we’re there, because it gives us a more complete picture of who God is.
DESIGNER: Talk about the space issues, sight lines, etc., that architects should consider. Should they always work with an AVL design firm?
Bartlett/Rogers: One of the best things Hilltop did was add a thrust extension for the stage. This gives that feeling of integration into the room instead of a flat front. I remember a discussion between Jim Heden (our senior pastor), Bill Platt of Platt Design Group, and myself. We discussed all aspects of accommodation and vision before deciding curtain line placement and stage use layout. There isn’t a bad seat in the house from a line of sight perspective.
Platt Design Group was essential in providing vision and oversight in the execution of specific elements to our stage structure, audio, and video needs. They allowed us to discuss and envision what we thought we might need and then brought their expertise and insights to our vision. Professional insight and expertise is crucial to success.
Nelson: Architects should be aware of all possible staging configurations and their ramifications for sightlines, seating, lighting, etc. Partnering with an AVL firm would likely ensure the best chance of success, particularly for larger projects. For example, an AVL firm could help design lighting options best suited for each stage set up.
Storyk: As is the case with any high technology/exacting acoustic environment, I would always suggest that the project architects bring acousticians; theater/church planning consultants; and systems designers on board as early as possible in the design process. Often these three disciplines can be accomplished with a single consultant or a combination of ‘in church’ staff and seasoned professional consultants. One way or another, these design elements need to be dealt with. It is never easy for a theater planner or acoustician to be brought into a project in which a great part of the architecture is already set in stone. It is infinitely more efficient for the ‘big picture’ design issues to be addressed collectively, early in the project. And acoustic isolation (often a large budget issue), should be considered one of the most critical design elements.
DESIGNER: What's the best, most flexible aesthetic for stage appearance, realizing that many churches will want to change sets according to season and sermon series?
Nelson: Personal tastes vary, of course, but most people prefer staging with simple, clean lines that don’t distract from the event/performance/service. Such staging looks great unadorned, but it can also be easily accessorized with skirting or backdrops as desired. Besides the aesthetic advantages, stages without scaffolding-type understructure allow you to create temporary storage areas underneath.
Loufik: Loudspeaker locations for the main PA speaker array must be down-stage of the forward most down-stage position that will be used. Integrating the loudspeakers into a proscenium or large soffit to scrim the system works best to permit proper positioning and include them in the space’s lines.
Storyk: Universal concerns such as budget, current (and anticipated) congregation size, available square footage, pillars and ceiling height are the most inflexible elements of every HOW design project. Once those parameters are determined, issues ranging from pulpit height to wheelchair access and a host of aesthetic options need to be fully discussed. In most cases, logic [and] bottom line realities should dictate form.
DESIGNER: What equipment requirements should be considered and incorporated as part of the church's needs as well as to keep the facility flexible enough for community use and other various needs?
Nelson: Don’t forget ADA-compliant ramps/stairways/guardrails to help maximize usage potential for a range of audiences, and to ensure compliance with local, state and national codes. A variety of deck sizes and leg lengths, and/or telescoping legs, offers flexibility for many different setups.
Loufik: Access from catwalks or other convenient access will aid in re-configuring and maintaining AVL equipment. Material handling access must be considered, for the sake of stage worker safety (volunteers or otherwise) and to accommodate large equipment and sets. Consider including features common to professional theater back-stage environments, such as stage-level external doors (double doors, please) to aid truck load-in and out. This allows moving equipment directly from outside the building to their place on-stage. Include a loading dock or similar truck access that avoids physical lifting of heavy objects and doesn’t require lift-gates. Keep the back stage areas all on one level so that equipment and set pieces can be moved unimpeded on one level surface (minimal doors or ramps). Avoid closing off back-stage areas with too many doors and other obstructions that complicate moving set pieces and equipment from stage left to right, concealed from the audience. Include large storage areas away from the back stage for props not in regular (maybe seasonal) use.
If your HOW will be inviting professional musical groups and others who may need to fly their own audio rigs, be sure to include locations above and forward of the stage [that] can support typical sound system loads from overhead. Also be sure these locations are directly accessible from the loading dock.
The more that a church wants to incorporate theatrical elements into their worship experience, the more that the entire worship space should resemble a theatrical staging environment. In addition to an AVL designer, the church will need to consider employing the expertise from a rigging designer, not just an AFL consultant, although some AVL consultants include rigging in their scope. Consider resources such as ESTA , PLASA , and NCAC to identify qualified rigging design candidates.
Storyk: As is the case with any multi-purpose venue design, flexibility is easy to conceive but often difficult to implement. From an equipment perspective, there are several areas of critical concern. Most obvious would be creating a sound capture and reinforcement system that can range from the obvious speech intelligibility requirements to the more complex reinforced music performance qualities. These are complex issues. Enhancement systems exist that can embellish reinforced sound, but these can be costly, complex and difficult to use and maintain. Recent technology, however, continues to make these systems more affordable and user friendly. Often a more practical and simpler architectural solution (i.e., curtains) can ameliorate significant sound reflection/absorption problems. For smaller budget-conscious installations, creating an appropriate ‘middle of the road’ acoustic environment that will work for speech and reinforced music is the correct path to take.
Video projection and video capture have become critical considerations in many HOW environments. Early in the design process, sight lines and screen placements must be reviewed with a focus on how these elements will affect the aesthetics of the space. Do not allow a large video screen (or multiple LED screens) to become an ‘add on’ late in the installation process. Consider what that screen(s) will look like if there is no image being projected. Again, the key to a successful project is in choosing the most dependable contractors. References should be scrutinized carefully. Previous projects and clients should be visited, budgets and realistic timelines need to be established before any contracts are signed. Davy Crockett was quoted as saying, “’Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead.’”
Tracey: That was one of those interesting questions we kept asking ourselves. We decided that we would do everything according to our best understanding of what we needed in worship, and that always won out. And we’ve done that in other places within the church; if you ever go to our children’s grade school classrooms, they are completely grade school-friendly, so if you want to use them as an adult for other things, that’s fine, but you’re going to be surrounded by grade school-friendly artwork, grade school-friendly furniture design, etc.
That was one of those interesting questions we kept asking ourselves. We decided that we would do everything according to our best understanding of what we needed in worship. We thought that was easier than watering down and projecting the possible uses of the space. Although the whole time we were designing it we said, ‘We hope that this is used for more than just worship.’ Primarily because it’s a facility that’s going to be available and it should be used.
DESIGNER: What are some key logistical things to consider to help effect set changes?
Nelson: If possible, design storage areas to be near the main worship space to speed transitions. Telescoping legs can provide easy height adjustments, particularly helpful for multi-level stages. A volunteer stage crew should be able to easily understand the stage’s assembly and quickly perform the required operations.
Loufik: Backstage, locations can usually be identified for permanent monitors that help with general stage coverage in the role of side-fills, overhead fold-back, etc. Those locations need to be strategically chosen so that they don’t interfere with the main PA and are not obstructed by other hardware (curtains, lighting trusses, set pieces). At the same time, contingencies may need to be made with portable monitor speakers to provide sound coverage when set pieces and permanent monitors cannot be reconciled.
Include platform side and rear entrances that are blind to the audience to allow quick staging of portable gear and to facilitate on/off stage movement of presenters without distractions.
Provide concealed stage boxes to allow quick connection of portable monitors. A multitude of box locations helps so that cables can be kept to a minimum—preventing tripping hazards.
DESIGNER: Do you have any other thoughts to share or points to consider regarding design of a HOW stage area and related equipment?
Nelson: Consider staging as ‘temporary architecture’ when budgeting for this important investment. The lowest-price option will likely not provide the durability and quality needed to withstand years of HOW use. Compared with a homemade plywood stage, a high-quality portable stage will be significantly easier to reconfigure, store and transport, providing many years of service. When evaluating options, ask manufacturers how their staging satisfies three critical load requirements—uniform, point, and dynamic loads. Also, plan for the future and anticipate how your staging needs might change over time.
Loufik: The current state of the art in the audio industry can deliver stunning results for sound reinforcement systems, but the PA needs the right place to perch so it can do its job. It needs a location that doesn’t compromise audio design fundamentals. And it needs paramount attention in worship space design. After all, the whole point of going to church is to participate in communication between God, clergy, and laity. The second two usually need audio technology and acoustics help to hear each other. The first two don’t.
Become familiar with key design principles that guide all loudspeaker systems design:
* Aim the loudspeakers at the audience and nothing else.
* Don’t aim the loudspeakers at microphones.
* Choose a loudspeaker that can effectively focus its sound at the target audience.
* When the acoustics confound a basic sound system design, fix the acoustics first.
Storyk: Today’s HOW spaces are truly multi-purposed, sometimes doubling as community centers and even full scaled community theaters. I personally find this very exciting. This is not a new idea. In fact, if you consider old churches and reflect on their function in the communities, particularly in Europe, the churches were the center of a community’s activities. Careful planning for these types of activities from a space perspective, as well as future-proofing, is imperative. Think ’early’ in terms of power, wire management, flex use, creative seating, HVAC, and on how all these variables impact the acoustics. Integrate these design elements as early in the creative process as possible…. Be sure you’re right and that you’ve got the right support team, and then go ahead.
Mark Johnson has been involved with production arts technologies in one capacity or another for over 35 years. He is currently manager of the Show Production Bachelor of Arts Program at Full Sail University.
Community Professional Loudspeakers | (610) 876-3400 or (800) 523-4934 | www.communitypro.com
Hilltop Community Church | (510) 223-2431 | www.hilltopcommunitychurch.com
Northland, A Church Distributed | (407) 949-4000 | www.northlandchurch.net
Platt Design Group | (626) 355-0100 | www.plattdesigngroup.com
Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG) | (845) 691-9300 | www.wsdg.com
Wenger Corp. | (800) 493-6437 | www.wengercorp.com/worship