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Inside Look: Performance spaces

Flexibility is the name of the game in today’s campus theater configurations
University Business, February 2014
  • The orange ceiling panels in the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University (Mo.) create a solid catwalk flooring to ensure maximum student/staff safety for this theater space, which the campus shares with The Repertory Theatre Company of St. Louis and the St. Louis Opera Company.
  • The walls of Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University (Mo.) move to expand and contract seating. A $5.4 million renovation in 2002 upgraded the dressing rooms and costume shops, and added a shock system below the floor of the dance studio to reduce injuries. Architect: Mackey Mitchell (St. Louis)
  • Marrying old with new: Built in 1932, the Paramount Theater, in the heart of downtown Boston and part of Emerson College’s Paramount Center project, maintains the facility’s art deco history while meeting the institution’s current needs. The original 1,700 seats were reconfigured into a 590-seat performance venue. A new building constructed on the site of the former Arcade Building on Washington Street includes a 170-seat film screening room, a black box theater seating 125, a sound stage, a scene/prop shop
  • The upper four floors of the nine-story Paramount Theater building are now dormitory space for 260 students while the lower level is configured for a restaurant and student cafeteria. A restored rococo fan that was previously used to push organ music toward the audience now functions as an acoustical reflector above the forestage. Architect: Elkus Manfredi (Boston); Construction manager: BOND (Boston); Acoustics: Acentech Inc. (Mass.); Theater Consultant: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander (New York)
  • New Mexico State University’s new $28.3M Center for the Arts is designed to be inviting to the general public. The lobby faces a prominent intersection and the rehearsal room is transparent on two exterior sides, making artistic activity within visible to the campus and community. Architect: Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture (N.Y.), Associate Architect: ASA Architects (Las Cruces, N.M.), Theater Consultant: Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc. (Los Angeles), Acoustician: Acoustic Dimensions (N.Y.)
  • The acrylic mural called “Magic Hour” and painted by renowned mural artist Meg Saligman on the ceiling of the 450-seat theater at New Mexico State University is inspired by the surrounding desert landscape and the sun setting on Las Cruces.
  • In this $71.8 million planned construction, Western Illinois University will build the Center for the Performing Arts, featuring a 1,400-seat theater with two balconies, a 250-seat thrust stage and a 150-seat studio theater, rehearsal studios for fine arts students, dressing rooms, a scenery/design workshop and a loading dock that will accommodate buses for professional touring companies and orchestras.
  • Located on the south side of the campus, Western Illinois' CPA will consolidate performance spaces close to the classrooms in Brown, Memorial and Sallee halls. Architectural lead: Pelli Clark Pelli (Conn.); Architect: Cannon Design (Chicago); Acoustics: Kirkegaard (Chicago)
  • Amplifying the sound of music: Every aspect of Miller Theater at Alfred University in New York is built so that soft-spoken words and music get heard from any seat. The HVAC, lighting and even the 475 seats in the theater—built in August 2010 as part of this $23 million project—create less noise today so as not to interfere with performances. The shape of the theater, which has no right-angle corners, is designed to push sound from the stage out to the audience. The room provides enough reverberation that s
  •  Walls were also designed to optimize sound reflection. Digital mixing allows for multiple sound sources, and the mixing board can be programmed to feed sound effects on cue and turn microphones on or off. The orchestra pit has a hydraulically operated lift, which raises the Steinway grand piano from the pit to stage-level, bringing the performance closer to the audience. Architect: Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood (Boston); General contractor: LeChase Construction (Rochester, N
  • Creating flexibility for diverse music styles: Undulating red oak slats cover the walls of the Mairs Concert Hall in the center of Macalester College’s Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center in St. Paul, Minn.
  • A key component of the August 2012 $33.8 million renovation of the 1963 performance space in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, the lattice conceals variable acoustic fabric curtains that can be deployed and retracted to tune the hall to meet varying sonic needs of the college’s jazz bands, a capella groups, pipe band and African Drumming ensemble.  Architect: HGA (Minneapolis); Theater planner: Schuler Shook (Minneapolis); Construction: McGough Construction (St. Paul, Minn.); Acoustics: Acoustic Dimension
  • Designing for all: Completed in October 2013 for $114 million, the 184,000-square-foot Reva and David Logan Center at University of Chicago includes a long, low skylit building that houses classrooms, studios, workshops, rehearsal rooms and performance spaces for visual arts, dance, music and creative writing. (Photo: Jason Smith)
  • Coupled with the 11-story “tower of the arts,” the combination of low and high evokes the flat prairies of the Midwest combined with the skyscrapers of Chicago. Architect: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (N.Y.); Theater planner: Schuler Shook (Chicago); Acoustics: Kirkegaard Associates (Chicago) (Photo: Tom Rossiter)
  • Opening walls and minds: Designed in collaboration with faculty and staff for $72 million, DePaul University in Chicago has its own performance space for the first time in 30 years. The building fits DePaul’s theater training philosophy of having everything in one place, while also allowing theatergoers and people walking by to see in. The five-story building consists of 250- and 100-seat theaters, and three dedicated rehearsal spaces. Pictured here is the interior of the Theatre School at DePaul’s Sondra &
  • The drawbridge at DePaul University allows large scenery to be built and moved from the scene shop directly to the stage of the Fullerton Theater. Architects: Pelli Clarke Pelli (Conn.) and Cannon Design (Chicago); Theater planner: Schuler Shook (Chicago); Acoustics: Kirkegaard Associates (Chicago) (Photo: Jeff Carrion)
  • Communing with the community: The Corn Center for Visual Arts and Riverside Theater Complex at Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga., are part of a downtown revitalization project, so maintaining the look and feel of the rest of the downtown community was key when conducting the $35 million restoration of these historic buildings. Because the Corn Center sits in a renovated textile warehouse, there is lots of open space for artists.
  • Special touches at Columbus State include north facing skylights to provide pure light, ventilation hoods, and electrical outlets that drop from the ceiling to increase the number of available connections. The walls of the Riverside theater and lobby are lined with recycled pine recovered from a stable that was torn down nearby. Architects: Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc. (Minn.) and Stevens & Wilkinson Stang & Newdow, Inc. (Atlanta) (Photos: Jonathan Hillyer)
  • Creating intimacy: In 2013, Duke University orchestrated a $12 million renovation of its 42,000-plus-square-foot Alice M. Baldwin Auditorium. A larger, traditional auditorium has become a more intimate concert hall for Duke’s nine performing ensembles and the hundreds of students enrolled in the Department of Music with the addition of a wooden canopy on the walls and ceiling, which are adjustable. A balcony and wraparound box seating were added to the interior. (Photo: Ray Walker)
  • The exterior of the Alice M. Baldwin Auditorium includes two new side lobbies for special events and easier access into the hall. The new format allows up to 70 musicians on stage, with additional space for a choir. The canopy was specifically designed to improve the room’s acoustics and allows the orchestra to hear better and play more cohesively. Architect: Pfeiffer Partners Architects (N.Y.); Theater consultant: Theatre Consultants Collaborative (N.C.); Acoustics: Jaffe Holden Acoustics, Inc. (Conn.)
  • Being located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, N.C., makes being kind to the environment a priority for Appalachian State University. That means energy efficient lighting was key when the Plemmons Auditorium got a 58,000-foot addition. The new LED downlights have TrueWhite Technology, last 50,000 hours, require little to no maintenance, and are controllable via a centralized system. Architect: RDM associates, Davidson, N.C. Lighting: CREE, Inc. (N.C.)

The top trend in college performance spaces today is the flexibility being built into them. From adjustable walls and seating that can accommodate a variety of performance types to acoustics that adapt to handle everything from African drums to an orchestra, theaters are expected to match specific events.

“We see more and more educational users asking for fully flexible ‘black box’ type spaces, where the stage and seating can be rearranged for each production,” says Robert Shook, founding partner at Schuler Shook, a Chicago-based theater planning consultancy.

One factor driving this shift is an increase in the diversity and variety of arts classes—everything from dance to set design to creative writing is taught in today’s theater buildings. Once designed solely to accommodate orchestra music, theaters now might have a play one week, a soloist the next, and an orchestra the week after.

Participation in the performing arts is on the rise at all schools, including institutions where theater and music are not offered as degree programs, Shook says.

With more diverse performances, drawing a broader audience also has become a priority. Amenities such as more inviting lobbies and more comfortable seating are increasingly common. “Modern theater seating systems today provide more comfort with thinner and lighter-weight materials and construction,” he says. They also are incorporating power and IT wiring at every seat.

In addition, with the population getting taller and wider, the average seat width and row spacing have increased.

Projection and direct-view screens are popular on stage today to enhance viewing and create a more exciting experience. Intelligent lights—which can be programmed to pan, tilt, zoom, change color and produce other effects—and environmentally friendly LED lighting also are finding their way into performance spaces.

Motorized rigging—which is used to raise and lower everything from curtains to lights and other set materials to actors themselves—has become safer and less expensive.

Modern theaters have multiple wheelchair positions and assistive listening and closed-captioning systems for hearing impaired patrons. In addition, stages, control rooms, orchestra pits and other backstage areas are designed to be open and free of barriers to help the physically challenged move around, Shook says.