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Sense of Place

A Campus Theater's Act II

Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center at Southwestern University (Texas)
University Business, Jun 2008

Bringing new life to a 1950s-era theater involves addressing everything from stage size and lighting and sound to temperature control and audience comfort.

<B>-FUNCTION</B>: Art, music, and theater facility-with studio, classroom, and performance space-for The Sarofim School of Fine Arts.

<B>-PROBLEM</B>: Despite some recent building additions, including a "black box" theater and some labs, gallery space, and offices, the center's main concert hall was in need of a complete overhaul. The stage couldn't accommodate performances with a large cast; there was no orchestra pit; the lighting, sound, and scenery rigging systems were dated; and the noisy old HVAC system at times had to be turned off during a performance and then back on before the Texas heat became unbearable.

In addition, audience members had to contend with a lack of lobby space. People tended to arrive just before a performance and "linger throughout the building, with the sense that they were standing in the hallways waiting for the doors to open," says Paul Gaffney, dean of The Sarofim School. For those with physical disabilities, parts of the building were inaccessible. Also, with some parts not sonically isolated from each other, a performance couldn't take place at the same time as a rehearsal elsewhere in the center.

<B>-SOLUTIONS</B>: Two small additions, a new entrance, new building systems, and a total theater renovation later, the center is in its glory. Guests have a place to visit with each other and even view some art before a performance, with a bright, new lobby about four times the size of the former dark hallway. Gaffney notes that "150 to 200 people can be mingling comfortably."

Speaking of comfort, the 700-plus theater seats are roomier. And larger productions are now possible, especially with the two nine-foot grand pianos that used to dominate the space behind the curtain stored in a new climate-controlled area.

Disabled guests can use a dedicated wheelchair lift for easy access to the lower area of the theater (all staff, plus individuals upon request, have a key), and inside steps have been replaced with ramps. "Access to all new and existing spaces for users and visitors to the School of Fine Arts has been achieved," says architect Robin Bruno.

"The most challenging aspect of the design was the integration of the new and existing spaces, knowing there is a final phase of the project left to complete," adds Bruno, speaking of future plans to expand the building further and renovate its large main wing. But for the time being, Gaffney knows that, at a glance, visitors can tell it's "a top-notch arts facility."

<B>-TIMELINE</B>: Completed in November 2007, dedicated in March 2008

<B>-COST</B>: $10 million

<B>-ARCHITECT</B>: Group Two Architecture in Austin

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