What’s Hot? Constructing and Managing Outdoor Stages

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The Scott Outdoor Amphitheater of Swarthmore College.

My consultancy colleagues and I are working on four amphitheater projects right now. One is a feasibility study for an amphitheater inside a sculpture park. The second is a strategic plan for an existing amphitheater. Another is a needs assessment for an outdoor facility on the Pacific Coast. The final project involves helping a city in Florida recruit an outside operator for an existing amphitheater. Given all of this, it would seem to be a good time to address some of the issues and trends facing outdoor performance facilities, outlining four trends and how we are seeing them play out.

The Outdoor Experience

The advantage of outdoor facilities is that they are…outdoors. Attending an al fresco experience is an opportunity to commune with nature — even when under an awning, in a comfy chair, with a cup-holder.

One of my favorite outdoor theater experiences was at Sundance, where they have hosted an annual summer musical (on and off) for decades. I last went some years ago to see Gypsy. We made the hour-long drive from Salt Lake City, pulling up the long and winding dirt road to the resort. We parked the car and hiked the ski hill’s bottom portion, arriving at the amphitheater. There was a simple, uncovered stage, and seating in a semi-circular series of stone and grass terraces. We spread out on a terrace and enjoyed our picnic, wine and beer included, while there was still daylight until the performance began. The temperature dropped rapidly after the sun went down, so we all wrapped in our sleeping bags by the second act. And when the show was over, we packed everything up, stumbled back down the hill and made the long drive home.

It was a wonderful event. The show was great but the real key was that the experience was an adventure. For many people who live in the region, attending an “adventure” has become an annual family tradition.

People want limited barriers to cultural participation. I would contend, however, that the idea of an arts adventure is exactly what a lot of younger people are looking for. They are less interested in traditions; they are definitely looking for participatory missions to accomplish. So let’s give them more.

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Outdoor Economics

The other great thing about outdoor facilities is that they can be built for less and sustained for still even less. There is little need for full-time staff, less general overhead, and minimal ongoing costs, save some landscaping. Outdoor facility operators are under less pressure to constantly program, allowing them to be more selective and prudent with how these spaces come to life.

That said, most outdoor facilities are being developed to host large-scale commercial entertainment. The world of touring live entertainment has been changing rapidly over the past 20 years; the last big thing was the emergence of festivals as a way to mitigate the risk of promoting individual artists whose precipitous rises and falls make their performances fraught with danger.

We’re now seeing the end to many of these independent festivals and the increasing dominance of large players, such as LiveNation and AEG. These two companies now control live entertainment in markets all over the country, essentially preventing smaller presenters from accessing talent at different levels. All of this means you’d better not build a large outdoor venue for commercial entertainment unless you have a partner who can guarantee access to a product that your market will find attractive.

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Amphitheaters as Landscape

The key trend of contemporary outdoor facilities is designing them to be integrated into the landscape, having a visual appeal that goes beyond being a performance structure. We’re observing is a shift away from the large “sheds” of the past 20 years to smaller facilities with both a higher level of design and a desire to minimize the environmental footprint. These are not new ideas but rather a return to older design concepts. One of the treasures in my office is a book on gorgeous amphitheaters, mostly in the American West, that was assembled by landscape architect Linda Jewell.

Our most interesting consulting assignment for an outdoor facility is with a sculpture park thinking about performance opportunities. They have a spectacular site that cannot be compromised by new structures, so we’ve done a lot of thinking about starting with the landscape and then creating facilities that appear and unfold at the site, plus temporary structures that can be moved into location as needed.

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From Performances to Events

More outdoor facilities also host bike rides, marathon runs, flea markets, beer and wine tastings, Fourth of July celebrations, food fairs and all sorts of other gatherings. Some are almost at the level of destination events that attract tourists; others are more local in their orientation. Many have entertainment components, meaning there’s something on the stage — but the event is broader.

The trend is shifting.

In addition, these events often focus less on generating revenue and more on driving economic activity, enhancing quality of life or just plain community-building. This is a great trend, but it does force us to think about facilities that are less about the performer-audience relationship and more about a free-flowing experience in which families, pets, vendors, music and food are mashed together in a very modern way.

Overall, my team suggests that there is a bright future for outdoor performance facilities. But it depends on smart, environmentally conscious design, selling adventures and supporting a much broader range of activities.

  • Michael Mell

    Excellent summary of amphitheaters. I would think your comments in the last paragraph about “performances to events” to be applicable to brick and mortar venues too. As you have written before, content and community integration are ongoing issues for all performing arts venues.

  • RoBow

    Interesting tip-of-the-iceberg article. Surprised that you didn’t get into issues of the elements, i.e. which way the wind blows, where the sunset would come from, accommodations for rain, and what’s the basic climate in a particular area. As a site-specific producer, these are the things that scare me indoors. There are also important issue to consider, like design limitations and how scenery works, or doesn’t, with the base scenic elements. Lighting is a fun challenge, because if it ain’t dark… well, you get it. And how about acoustics? Barriers and topography can both help or hurt, but it’s almost always harder to hear actors outdoors, because even with mic’s and speakers, sound travels. I love to see shows in amphitheaters, but not so much making them — there’s a lot more to consider and a lot more work to do. Good luck with them all!