Properly designed, the simplicity and intimacy of a small, 40- to 50-seat theater can make it the perfect place to unleash the imagination of audiences, focus attention on stories instead of special effects, and attract fans of live theater. To build a successful mini-theater, start by choosing a location near an arts district or any area with plenty of accessible parking.
Draw a floor plan using graph paper.
If you're establishing a theater that holds 40 to 50 seats and includes a performance area, sketch the dimensions as at least 20 feet wide by 60 feet deep. Adjust the floor plan if you find a smaller space. Locate the line representing the back wall, and then sketch another line five feet downstage to mark a stage wall with a door as a backstage entrance. Draw another line at least 10 feet downstage as the end of the performance area, and then draw two rectangular areas for seating to accompany five seats wide and five to seven seats deep with a center aisle four feet wide between the seating sections. Although it's a larger theater, the Reynolds Industrial Theater at Duke University is worth checking out for its use of dimensions and space.
Purchase liability insurance or builders insurance for protection against accidents during the construction phase. Ask an insurance agent about policies that will protect attendees and actors during performance and rehearsal dates. Consider purchasing directors and officers liability insurance to protect the board members of non-profit theaters. Offering protection is key to attracting and retaining strategic volunteers, writes Ken Roberts, program manager for USI Southwest, in the article “Directors and Officers Liability—Can We Afford Not to Have it?” Read the article via the American Association of Community Theater website (see references).
Locate an indoor space that resembles dimensions in the drawing. Remove existing items and debris. Choose a space that preferably has restrooms within 10 to 15 feet of the performance area for actors and theatergoers. Erect box shelves to place in back corners for use by theater personnel. Mark off the stage area and build the back wall. Create risers for the seats. Make each row about six inches higher than the row below. Create each row with about two feet of space for either folding chairs or theater-style seats. Carpet the seating platform and the steps.
Position two stage lights on either side of the stage. Place an outlet in the walls on the sides nearest the lights. Tape down cords to prevent accidental tripping.
Place a desk near the front entrance for guests to sign in and buy tickets. Keep a locked cash box and make a deposit immediately after purchases are made. Stock a small compact refrigerator near the entrance for water and soda. Place a listing on Freecycle.org for seats, props and other needed items.
Make sure all seats have a clear site line to the stage. Take pride in creating the theater space. Paint the interior walls black or grey for neutrality.
Prepare for possible construction-related or performance-related accidents Have one or two fire extinguishers handy even if the space is equipped with ceiling sprinklers