K. Alan Lewis, owner and principal consultant at Theatrica LLC, has over three decades of experience in performing arts technology. He consults on projects for theaters, auditoriums, symphony halls, and other types of performing arts and assembly facilities using his extensive knowledge of technical requirements to support all types of applications. His design of a facility is based not only on his experience, but also the goals and expectations of the facility’s staff. In addition to his consultancy work, Alan serves as a technical director and designer for various venues such as Dallas Arts District’s Meyerson Symphony Center, Winspear Opera Hall, Majestic Theatre, and Wylie Theatre. He has also been a contributor to publications such as Technology for Worship and Theatre Directions, and a guest lecturer for high school and college level theater programs.
How did you first become involved with performance technology?
Since childhood, I was enamored with architecture – specifically the drawing of buildings – and wanted to be an architect one day. At the same time, I loved live staged productions. I was one of those kids that, instead of watching actors perform or even paying attention to the story line, I found myself staring at and being mesmerized by colorful stage lighting, fast-changing scenery, and attention-grabbing sound systems. Instead of houses and random commercial style buildings, I found myself sketching theaters and stages – including “fancy” beams of light.
I first dabbled in performance technology in high school. I say ‘dabbled’ because our theater, like so many high schools at the time, was not outfitted with the latest and greatest of technologies. In fact, we had the bare minimum when it came to sound and lighting. We didn’t even have a fly loft, so everything was dead-hung and curtains were on tracks to allow them to be pulled on and off stage.
At the start of my freshman year of college, I became employed by the college’s world-renowned, state-of-the-art concert hall in Pasadena, CA. It was there that I was first fully immersed in performance technologies – everything from sound, AV, and television to theatrical lighting and rigging, and on occasion, even house management. Aside from a few college productions each year, the hall primarily hosted a full-time public concert series, various television productions, attracting audiences from the greater Los Angeles area. It was during this time that I realized my professional interests were theatrical related to a greater extent, and secondarily architectural.
What was your route to becoming a performance technology consultant?
After college, I remained in the Los Angeles area to build on what I had learned by working a couple of internships, including at the Los Angeles Music Center during the four-and-a-half-year run of Phantom of the Opera. I moved to Dallas around 1993 to work for a consulting firm specializing in large sports facilities and a few theaters. While there, I realized that I could combine my two top professional interests – theater and architecture. During my tenure with that firm I learned about the industry of consulting and the methods of design and specification. However, since my interest didn’t really lie within the realm of sports venues, I left that firm and started a theater consulting partnership with another theater consultant in the DFW area, eventually forming Encore Design Group in 2000 and later changing the name of my company to Theatrica.
How long have you been doing what you do?
I very much enjoy what I do, so for some reason, the answer to this question is always longer than I realize – 28 years, just shy of three decades.
If you hadn’t become a consultant, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I would most likely be in the live theater world as a lighting designer or technical director at a performing arts center.
If someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?
As a theater consultant, I work closely with architects and owners to design a spaces for performance and assembly, including space planning and layout. I work with other project engineers to ensure proper infrastructure is provided, such as structural and electrical, and I work on the design and specification of the theatrical systems that are needed in those venues, such as sound and AV systems, room acoustics, lighting systems, rigging systems, stage machinery, curtains, seating, and so on.
Can you outline the variety of the projects you undertake?
While I primarily work on performance theaters, I also work on other types of entertainment and assembly spaces such as recital halls, churches, convention centers, hotel ballrooms, and lecture halls, to name a few. Really, any venue where folks assemble for entertainment and events or knowledge.
What do you most enjoy about the process of your work?
I really enjoy the processes of development of design, coordination, and education with architects and other project team members and striving to help make the architect’s and owner’s project become a realized success.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
I would say the most challenging aspect is finding the right balance between the hopes and needs of the client and the project budget. Understandably, the sophistication of the systems desired by the client is often much greater than their budget will allow.
What would you say are the key elements of a successful project?
Safety. Flexibility. Cost. Safety is of utmost importance in any venue, but especially in educational theater where the users may lack experience. Flexibility is something that should be a feature of all performance venues and systems – allowing the venue and users to grow into bigger and better systems as technology moves forward. Cost is always important, keeping the systems design within budget. Nobody enjoys the process of, or even just thinking about, coughing up more money after construction begins.
What are the key skills or attributes that you require to do your job well?
Without doubt, I feel both listening and understanding are the two most important skills needed to do my job well – most specifically with the end user, by listening to and truly understanding their goals and intentions for their venue.
Having said that, another skill that simply can’t be overlooked is the willingness to learn new things. It can be easy for a consultant to fall into the mentality that they are the expert and can’t learn something new from someone – especially from those that may have less experience and years in the industry or the arts. I’ve always said that the day a person decides they can’t learn something from someone else, they are no longer a professional.
What are the most common misconceptions that you encounter among clients?
Probably the most common would be the misconception that “a different or better sound system will fix bad room acoustics.”
Which piece of advice do you give to clients most often?
Most often it’s my advice to make sure to get adequate infrastructure right within the building, even if the systems can’t be initially afforded to the extent they wish. More funds may be available down the road – and with the right infrastructure, they can more easily and more quickly accommodate expansion and upgrades.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
While I do enjoy a challenge, probably the most frustrating aspect of my job is the number of fast-track design projects and that some are becoming faster-track than most.
Can you tell us something about being a consultant that most people don’t realize?
I still find that many people, even some venue owners, confuse consultants with design/building contractors. Consultants don’t sell equipment, don’t install equipment, and don’t make commissions on products they specify.
Which types of projects do you find the most rewarding?
While they are not usually high-visibility projects, nor the projects that garner the higher design fees, I find high school theater projects to be the most rewarding. Making sure today’s students have what they need to get a solid theater technology background is very important to me - especially when it’s common for a college freshman to say, “well, back in my high school, we . . .” It’s satisfying to know the student is proud of the technologies they had in high school – especially when it’s equal to or even exceeds what they have to work with in their next chapter of life at college or even a municipal venue.
Which of your projects have you found most satisfying, and why?
Really any of the municipal theater projects as they typically have larger budgets allowing for more creative and sophisticated designs.
But specifically, probably the most satisfying project thus far has been Dallas Independent School District’s Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA). Not only was this a high visibility project located in the heart of Dallas’ arts district, but it was very satisfying working so closely with DISD and their arts instructors and staff at BTWHSPVA. The design meetings with DISD were so refreshing. Not only were the meetings full of very creative ideas, but it also became quickly evident that the students were the topmost priority.
How do you keep yourself appraised of new technology and potential solutions?
Aside from industry magazines, national entertainment technology trade shows, and maintaining a relationship with technology manufacturers and their representatives, I also kept involved in Dallas’ local arts scene, doing live work at several of our performance venues allowing me to maintain hands-on experience as well as interfacing with venues’ technical directors, live lighting designers, and live sound designers, learning how they work as technology continues to evolve.
How has clients’ awareness of LED lighting technology changed in recent years?
Clients are becoming increasingly aware not only that LED is clearly the path theatrical lighting is taking, but that it’s not as expensive as it was even just a few years ago. In theory, one color changing LED instrument replaces three conventional incandescents – each with their own gel color for color mixing.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in equipment and system specifications in recent years?
In the lighting world, LED lighting instruments becoming brighter, making them more viable for front/long-throw lighting and quieter moving lights. In the sound system world, systems becoming more fully digital as digital protocols, such as Dante, become more prevalent as manufacturers integrate the technology into their products. Aside from much more creative sound mixing capabilities, the reduction of cable and conduit in a venue is significant.
How important is it for you to have a close working relationship with the equipment manufacturer’s representatives?
A close relationship with manufacturers and their representatives is very important. While theater consultants are considered experts at performance technologies, the manufacturers and their reps know more about their products than anyone. Often, they’re able to suggest how to use a particular product in a way that’s different to what I’ve considered, often making that particular product the best choice to solve a design issue.
Solutions-wise, what is missing in the marketplace? What would you most like to see from manufacturers?
Simple – wireless power, right? Aside from that dream, I’d like to see even brighter, affordable LED spot instruments that work in those long-distance throws from balcony positions or even those 90+ foot front light throws in large volume venues like symphony halls.