Theater Seating, the Diva of the Construction
“There are so many variables that go into auditorium seating, it’s beyond the imagination,” said Dr. Stephens, president.
The engineering and planning of seating for the SFCC Theatre for the Performing Arts began over two years before construction ever began and was one of the most important architectural issues of the whole project, Stephens said.
SFCC wanted the renovated auditorium to seat the same number of patrons as it had in the past or at least come as close to the number as possible. It also wanted to improve the sight lines and comfort of the chairs, Stephens added.
SFCC compiled a list of specifications for the creation of the new chairs. It wanted seating that wouldn’t squeak; more space between the knees and the backs of seats; chairs that folded up fully to make the aisles passable; nice, durable fabric that blended well with the theater’s color scheme; foam density for comfort that wouldn’t lose its shape; and the architects wanted to feature the white ash wood that was used throughout the rest of the theater with curved wood chair backs and arms.
“It sounded simple when we first sat down and drew up all of our specifications,” said Glenn Little, vice president for administrative services. “But there were numerous twist and turns along the way we never expected.”
It started with how to avoid squeaky chairs. SFCC had two types of chairs to consider – spring loaded or gravity actuated seats.
The architects suggested gravity actuated seats because they don’t have mechanical parts that rub together (unlike spring loaded seats), which eventually cause squeaking. Instead, gravity actuated chairs have weights in the bottoms that balance them and allow them to rise up automatically.
The architects also wanted to incorporate the theater’s featured white ash wood with curved chair backs and arm rests.
“However, we found that white ash doesn’t always look the same, it depends on where it’s grown,” Little said. “Each piece of wood has its own independent characteristics, so we had to work with all the different companies to match the wood, which was a big challenge. But I guess that’s just the nature of wood.”
Next, the fabric had to be addressed. It was important for the fabric to match the theater’s color scheme of creamy white and deep red walls with burgundy and light brown carpet in the lobbies, accented with brown and tan ceramic tiles. White ash wood was also featured throughout accompanied by bright brass and glass accents.
While addressing the fabric, Little found there is much more to fabric than color. One of the most essential elements of fabric is its “double rub” measurement, he said.
A double rub test is used to simulate a person getting into and out of a chair and measures how the fabric endures the wear of continually rubbing against another fabric.
SFCC decided it would require a burgundy fabric to blend with the theater’s color scheme and one with at least 100,000 double rubs.
Another major specification that had to be considered was the size and arrangement of the seats. The orchestra level chairs needed to be 33 inches tall while the side box and balcony chairs needed to be 36 inches tall.
The pitch and angle of the seat backs also vary between the orchestra, balcony, and side boxes. The taller the seat, the more pitch needed on the seat back. The pitch of the seat back also affected the row size, creating another challenge of determining the correct size for each section.
Along with this, the theater seats had to be wider than the original seats and were staggered to make for the clearest sight lines.
Once the specifications were compiled, eight American-based companies placed their bids on the project with most sending a sample chair.
The bid from Newton Seating of Jacksonville, Fla., came in $150,000 lower than the next lowest bid or $100 lower per chair.
“We were concerned with the bid because it came in so much lower than all the others,” Little said. “We thought for sure something had to be wrong.”
Newton didn’t send in a sample chair to begin with, so Little requested a sample before SFCC could consider its bid.
Once all the chairs were in, Little and many other college employees compared and ranked the chairs.
“The opinions varied significantly depending on gender, height, body types, and aesthetics and perceptions of the chair,” Little said.
Once Newton’s sample came in and it proved to be a well-built chair, SFCC chose Newton to oversee the rest of the auditorium seating.
“Newton wasn’t the most popular among those who tested it,” Little said. “But once the company was chosen, we were able to tailor the chair to our specifications. We tried to take all the advice, likes, and dislikes of the other samples and incorporate them into one.”
Newton served as the middleman and contractor for the seating construction. All payments were made to Newton, but the seat installers were contracted out of Missouri, and the seating manufacturer, Hussey Seating Company, was contracted out of Maine.
Hundreds of fabric choices that met SFCC’s specifications were sent, however, none of them seemed to offer the color, pizzazz and pop that SFCC was looking for, Little said.
As a result, Little spent hours collecting and reviewing fabrics from other manufacturers. In the end, SFCC bought fabric directly from Maharm, a fabric manufacturer out of New York City. The fabric was made to order for SFCC and shipped directly to the seating manufacturer.
However, because it was not one of their original fabrics, Hussey could not guarantee that the pleat in the chair back that SFCC desired. To ensure durability, Hussey had to conduct a “pleat test.” After months of testing, the fabric and pleat passed the test.
Once the fabric test was successfully completed, it looked like things were finally moving forward.
The shipment of chairs arrived on time in the first week of January, and the installers began installation. Two weeks into the installation though, the installers realized they were missing an entire cargo container of supplies.
The third cargo container had been delayed in a Jamaican port, which pushed the installation back by three to four weeks, Little said.
The installers couldn’t finish the chairs without the missing supplies, which finally arrived in the second or third week of February, just days before the grand opening of the theater.
“It definitely was a challenge to finish on time,” Little said. “A lot of things depended on the installation of the chairs – the carpet couldn’t go in until the seats were finished, the stairway lighting couldn’t go in until the carpet was in, etc …”
“Every time we turned around, there was another issue,” Little added. “It filtered all the way down to the seat numbers.”
SFCC wanted seat numbers on the chairs to match the brass accents throughout the theater. However, the standard plates that came on the chairs were black and silver, so the custom brass plates had to be installed on-site.
The only problem was the glue that came with the plate wouldn’t stick to the base of the chair. In turn, SFCC ordered additional plates and installed them during the last week of construction. To make matters worse, the rivets on the new plates were too sharp, and SFCC feared they would harm patrons. The installers then had to hammer out each individual rivet on the chair numbers to ensure safety.
“In the end, everything turned out beautifully,” Little said. “We learned many lessons from the construction and will be better prepared for future projects. It’s funny how we become experts in fields we never expected. I never thought I would know so much about theater seating.”
The theater’s seating capacity is 1,458. The orchestra section has 907 seats with an additional 34 seats on the pit cover, which is removed for orchestra performances. The balcony has 353 seats, and the 20 side boxes provide seating for 164 patrons. Along with this, 28 handicap seats are available throughout the theater.
Number of Seats: 1,458
Orchestra Pit: 34
Sideboxes: 20 sideboxes with 164 seats
Seat Types: Gravity Actuated
Seat Color: Burgundy, White Ash Wood
Number of Double Rubs: 300,000