Performing Arts Facilities In Education Settings

McMillan Theatre sliding header

Performing Arts Facilities In Education Settings

By Kate Thomas, Director and Head of Interior Design at Austin-Smith:Lord

Performance Arts is a strong and vital industry within the UK economy. Amongst other notable recent developments, the growing UK TV industry and the resurgence in Arts activity since the easing of pandemic restrictions are feeding into this. Wales in particular is enjoying a surge in investment in the TV and film industry including major Hollywood film productions, with a growing recruitment programme in this sector. The leisure sector is ‘on the up’ coming out of the pandemic, as is being published by financial forecasters such as Deloitte. This is intrinsically linked with Performing Arts which occupies a substantial chunk of leisure economic activity between theatre, TV and film and cinema which run alongside and intersect with other leisure sectors such sport, travel and food and drink. Preparing the next generation for immersion in the Performing Arts industry, from the perspective of performers, production roles and of course audiences, is certainly key to the future success of this sector with all of the enriching cultural and economic benefits it brings.

How are we currently achieving this preparation in schools, colleges & universities across the UK and how will this increasingly affect required facilities improvement and building design going forward?


Nationally across the UK the expectation of pupils and staff in terms of the quality and professionalism of performing arts leaching spaces and equipment is growing at pace, soon to catch up with facilities historically only expected in professional settings. In schools, a few extra lights and modular stage blocks in the school hall is being leapfrogged with more professional lighting rigs, flexible spaces allowing various performance configurations and staging, bespoke drama and recording studios , dance studios with sprung floors, acoustically tuned spaces, more accessible changing facilities, and the list goes on.

Fitzalan High School in Cardiff is currently in construction. Austin-Smith:Lord has put bringing the school together for Performing Arts and presentations to the front and centre of the design, with an innovative flexible heart space for different scales and types of event with consideration for cohort numbers, whole school events, sightlines, lighting and acoustics.  There is a bespoke audio visual system within this space which responds to various configurations of conjoining spaces, allowing immersive and shared experiences wherever you are located. Amongst other specialist facilities, the school will boast a flexible dance and activity studio with professional grade finishes, a dedicated drama studio, recording studios, music teaching, rehearsal and performance facilities. A dedicated steel pans room is located at the front of the building to showcase this particular specialism within the school. An exciting addition to the Performing Arts provision is an ‘immersion room’ using state of the art sound and projection equipment to create various 3D environments for students to experience virtual worlds in real time.

It is definitely important to understand what learning outcomes schools need to provide for pupils to fulfil the curriculum requirements for Performing Arts, as this is the backdrop which points to the challenge of the level of facilities that will be required in schools going forwards.

Fitzalan High School

In Welsh schools the new Curriculum coming in this September for ages 3-16 names Expressive Arts as one of the 6 key Areas of Learning & Experience. This spans five disciplines: art, dance, drama, film and digital media and music. In Scottish schools a similar Expressive Arts curriculum was launched with the current curriculum in 2019. The Welsh & Scottish drama curriculums are arguably more detailed and explicit in the requirements for Performing Arts than in England, and schools are designing their new lesson plans to make best use of the facilities at their disposal to achieve this as best they can. The new curriculums are aspirational in the learning outcomes within the subject, requiring familiarisation with digital platforms, as well as wide ranging roles within the industry. To illustrate this, in Wales, the requirements for drama alone (as separate from  art, dance, film and digital media and music)  include plot, character, thought, relationships (which encompasses interaction), tension, focus, place, time, language, voice (which encompasses accent, diction, pitch, tempo, pauses), movement (which encompasses gesture, facial expressions), proxemics, atmosphere, mood, symbols, design which encompasses stage lighting, sound, set, hair, make-up, costume, script writing, directing and stage management, comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, farce, musical theatre, melodrama, mime, physical theatre”. 

Clearly some of these parameters require specific physical facilities and spaces. Going forward, facilities in Welsh & Scottish schools for this part of the curriculum should and will therefore be raised in priority beyond where they have historically been. Improving, refurbishing and extending facilities in existing schools and pushing the boundaries of design in new build schemes to give better learning opportunities will come together to achieve this.

In English schools, performance or drama as a subject doesn’t have its own section in the National Curriculum adopted in 2013. Instead it is a statutory part of English. As such the Spoken Language section reads as follows: All pupils should be enabled to participate in and gain knowledge, skills and understanding associated with the artistic practice of drama. Pupils should be able to adopt, create and sustain a range of roles, responding appropriately to others in role. They should have opportunities to improvise, devise and script drama for one another and a range of audiences, as well as to rehearse, refine, share and respond thoughtfully to drama and theatre performances.”  It is fair to say that there is flexibility in the interpretation of these comparatively inexplicit guidelines so schools vary widely in the facilities they offer to achieve them. This has led to a wide variety in the way in which schools fulfil their obligations within the curriculum, and inconsistency in the quality of facilities. Going forwards there will definitely need be a drive for more consistency across schools and augment the facilities in those with more a basic offering in line with the more advanced and newer schools through refurbishment and extension.

Further & Higher Education:

In Further and Higher education settings the specialist facilities for Performing Arts qualifications need to replicate those in professional industry environments to properly prepare and train the students technically. Recreating professional environments has the added benefit of attracting partnerships with external stakeholders within the professional industry who come and work and perform within the facilities which is a fantastic benefit to the staff and students. There has long been a drive to reinforce the connection between business, local communities and education establishments. This model has been pushed over recent years in management schools with business and entrepreneurship hubs being located on campus, linking industry investment and learning. But there is huge untapped potential to further this initiative within the Performing Arts sector. Raising the aspiration of facilities within education settings without doubt opens doors and exciting opportunities in the arts industry for students and attracts external investment – a model perfectly demonstrated by The McMillan Theatre at Bridgwater College designed by Austin-Smith:Lord. Performing Arts facilities within schools, colleges and universities are a great opportunity to do this and crucially can certainly bolster business plans for capital projects. I visited the McMillan Theatre recently to see how well it is ‘performing’ in a hindsight review. The building is bringing revenue to the College and attracting bigger and bigger shows. By day it is a teaching theatre for drama, production, live event management & theatre technicians. It also has a high specification dance studio with a sprung dance floor. By night it is the town’s theatre receiving touring shows, musicians, comedy and more.

McMillan Theatre, Bridgwater College

Much of the success has been down to the high specification of the auditorium both in terms of technical theatrical performance and the look and feel of the room which rivals the best provincial theatres.  It is also down to the flexibility built into the space, with a proscenium arch which can fold away making the stage part of the room, an orchestra pit which can be infilled and curved stalls seating which retracts into the wall behind for flat floor events, acoustics designed to a wide spectrum of events and accessibility for those with disabilities. It has stood the test of time for both college and community use. It is an impressive facility for students to have as their classroom and as such is attracting great numbers of course applicants, as well as a growing list of high profile touring shows. Performers love the intimate design of the 350 seats, with even the upper tiers of seating feeling close to the stage. It is used for balls, cabaret, standing rock concerts for 450 people. The variety of uses has bolstered the business plan and augmented the college curriculum, so bringing the two worlds together has been a huge success story.

Education in professional performing arts settings:

As Architects, Interior Designers and indeed Landscape Architects specialising in design for both education and the professional performing arts sectors Austin-Smith:Lord is fairly uniquely placed to cross pollinate experience and knowledge between the two sectors of Education and Performing Arts.

We eagerly await the completion of Shakespeare North, our latest theatre project. We have many exciting education schemes at various project stages from conception to completion, and what has triggered this thought piece is our  growing portfolio of designing education facilities within performing arts buildings and vice versa.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Refurbishment

We have worked with Birmingham Royal Ballet over recent years to refurbish then extend their training facilities, including new community changing facilities for school children to come for dance training sessions in the exciting and inspiring surroundings of a professional dance environment. The scheme allows for public benefactors to come and watch rehearsals behind the scenes and feel fully involved in the process. The benefits of engaging with the community and education in this way have been great and have raised the profile of the company locally and nationally.

The design challenge:

Pressure on budgets and available space means intelligent flexible design is key to providing the best possible facilities to inspire the next generation of Performing Arts professionals. Spaces that can transform in scale, acoustics and feel bring great value. This has to be balanced carefully against the need for rooms to be bespoke designed for individual purpose, such as specific acoustic and equipment requirements in designated spaces like recording studios. We predict that virtual reality technology and increased IT integration will become key to this in the future, allowing spaces to be digitally transformed as well as physically. Indeed, understanding the latest developments in the professional Arts industry as well as current drivers in educational pedagogy and educational curriculum requirements is the key to success in blending the two sectors to the benefit of all.

If you wish to discuss any of our past projects, or benefit from our experience in a future project, do get in touch.