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Installations to Inspire

From Stage Directions

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Theatre can be done anywhere—and frequently is—but whether it’s a multi-purpose room, a re-configurable black box, or a purpose-built space with multiple theatres, it needs to be designed with care and outfitted with the right equipment to work correctly. Here are four recent installs and the companies that made the space work, no matter what it was.

The Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre in the Writers Theatre complex

Glencoe, Ill.

Writers Theatre’s new theatre center, designed by Studio Gang Architects in partnership with theatre consultants Auerbach Pollack Friedlander, and built by general contractor W.E. O’Neill Construction, features two intimate performance spaces (a 250-seat thrust stage and a 99-seat flexible black box venue, respectively), patron and artist amenities along with rehearsal and production spaces.

Among other key features in the new theatre center include the Litowitz Atrium, a spacious main lobby with seating tribunes that functions as a central gathering area; the Stephanie and Bill Sick Rooftop Terrace, one of several outdoor landscaped spaces; and the Grand Gallery Walk, a timber structure by renowned engineer Peter Heppel, suspended around the lobby and serving as a viewing area and “front porch” to the building—all of which comprise a place of both physical and artistic beauty.

Lightswitch Architectural was responsible for lighting and lighting control throughout the entire building, except as it specifically illuminates the stage. “Everything that’s not a Source Four,” jokes Avraham Mor, CLD, partner at Lightswitch Architectural and the lighting designer on this job. Part of the mandate for Lightswitch was to help the theatre achieve a Gold LEED certification. The main way they did this was just as you’d expect: lots of LEDs. But there’s creativity and control behind those LEDs that make sure everyone working in the theatre can be efficient and artistic.

Every light source back of house is LED, except for a couple exceptions. The scene shop needed to include some incandescent work lights so they could be sure their work would match the light on stage, which was designed as a traditionally dimmed incandescent space. Dressing room mirrors were ringed with incandescent sources so actors could get their coloring right as well. But these were also engineered with energy-savings in mind.

“When you turn on incandescents, the LEDs turn off. The two can never be on at the same time,” says Mor. “The incandescent fixtures only exist to match the stage source color.”

Everything that’s not on theatrical dimming is controlled by an ETC Unison system that consists of two Paradigm processors and four Echo Relay panels. Two processors were necessary thanks to all the keypads and auxiliary sensors throughout the building. Illumination sensors in the building know when to turn on exterior lighting, manage the light levels in the theatre’s lobby, and automatically turn off lights in rooms that have been vacant for 30 minutes. Because the building was planned five years ago, when the ideas of nodes was prohibitively expensive, DMX is distributed throughout the building via opto splitters.

“The key to this whole thing is the Unison system. There’s wasn’t any other way to go,” says Mor. The four Echo Relay panels include redundancy for emergencies—two for normal power and two for emergency power. In the case of emergency a generator supplies power and the DMX sets all emergency fixtures to full. “I’m not familiar with anybody other than ETC who makes a product that’s fully UL-924 listed for this scenario.”

But even though it’s an architectural system there are still theatrical flourishes. “For the lobby space itself, there was a real push to not have any lighting in the ceiling, but to light the ceiling. You have this beautiful wood ceiling, this wood structure, glass everywhere,” says Mor. The team decided to embrace the theatrical. “The end solution we came up with uses Source Four LED Cyc units lighting the ceiling. They have ability to do color changing, tune in to a specific color and be very theatrical. We’re not hiding the fact that this is a theatre, and this is a theatrical space.”

Writers Theatre General Manager Jon Faris was delighted to find the Writers Theatre family felt right at home in its new and impressive environment. “From the first day our artists and technicians began using the building it has felt like we’ve lived in it for years already,” Faris says. “This feeling of comfort is rewarding—it shows that the design team and contractors listened closely to us as clients to give us what we needed, exactly how we needed it to function smoothly as a theatre company.”

The British International School of Chicago

Chicago, Ill.

At the British International School, creating a total performing arts and athletic facility out of a gymatorium space required a clear plan and peerless technical execution, especially from an audio standpoint. Enter Matt Gajowniczek, president/founder of Sound, Production and Lighting LLC, who took on the project with his business partner Mike Ross.

“From the beginning of the project the school made it clear that the room needed to be very flexible,” Ross explains. “There was no dedicated auditorium planned for the building so the school needed the gym’s lighting and sound system to be able to handle a very wide range of performance and event applications; anything from choir and band concerts, lecture based activities, or fully produced musical theatre performances. At the same time, the room needed to always exist as a gym, where the system and installed technology would not get in the way of classes during the day, and, ideally, aid them. At the same time, this complex and multifunctional system must be managed by teachers and facility staff who wouldn’t have the time in their daily routine to also be full time A/V engineers.”

To accomplish this, the SPL team installed 15 loudspeakers across the room, all routed and driven in a way that allowed the room to be divided into a variety of zones based on application; analog and digital input panels were spread out around the room to allow for the audio mixing position to be moved and setup anywhere in the room. “The control and configuration of the system is managed by a custom created graphic user interface on a flush mounted touch screen in the processing rack that allows quick and intuitive changes to the system, based on the user and the needs of the production,” Gajowniczek adds.

Using a dozen RCF C3110-96 speakers downfired from roof joists, the SPL team zoned the system into a number of configurations that could encompass various house layouts. “We used 10-inch two-way passive cabinets with a 90°-by-60° pattern to provide smooth coverage throughout the room,” Gajowniczek says. “A main cluster of three Danley SH46, 40°-by-60° Synergy horns provides main coverage for the bleachers in theatre mode.”

A great accomplishment as part of the install, according to Gajowniczek, was putting in a custom GUI control system to cover the gym’s audio. “Again, the room needed have so many flexible applications, but also needed to be simple enough for anyone to operate,” he continues. “The custom-created interface, running on a Microsoft Surface tablet flush mounted in the rack, allowed different modes to be selected. On top of just the zone control of the speakers, these presets in the software system allowed the user to power up/down the system, run diagnostic checks on the equipment, and load specific equalization presets.” The control system was also so easy to use school staff members required almost no training to operate it.

The end result? The British International School now boasts the perfect flexible event space that will allow its students to do, and be, their very best.

The Meyer Sound Constellation system in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater
San Francisco Opera’s Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

San Francisco, Calif.

Located in the newly renovated Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the 299-seat Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium was outfitted with a Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system, custom designed to provide the showcase venue with a range of acoustic environments, depending upon specific performance needs.

A D-Mitri digital audio platform provides the backbone for Constellation, and hosts the patented VRAS acoustical algorithm. This works in conjunction with 24 widely distributed microphones and 75 small, self-powered loudspeakers mounted discreetly within the theatre walls and ceiling. But Steve Ellison, applications director, digital products for Meyer Sound, felt that his biggest technical challenge was accommodating the various seating configurations available in the space.

“The room can be used in a flat-floor configuration as well as with stages set on various walls with risers in other parts of the room,” Ellison explains. “Constellation can be set in a way that optimizes the system response both for the musicians as well as the audience in these various configurations. Unlike the active acoustics, changing the seating doesn’t occur ‘with the press of a button’ so we had to make sure to qualify the system with artists in multiple room configurations to ensure the best performance, and this took significant planning and coordination given their schedule.”

Ellison welcomed the input of the creative personnel who tried out the space as the project evolved. “The most rewarding aspect was experiencing the acceptance of the technology by the artists—singers, instrumentalists and directors—as they performed while we made small adjustments to the final settings,” he recalls. “One of the tenors was so articulate in his expression of the subtle changes in acoustics settings he experienced that we joked with him that he could always fall back on an acoustics career if singing didn’t work out! Related to this was coming back for a rehearsal to assist the creative team with finding an appropriate (acoustical) setting, and arriving to find that they had already dialed in the system to a setting that they loved and to which we made no adjustments.”

The Julianne Argyros Orchestra Hall at Chapman University’s Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center For The Arts
Chapman University’s Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center For The Arts

Orange, Calif.

The $82 million, 88,000-square foot Musco Center was designed by architect Pfeiffer Partners in collaboration with Theatre Projects, acoustician Nagata Acoustics, and AV consultant Sonitus. The center features the 1,044-seat Julianne Argyros Orchestra Hall, featuring a mezzanine, side boxes and two levels of balconies. The theatre features a full fly tower, stage traps and two orchestra lifts that can create a Broadway pit, large opera pit, or stage extension, plus a dimming and relay system, advanced LED lighting, and a full array of rigging, including a motorized house curtain.

In a very novel design twist, the space can transform from proscenium theatre to concert hall in less than an hour through the use of a one-of-a-kind fully flown orchestra shell. The unique 120,000-pound shell, designed by Nagata Acoustics, is lifted and flown by hoist machinery through coordinated grid slots, in conjunction with Pook Diemont & Ohl and their partners, C.K. Wegner and Thern. Michael Ferguson, Theatre Projects’ project manager, elaborates, “What’s great about the Musco Center, and what we put a lot of care and effort into, was making a beautiful performance space that doesn’t just feel like a room with an orchestra shell wedged into it,” says Ferguson. “It’s not just a proscenium theatre that we put a shell in; it’s a concert hall where we can take the shell out. It’s one of the most well-integrated orchestra shells we’ve ever designed.”

All in all, the Musco Center’s design elements allows for high function—the hallmark of any successful install. “We all know it is difficult to achieve one room that does all things well, but this room really does,” Ferguon summarizes. “The Nagata-designed acoustics aren’t compromised in the least, and the technical capabilities are all there for opera, dance, and amplified performances. This flexibility allows not only their music and opera programs to grow, but allows great performances to be brought in and housed on campus, enriching the lives of both students and community.”

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