Everyone Into the Theatre

by Michael S. Eddy
Stagedoor Manor's completed Oasis Theater. The sound and lighting booth is at the right.
Stagedoor Manor creates a new space with its Oasis Theater.


Stagedoor Manor, a renowned performing arts camp in New York State, has always been a place about “seeing the potential.” In 1975, Carl and Elsie Samuelson saw the potential of the Karmel Hotel, an old Catskill resort past its storied heyday, to become a first class performing arts camp for young people.

 

Over the years, along with artistic director Jack Romano, they trained and helped nurture the potential in a long list of kids, many who make up a who’s who of the entertainment industry including Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, Jon Cryer, Mandy Moore, Robert Downey Jr. and Todd Graff, whose well-received film Camp was based on his memories of being at Stagedoor. So, it is no surprise that current owner Cindy Samuelson saw the potential of the indoor pool, a remnant of the bygone days of the Karmel Hotel, to become an intimate “in-the-round” performance space. Eight months of construction later, Stagedoor brought the curtain up on the Oasis Theater.

A rehearsal of The Imaginary Invalid in the new Oasis Theater.
The pool was seen as the ideal location because it was underused and yet a main focal point in the building. “A full-size indoor swimming pool took up a lot of room,” points out Samuelson. “We really don’t have swimmers. In fact, most of our kids go down to the outdoor pool to study lines. The indoor pool was centrally located; it was two stories of open space with the upper studios looking into the area.” The choice to make the space in the round was so they could offer the campers a different experience points out Samuelson. “This is our eighth theatre and we try to have a wide array of spaces because it is important for our kids to learn how to work within different stage arrangements. It needed to be a theatre that would be able to do musicals and drama; it was very important to us that we have that flexibility.”

The space was designed by architect Aaron Dai, of Dai Studios and Helia Lee, principal at Helia Lee Design Studio, who both were excited by the challenge of converting the pool to a performance space. Their solution involved creating a separate theatre “building” within the already existing structure.

“Once we saw the indoor pool area, it was so intriguing to us,” recalls Lee. “Choosing the pool area as the site did offer us a challenge. One thing that we grappled with was how to insert this structure into a space that is meant to be wide open and viewed from 360° without completely closing it off. We tried to retain as much of that visibility across the space as we could. We put in two viewing windows looking down into the new space. You can catch glimpses of people rehearsing or walking by and it makes for an intriguing space. Also, in the design, we wanted the seating, aisles and exits to create all kinds of staging possibilities for the directors. Recently, Aaron and I saw a performance at the Oasis, and we really felt encompassed by the production just as we were hoping.”

The pool still exists beneath the sprung-floor stage, and is show here during an early stage of the construction process.
Dai felt that one of the challenges they met very well was the roof design of the theatre. “I think it’s both aesthetically forward and appropriate for Stagedoor, and it addressed some fairly complex physical requirements. It’s actually quite unique in its construction.”

Samuelson understood the problems that Dai and Lee faced. “I think the biggest challenge whenever you are reinventing a space is that you are dealing with an existing space. The girls dormitory was above the new theatre space, and there was a great deal of plumbing so we had to make sure whatever we built would be insulted from the plumbing above it. The design dropped the ceiling down and put a second roof on, which uses existing steel beams of the pool to support a drainage system. If there are leaks above they are channeled down into the drainage system that was in there for the pool.”

Samuelson particularly likes that they actually kept the pool itself, turning it into the engine area of the room. “The pool is still there. There are actual concrete pillars that were put into the base of the pool and on top of that is corrugated aluminum. But you can still go down into the pool — it’s like the Titanic. The bottom area is now used for the air conditioning and a lot of the electrical. We put in a suspended grid for the lighting and all the wiring goes along and then below into the pool.”

Lighting and Audio In-the-Round
Lighting in the Oasis Theater is supported from a 4-foot-by-4-foot pipe grid, which affords a wide range of hanging locations. The grid spans beyond the 20-foot-by-30-foot stage and is suspended from I-beams over the stage. They currently use a Strand CD80 96 dimmer rolling rack from which runs 1,000 feet of multicable up to the grid and along the I-beams to either end of the stage. All the lighting is controlled via a Leviton/NSI Melange Pro console. The Oasis sound system has four Electro-Voice System 200 speakers, one Mackie FRS 1700 amplifier and control provided by a Mackie CFX 12 console.

A 3D bird's-eye-view of the Oasis Theater.
“The Oasis Theater is a diamond in the rough here at Stagedoor,” says Jimmy Rodgers, head of tech. “We are experiencing and learning new things about the space every day. Never having worked in a theatre-in-the-round, I was looking forward to the challenge and am really enjoying it. At first, you might think that a space with minimal to no set, just a few furniture pieces here and there, would be easy; but once we got into the swing of things, it was quite the opposite.” Rodgers continues, “For the lighting designer, the Oasis offers a huge creative entity to play and experiment with because there are many options for different looks, placement and function. Angles play a big part since this is a space where while some front light gives the look you want, you could be blinding the audience members across the stage at the same time.”

Tuning Up the Space

Besides concerns about sightlines, Dai and Lee knew they would need an acoustician to help with the complex acoustic issues of building in the pool area, pointing out that it was an unusually live acoustical environment. This is where acoustician Rich Riedel, principal of Brightwaters, N.Y.-based Riedel Audio & Acoustical Consulting came in. “We did the basic room acoustics as well as some of the finishes that are acoustical treatments and the design of the sprung floor for the stage over the pool area.”

Riedel discussed with us some of the challenges of turning a pool into a theatre. “For the most part we needed to isolate the area. I gave them some guidelines as far as actual wall construction to achieve the highest amount of isolation within the space and the budgetary restrictions. We had to design a sprung floor for dance purposes over the pool, so that was one of the most unique things from my standpoint. The acoustical treatments were chosen to look aesthetically pleasing and would achieve a good balance of acoustics for a multi-purpose use.”

The dorms right above the Oasis Theater needed to be dealt with acoustically as well. “We used basic isolation techniques,” comments Riedel. “We increased the mass of the demising walls and ceilings.”

Stagedoor's new Oasis Theater started out as a pool.
Riedel likes that “the space — in some respects — is very unique because of the fact that you have on any given occasion any number of things happening in it. When I was up there last time, they had a dance class in the new Oasis Theater, they had a choir class in an adjoining space, they had a tap dancing class up above, and they had a dramatic presentation in the adjoining theatre. You have all of these things happening simultaneously; sometimes isolation can be an issue there.”

The space is today what Samuelson saw when she looked at the old pool two years ago. “Until you see something come to life you don’t know how it is really going to be used, but we tried to design it to have multiple purposes. It is where we present our Dramafest program; we have staged musicals and dramas; plus because it has a sprung floor we hold master dance classes there. It is wonderful to see how adaptive the space is; it has become part of Stagedoor in an extraordinary way. Because it functions so well it is never empty, it is constantly used from morning until night. The reception to the space has been extraordinary.”  

Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..