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Raising A Theatre: An Interview with Charcoalblue theatre consultants Amanda Brecknell and James Nowell

When you stop to think about it, the physical space of the theatre is a magical space. As an audience member, each time we step into a theatre venue, we are greeted with a surprise – the scene of a war-torn nation, a grandiose mansion interior, or a fantasy realm rife with otherworldly creatures. The ability for a single theatre to hold a multitude of stories and worlds is precisely what draws its biggest fans to it again and again; which is why planning for a theatre’s design is of the utmost importance.

Of utmost priority is the technical side and specifications, to ensure that a show even can go on, such as ensuring power doesn’t overload the system from the lights, or that the acoustics filter out external noise and allow for sound to reach all parts of the space. But even beyond that, there’s so many invisible factors that go into planning, whether it’s the comfort of the changing rooms for performers to prepare, or even good ventilation and air-conditioning, and thinking through how visitors feel the moment they step through those doors into the front-of-house.

That’s where theatre consultancy comes in, a little-known field of the arts scene that is integral towards ensuring new spaces are well-designed. Just like how any building, from an airport to a shopping mall, involves its own specialist consultants to advise on specific details to take note of to optimise comfort and safety and functionality, theatre consultants do precisely that for theatre venues.

The Charcoalblue Team

At the forefront of this sector is Charcoalblue, a Theatre, Acoustic and Experience Consultancy service that originated in the UK in 2004. In the last 18 years, Charcoalblue have established themselves as the theatre consultants to look for if you’re looking to bring a space to life, making a name within the UK, and expanding to include a cohesive and collaborative team across six international studios in the UK, USA and Australia, delivering projects to every corner of the globe.

Wild Rice @ Funan, Wild Rice’s home and theatre

Those corners of the globe happen to include Singapore, and Charcoalblue has recently worked on not one but three theatre projects here: a project at Resorts World Sentosa, Wild Rice’s theatre at Funan, and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay’s Singtel Waterfront Theatre (SWT), which is set to premiere its first public, ticketed performance this week. On our recent trip to London, we met up with Charcoalblue Senior Consultant Amanda Brecknell and Associate Director James Nowell, who were both key members of the team that worked on both Singapore projects. We spoke to them to find out more about how they came to enter the world of theatre consultancy, its importance in the industry, and insider information about the Singapore projects they’ve worked on.

James Nowell

“The process of designing a venue involves. so many people. We start by researching the standards of each locale, before talking to architects to get the fundamentals right. It’s about problem solving every step of the way, such as ensuring sight lines or even how the control room will be set up, and by the end of the project, we’ll have known every theatre inside out, to millimetre precision,” says James. “Every project is unique, and each time we take on new work, we learn something new from the local team and architects involved in the project, from finding out about the building code, to working with local authorities to assure them of having installed safety measures at every step, from sprinklers to step lighting. No matter how many times we’ve done a theatre, each project still has its own unique specifications and requirements.”

“Examples of this include the Factory International in Manchester, which we’re in the midst of. It’s meant to be a permanent space for the Manchester International Festival, and it’s being built on a historic site, which must be preserved. Or even Wild Rice’s theatre, which has been built in a mall and requires a different set of specifications and considerations,” James adds. “We always think long and hard about the brief, and consider how the theatre ties in with the company’s mission and personality and wants. And the more familiar we become with local codes and briefs, the project begins to take on a much clearer shape and form.”

Amanda Brecknell

Both James and Amanda have their own areas of specialty. James consults on all aspects of theatre design, with an emphasis on team leading and stagelighting system design. Amanda provides consultancy in all aspects of theatre design, specialising in auditorium design and planning, foyer planning, seating, sightlines and accessibility. Together, they work to ensure all the nitty gritty details of a theatre are worked out, and the final venue works as intended.

“Clients invest huge amounts of time and money and resources into each project, and that’s why handholding is an important part of the process – to make sure all of this goes into the right place and their idea comes to fruition. Why spend so much money if you don’t have the best team?” says James. “There are times we get clients who hire us quite late into the project, and we notice in our design review that they actually can get a lot of fundamentals wrong. That’s why we prefer to work with clients from the very beginning, and do check-ins on a regular basis to make sure that everything is going as planned, from construction to seating to stage engineering. We have to manage the subcontractors with unique specialties, such as stage lighting and AV, and make sure the quality we’re expecting is delivered on. Clients sometimes need help translating what they need into the architectural and construction world.”

“As foreigners hired to work on local projects, we also have to be careful not to impress our values from where we come from to the way things work here, because everything is different. So a lot of the process is about genuinely just listening to people, and understanding the audiences and clients there, and how can we best facilitate that while dissociating from our UK roots,” says Amanda. “There’s a lot that goes into workmanship as well, such as adapting to the local use of materials. As a designer, it’s fascinating how in the UK, we primarily use timber, but it’s a lot less prevalent in Singapore.”

James Nowell

On their journey at Charcoalblue, it’s a pleasant coincidence that both Amanda and James actually started work on the exact same day, and have been work buddies ever since. “It’s an amazing privilege to be in this position, because I love problem solving and that’s exactly what we’re doing at every step, from the minuscule to the big ticket items, to even budget and lead times,” says James. “There’s something new to work on all the time, and even something like the SWT, we have to consider things we’ve never thought of before, like the unique aspect of the space by the river, and how we’re going to get trucks holding big sets to stage. Even things like structural load – how do you move scenery around, how much does it weigh, how many lights can a space handle without people feeling like they’re in a sauna on a hot summer’s day.”

“I’m architecture trained, but when I was younger, I worked at a theatre in the neighbourhood, and it was such an eye-opening experience where everyone was just so friendly introducing themselves, from painters to technicians,” recalls Amanda. “Architecturally, theatre buildings are so deeply fascinating and complex, and the more you know about them, the more you realise how little you know, and I knew I wanted to work in this field compared to offices or residential for the rest of my days.”

Singtel Waterfront Theatre at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay

Speaking on their working relationship with their clients and subcontractors, Amanda explains the importance of good communication and even education, to an extent. “Out of all the building consultants, the theatre consultant is the only one that will be able to comment on the architecture, because we have to be concerned with everything from where the walls and seats go. We’re not there to be the architect though, and ultimately, our role is to help the process such that the vision is realised,” says Amanda. “Sometimes personalities do clash, and architects can be quite serious, but that’s why I love introducing them to clients who are so theatrical and fun, and who’re willing to give them a big hug.”

“In fact, some of the architects have never actually been to the theatre, and so in building one, they need to be guided from start to finish about all the considerations and minuscule details. We end up visiting sites and spaces together, and unpack the process of construction and the components, from how many dressing rooms a space needs to the backstage, and help them digest it, especially with how overwhelming it can be. We have to break it all down into something useful to the client and the architect, and make sure everyone knows what’s happening,” adds Amanda. “A lot of time, our role is as an educator, and also to offer reassurance; we ultimately work in a field about communication and storytelling, and we use our own experiences to convince architects about what we did to resolve issues, and how it turned out alright.”

“When we look at projects, we look for people who have passion and really care. It’s not an easy path, and very few people actually have worked on a theatre because of the sheer amount of work involved in it, but when you get it right, it’s so special and rewarding,” says James. “We want people to bring their true selves to the table, and to break down the barriers, where we can openly discuss things in a dynamic way.”

Amanda Brecknell

“Working at Charcoalblue is a very dynamic experience, and part of our job is to pick up on long lasting trends in theatre, whether it’s to advise those looking for new space, to future proof things, and be able to pre-empt how things like technology can be integrated into those spaces in future, and of course, ensure that owners’ ambitions also tend towards incorporating that,” says James. “And it’s not always a case where we see every project from start to end, sometimes we simply offer to review the process, or on tiny projects such as school theatres with smaller budgets, that we’re happy to help out. Essentially, we’re making sure their investments are being put to good use and going in the right direction.”

“Across the team, yes portfolio and experience is important, but also the diversity involved. Everyone here had a completely different life before coming here, and we have an open policy where we are all genuinely friends and feel comfortable enough to share and consult each other on a regular basis, like when we get put on projects with specifications we may be less familiar with, even when they’re halfway across the world,” says Amanda. “It’s still a job that’s all about getting people together, to be with one another and learn more, to see more, to experience it all together,” says Amanda. “It’s a multi-skilled industry that’s always growing and changing and evolving, and everyone can afford to learn more, whether from our clients or from each other after every project.”

Amanda and James at the SWT

On the SWT, which officially opens as part of the Esplanade’s 20th anniversary celebrations, the theatre has been in the works since as far back as 2016, where Charcoalblue were tasked to do a feasibility analysis of the site, and engaged in long conversations with the Esplanade team. “It was mentally quite challenging, because architecture wasn’t what led the project, but the adaptability of the SWT to transform its space from one production to another,” says Amanda. “The intention was always for it to be a little raw and industrial in appearance and feel. Because it was led by its functionality, those themes naturally came up, and it became a case where everything in the space served its function, from cables located behind panels, to the Concrete Fibre Panels that both represent the industrial design and also serve an acoustic function. Even the sprinkler pipes, we told our contractors to make them pop rather than hide them, which was completely new to them!”

“The Concrete Fibre Panels specifically were about reflecting the sound back into the auditorium, and in a multi-format venue like that, the panels need to disappear and be absorptive in the right situation, and our goal was always to provide functionality with excellent acoustics. We were there during National Day rehearsals, and could test to see if the absorptive qualities worked and block out external noise,” says James. “We work a lot in 3D mapping to plan and design our spaces, and we’re always considering how everything works and looks in tandem to make sure units don’t hit walls when moved about, or to always safeguard certain spaces to ensure sightlines or space for rigging.”

Amanda and James at the SWT

Not everything has been smooth-sailing however, with the pandemic throwing a major wrench not only in Charcoalblue’s usual process, but devastating the entire theatre industry and the majority of their client base. “Over the last three years, it’s amazing how resilient everyone has been throughout the pandemic, and unless you’re in the know, you won’t realise just how many people’s livelihoods were devastated, from the crew to actors, to those working in the box office and the bar,” says James. “In Singapore, the team dealing with the SWT suffered from how there was a shortage of labour. It was a difficult time to be working for anyone, and we were lucky that Charcoalblue and the rest of the design team were so dynamic that we quickly shifted into hybrid meetings and still managed to get on without too much disruption. It was a challenging time for the team at the Esplanade, but the mission to continue was clear with a focus on detailed planning, working with the contractor and delivering the building successfully when site works could continue. “

“It was hard for us to be kept physically away from the space, because it’s important for us to be there to oversee the space during key milestones, and to constantly offer support to the architecture team,” says Amanda. “It’s a lot like designing a Swiss watch, where everything affects everything, and a single error can affect the whole space.”

Amanda at the SWT

“In a pandemic with no time, we somehow even worked on transforming the Playhouse theatre into the Kit Kat Club for Cabaret, and we just ran with it, and somehow made it through in about 9 months. That was a dramatic transformation, because even though it was just for one show, it couldn’t look like a temporary fixture, and we had to get experienced theatre designers on the team who know how to reengineer older venues, and sped up the process,” says James. “It’s been one of the most challenging times for us to work on all these, but we encountered such amazing people across our projects, and to watch them pull through from beginning to end, it is just so emotionally rewarding. We had valued local support from our friend Suan Wee Tan who made routine inspections of the site when we were unable to travel due to restrictions. His help and detailed eyes have been crucial to this final process.”

“Innovation is one of our core values, and we’re all about looking forward and approaching design in new and totally different ways, like how the Boulevard Theatre in London features revolving circle and stall seats,” says Amanda. “We’d never experienced it before, and it was done because they needed to do several shows in a day and transform their different spaces. You really never know where design can take you, and it takes a huge can-do attitude to face all of these day by day.”

Singtel Waterfront Theatre at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay

“I remember how The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater needed to make double decker bus-sized towers that could move around in different formats, and the Chicago authorities were shocked,” says James. “We’re not one to throw out a challenge, and we love how these big ideas come together, and how we always find a solution to work through it. Even now, there’s a rapid expansion into other fields, like event rooms and stadiums, and especially with digitalisation and the need to incorporate screens, we’re thinking about even bigger ideas like concert tours with huge power requirements, while still incorporating sustainability into the core design.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how the arts community restores itself after the pandemic,” says James. “In the wider global community, there’s been new directions the industry and scene has been working towards, like exploring the possibilities of enhanced streaming facilities, VR and AR during the pandemic, and even having certain failsafes in place, such as designing seating that can be adapted for social distancing, and even then, maximising ticket sales in case of another global pandemic, as much as we hope it never happens.”

Singtel Waterfront Theatre at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay

Ultimately, Charcoalblue was founded from a desire to do things differently, to challenge norms and build a new approach to collaborative relationships. It is this vision that continues to drive them towards doing the work that they do. This team of designers, strategists, musicians, acousticians, developers, creatives and technologists share a single love for performance and the belief that the show must go on, and so, continually take on new projects that push them to greater heights, and make the impossible, possible.

“Our job needs us to have ambition, to understand key things that matter, to make sure the interior works, to create intimacy, and yes it’s exhausting, but so rewarding,” adds Amanda. “And as things progress, we only expect more such projects, like how people are craving immersive experiences now like Secret Cinema or Punchdrunk. It’s not easy, but we work so well together as a company and respond very quickly to each other’s needs when we share our knowledge and expertise.”

“Any field that wants to develop requires investment and continued support, and there’s always the fine line between the commercial, functional and aesthetic elements that all need to be explored. Wild Rice has already done so much with their space and created a home with their theatre and so many productions, and with the SWT, we’re very excited to follow its journey after seeing some early sketches for upcoming shows, and we’re keen to push the boat out, and see how the whole thing functions after enabling the space for all these possibilities,” James concludes. “I am hopeful, and constantly amazed at people and their want to come back, even when things have changed, even when prices have risen, but the future remains bright, with new venues and new experiences still arising, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.”

Photo Credit: Charcoalblue

Find out more about Charcoalblue on their website here

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

1 comment on “Raising A Theatre: An Interview with Charcoalblue theatre consultants Amanda Brecknell and James Nowell

  1. Really informative and inspiring. I feel I have learnt a lot about the approach and necessary process when creating a theatre.


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