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Multi-Purpose Spaces

Kevin M. Mitchell • Renovations & Installations • August 1, 2011

A cross-section of the multi-form theatre at the Orlando Multiform Theatre, designed by Theatre Projects.

A cross-section of the multi-form theatre at the Orlando Multiform Theatre, designed by Theatre Projects.

Theatres are figuring out how to get more bang for the buck

There was a time when the artistically inclined shunned the word “multi-purpose” when applied to the space where his or her art was to be created. What’s needed from a hall to enjoy ballet is different from what it takes for an opera to soar. But technology, creative designs and sheer demand have all collided. There result is that there are some amazing multi-purpose spaces being created, both as renovations and from the ground up.

JaffeHolden created an acoustically “transparent” balcony for the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas

JaffeHolden created an acoustically “transparent” balcony for the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas

Death to Dead Zones

Mark Holden of JaffeHolden says the theatre building industry learned that often “multi-purpose” equaled “no purpose.” “A number of halls built in the 1950s and 1960s did not function well, especially acoustically,” says the CEO of JaffeHolden. Compromises left no one happy. But at JaffeHolden “We’ve been working for many years to create sonic environments that can be spectacular—just outrageously good for every type of performance.”

One recent project they did was the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas. The space is home to the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin and community arts groups.

“For a symphony you want a rich reverb that persists and engulfs the listeners. For that Broadway musical with amplified sound, you want it to dissipate quickly and be tight and clear. So you need to be able to tune the room.” This was achieved at Long by a series of acoustic banners that are tucked into “garages” that go unnoticed by the audience when not in use. “You don’t see them,” Holden adds. “And above the top of the ceiling are thousands of feet of acoustic banners completely motorized.”

Another feature is the “transparent” balconies, which are designed so sound can pass through to get to those seated below. “The balcony itself is made of concrete, but there’s an open grill that the sound goes through,” Holden explains. This did two things: First, it eliminated the dead zones. Secondly, it has allowed the balcony to be brought out further, closer to the stage and thus increased the number of seats without reducing acoustic quality.

When the Center Point High Schools is finished it will use strip dimmers.

When the Center Point High Schools is finished it will use dimming strips.

A Different Approach to Dimming
The Theatre Guys—Charles Swift and Larry Graham—have been working on a major multi-school project for Jefferson County, Ala., including Center Point High School. For a new high school theatre that will have to serve many needs, they’re taking a next-gen approach to solving the school’s dimming needs and forgoing the traditional dimmer room, instead installing Strand distributed dimming strips in the grid. The result is savings on future electric bills and also during the construction process.


“We’re talking savings in the tens of thousands of dollars,” Graham says. “The client is really loving it.”

Installers still have to run a substantial power circuit to each of the strips, but hundreds of runs of wire are eliminated, as well as the dedicated room full of equipment that needs cooling. Plus, with the way lighting is headed, Swift and Graham feel the idea of a 20-amp dimmed outlet every 18 or so inches in the grid is obsolete.

“We’re surprised that so many people are still forwarding that notion,” says Swift. “Because it’s clearly not the direction that the fixture loads are going in at this point.” They believe LEDs are now of sufficient brightness to be used effectively in the theatre, and will only get brighter and cheaper—which means more and more theatres will use them. And LED fixtures (along with most automated fixtures) don’t need a dimming power source. “LED fixtures are looking for a non-dimmed power source and signaling. That’s all they need. And then everything else is taken care of inside the fixture. So that’s really what’s forwarding this notion for us at this point.”

It’s a Shell, It’s a Wall
Charles Cosler of Cosler Theatre Design is in the final stage of work on a multi-use hall within a new student center at Molloy College, Garden City, N.Y. “It’s a very budget driven project, so the square footage allowed was a constraint,” he says. “But we decided the acoustics needed to be varied for acoustic music, bands, theatre—whatever they wanted to do there.”

How constraining was the lack of space? No fly space. But Cosler and team came up with a creative solution: a special acoustic shell that could be easily deployed in various setups yet needed no storage. How? The pieces simply became part of the stage walls.

“We made a permanent upstage wall and rigged two side walls that telescope and fly as horizontal pieces. They are at the ends of the pipe so they don’t interfere with other rigging and at the push of the button, the shell configures.”

In addition to saving money on not having to build a bigger theatre, the speed and flexibility of the shell will allow them to schedule more varied events tighter together. A traditional shell would take hours, but with this, there could be a one-hour lecture at 2:00 p.m. and an orchestra concert at 4:00 p.m.

The 550-seat theatre does have a balcony and there are variable acoustic drapes that be deployed to make it more dead for speech. But it’s the shell that will do most of the heavy lifting.

A New Kind of Multipurpose Theatre
Feldman Designs is a full service design and build company, specializing in lighting design and consultation for not only theatre, but also corporate events and increasingly television. “We specialize in providing the most cost-effective and creative solutions to any project a client brings us,” president Dave Feldman says. His theatrical designs have been seen in over 25 countries at such venues as London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Iblana Theater in Dublin, the New Victory Theater and Lincoln Center in New to name a few.
Feldman has worked on many multi-purpose theatre projects, but one had an interesting beginning and an even more interesting outcome. Almost 10 years ago he was working with a director on a Disney project when the need for kids to have access to theatre came into the conversation. Out of that came multi-use space within a multi-plex movie house.

“We wanted to put live theatre inside movie theatre malls,” Feldman says. “So I developed a complex where when building one of these malls, we’d take the largest movie theatre screen and make it so that it could convert into a live theatre space.”

Hired by Walden Media and United Artist Theater, a mall in Lakewood, Colo. would be the first of what they hope to be many others. The entire screen was put on a track in a grid system and moved by a motor. With a push of a button, the screen would move so there was a stage and a full grid with lighting would be revealed. “The FOH truss would come down to just the correct trim height,” Feldman says. The entire transformation takes just 10 minutes.

“It’s tremendously successful and the best part is the theatre next to it can still be showing movies while the one that can be transformed is doing a play. It’s a situation where the theatre is being used from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for rehearsal and then a button is hit and movies are shown.” All the live-theatre elements are completely hidden.

In addition to that creative endeavor, he’s increasingly bringing his creative theatre experience to the television design and his work has been seen on such shows on The Disney Channel, A&E Television, NBC, HBO and CNN to name a few. Currently he’s working on Energy Now, a complete virtual television studio based in Washington, D.C. – no sets, all green screens.

One of the more recent projects was for the Roone Arledge TV Studio for the Columbia School of Journalism, which is a teaching studio for new journalists.

More Revenue Streams
“One of our most exciting projects right now that falls into the ‘bang-for-the-buck’ category is the Orlando Multiform Theatre,” says Scott Crossfield, a principal consultant and theatre designer at Theatre Projects Consultants. “We are building a three-venue PAC featuring a 2,700-seat Disney Theatre, a 300-seat community theatre and a 1,700-seat multiform theatre.” Phase one broke ground in June and phase two is planned to break sometime next year. When done, it’ll be seamlessly an opera house, concert hall, recital hall … and flat floor venue. You know, for weddings.

“The room will change between forms in 90 minutes, not counting specific production requirements,” says Crossfield. “This will allow a concert in the morning, a matinee in the afternoon and a flat-floor banquet or fundraiser at night. It’s a one of a kind theatre because of the way it opens up revenue options!”

Theatre Projects, founded by Richard Pilbrow, has a staff that has a portfolio of multi-forum theatres around the world. “These days, all theatres are multi-purpose to some degree. We need to make them flexible so they can earn the most revenue,” says Crossfield.

Early conversations were based on initial interviews with not only user groups but also the community. The flat floor aspect is especially creative, as this opens the door to “a number of things,” he laughs. “You could put on a circus if you were so inclined!”

And they decided to go all-in with the 2,700-seat Disney theatre. “There are two orchestra pit lifts, so if they want to do a Broadway-style musical theatre piece, or have live music for dance, they can. Also we have a concert shell in three pieces. The large piece in the back handles the lion’s share of the work, but the two other completely moving parts can be adjusted for a small performance. The best part is the audience never knows about the transformation.” When the shells are gotten rid of it, it’s a fully functioning stage house.

Knowing the Questions
Jyle Nogee, who opened Houston-based Theatre Design Services more than a year ago, says that those looking for solutions to the different acoustic needs of an orchestra versus a stage play could be well-served by motorized variable acoustics.

“The fact that automated draperies or banners can typically be deployed by a single staff member cuts down on labor cost and, more importantly, allow the system to be really useable. I have visited venues where the automation of variable acoustics was ‘value-engineered’ out and manually operated draperies were installed as a compromised solution—and then they were rarely used as a result.”

Also in the “value added” realm of possibilities are modular solutions. He sites as a basic example a seating configuration that is designed to use the same riser units in each configuration. Also, the possibility of getting more seats in the space should be addressed. “Although it might require sole-sourcing or single-sourcing, theatre owners might benefit by selecting a specific seat manufacturer and model early in the design phase. The reason for this is that the ‘seat envelope’ – the front–to-back dimension of seat in the unoccupied or raised position – is a dimension that is included in the total row-to-row dimension. In some audience chambers installing a seat with a smaller seat envelope might translate to an additional row or rows of seating.”

Flexible – and Fast
The newly completed Valley PAC at California State University, Northridge, is a 166,000 square-foot multi-use complex that includes the 1,700-seat Great Hall. [We’ll be running an article devoted to this new facility in our October issue –ed.] It’s home to orchestra, opera, Broadway performances, film, contemporary music and dance.  Auerbach Pollock Friedlander provided theatre consulting for the project. The design of the custom orchestra shell sidewalls and ceiling was coordinated to complement the audience chamber finishes and provide the necessary acoustic performance. The walls and ceiling are modular units designed for quick setup of ensembles and orchestras of all sizes and can be set up in under an hour with a minimal crew.

The in-house mix lift allows amplified events to install a mixing console in the center of the room with elevation control to eliminate sightline impact. The sound console can be lowered on the lift to a storage garage under the audience seating.

“Unique to the design is the flexibility to support multi-function theatre and music events and transition to a first-rate cinema for University and film industry premieres, screenings and festivals,” adds APF principal Mike McMackin. “Special features include an automated variable acoustic system to adjust the room for the wide variety of acoustic needs from symphony orchestra to a range appropriate for film and a carefully designed seating configuration to optimize sightlines and viewer experience for live performances, film and digital video presentations.”

Auerbach Pollock Friedlander
225 Green St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
P: 415-392-7528
Also has offices in New York and Minneapolis

Cosler Theatre Design

555 Eighth Ave., Ste. 1810
New York, NY 10018
P: 212-695-4040

Feldman Designs
New Jersey: 908-301-9596
Boston: 781-821‐9596

114–A Washington Street
Norwalk, CT 06854
P: 203-838-4167

Theatre Design Services
6139 Darnell Street
Houston, TX 77074
P: 713-777-1070

The Theatre Guys
Graham, Swift & Company, LLC
210 Interstate North Parkway,
Suite 700
Atlanta, GA 30339
P: 404-889-8520

Theatre Projects Consultants
25 Elizabeth St.
South Norwalk, CT 06854  
P: 203-299-0830
Also has offices in the U.K. and China

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