Technology takes center stage

Movable seating, digital sound enhancement, and innovative HVAC systems allow Building Teams to create flexible, comfortable performance spaces.
August 11, 2010

Ever since the world's first gas stage-lighting system was installed at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 1816, technology has been at the center of performing arts theater design. Complex lighting schemes, sound reinforcement systems, movable stages and orchestra pits, and intricate rigging are mainstays of today's theaters.

Growing demand for more flexible, multipurpose venues has placed even greater emphasis on the application of high-tech systems. As a result, Building Teams are turning to the latest innovations in theater design, including movable seating, digital sound enhancement, multimedia, and innovative HVAC systems, to improve overall quality, solve complex design issues, and overcome tight budgets.

Sound system on steroids

Imagine walking into a quaint, 300-seat concert hall for an intimate performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, and from the moment the first note is struck, it seems as if you're sitting in a performance space five times the size — as if the walls and ceilings have expanded and now you're sitting smack dab in the middle of Carnegie Hall's renowned 2,800-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium.

That's what patrons experienced during the reopening of the newly restored Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, N.M., a 1930s film and vaudeville house that was converted into a multipurpose performance space for chamber music, theater, modern dance, flamenco, ballet, jazz, operetta, film, and poetry.

During the inaugural performance, the facility's program directors proudly showed off the capability of the center's new electronic reverberation enhancement system (ERES) by playing an assortment of program material — a diverse menu of music never thought to be possible in a space that confined. The system, manufactured by the Dutch firm Acoustic Control Systems, can "virtually" alter the dimensions of the space by extending the reverberation period of the sound, through the combination of ultra-sensitive microphones, loudspeakers, and signal processing units. With the push of a button, the reverb time can be adjusted incrementally to accommodate the acoustical characteristics of a multitude of performances: 0.7 seconds for speech, 1.4 seconds for opera, 1.8 seconds for classical symphony, 3 seconds for organ, etc.

"It really fools your senses," says Roger Noppe, principal with Purcell + Noppe + Associates, Chatsworth, Calif., acoustical consultant on the $8.2 million for project "You hear a bigger sound than you know is possible in a space that size."

Noppe says he turned to ERES technology, which has been used in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, because the cubic volume of the existing space would not naturally support the acoustical needs for such a wide variety performance types.

"We've designed performance halls where that's done naturally by moving thousands of square feet of drapery, opening and closing concrete doors to expose chambers, and moving entire ceilings to change the volume of the room," he says. "But that's very expensive and takes a considerable amount of time to change."

While many music naturalists scoff at the idea of using electronic enhancement to simulate a space, some of the most hard-nosed skeptics admit that ERES technology has improved tremendously during the past decade — while costs have dropped considerably — offering a potentially cost-effective solution for Building Teams faced with renovating historic performance spaces whose physical dimensions cannot be altered.

Dennis Paoletti, principal and acoustical designer with the San Francisco office of New York-based technology consultant Shen Milsom & Wilke, is a former skeptic who has recently embraced the technology for the renovation and restoration of the 73-year-old Sunset Theater in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.

"It was a perfect fit, because the existing facility did not have enough volume to generate the reverberation time that the client was looking for," says Paoletti. "I still believe that we can design good facilities naturally most of the time, but there's a place for these technologies."

Paoletti says the technology actually dates back to the 1960s, but has just now matured to a point where the systems "sound realistic and are economically obtainable."

Manufactured by LARES, the system at Sunset Theater, which cost roughly $300,000, consists of a series of microphones near the stage and 56 loudspeakers submerged into the walls and ceilings throughout the performance space. "The microphones take up the sound energy in the hall and then send it back through the loudspeakers, which are all time-delayed to reproduce sound in the hall that would be of a larger context," he says. "It's kind of like a sound system on steroids."

Noppe says the technology can also provide a solution in new construction for organizations that don't have the financial resources to build grandiose space or multiple single-purpose facilities. He is the acoustic consultant for a 42,000-sf, 950-seat performing arts center for College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., to be completed the summer. It's one of the first new construction projects in the U.S. to use ERES.

"Given the budget constraints of a typical community college, the multipurpose program requirements for the space, and the community's desire for a low-profile structure that would not impede views of the surrounding mountains, there was no way we could design this hall using natural acoustics," he says.

Seating on the move

The thought of being able to completely reconfigure auditorium seating — from end stage to center stage to flat floor — within a matter of several hours has become attractive to clients looking to create flexible, multipurpose spaces.

Through the use of mechanically movable seating wagons on rollers or air casters (a thin film of air that provides reduced friction), Building Teams are able to create performance spaces that can be configured in a dozen or more variations.

The technology stems back to 1970s England — the Derngate Theater in Northampton was an early pioneer of mechanically movable seating — but has only become popular in the U.S. during the past decade or so, starting with the 1,800-seat Cerritos (Calif.) Center for the Performing Arts in 1993. Designed by Los Angeles-based architect Barton Myers Associates, the theater uses a series of hydraulic lifts and seat wagons on air casters to accommodate six basic configurations: arena, theater-in-the-round, lyric, cabaret, concert, and drama. This flexibility has helped Cerritos become one of the top-grossing performance venues in California.

A more recently success story is the 650-seat Perelman Theater at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York. Completed in December 2001, the 27,000-sf recital hall includes movable seating and a turntable stage that allows the space to be reconfigured from a conventional proscenium stage to an arena to a flat floor.

"They've been able to sell out quite a bit using the flat floor for banquets and dinners, seating about 300 people," says Ted Dedee, managing director of the 1,900-seat, $120 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center under construction in Nashville, Tenn. He says that, given the additional revenue facilities like Cerritos and Perelman are generating, a growing number of organizations are contemplating movable seating.

Schermerhorn will use the technology. "From an owner's standpoint, it was 'intuitively obvious' for us to go in this direction," says Dedee. The large-scale movable seating system planned will enable the 900-seat main floor to be converted from standard raked floor seating to a 5,400-sf flat, hardwood floor within several hours to accommodate pops style concerts, fundraising banquets, and ballroom dancing. Dedee says the Nashville Symphony expects a payback of 5-10 years by hosting a greater variety of events, including up to 35 private functions annually.

"This will cut down the conversion time considerably from what other spaces have to do with right now manually," says Dedee, describing the complex scaffolding system required for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to host its annual pops concerts. "It takes them several weeks to construct platforms over the existing seating, and then they can't do anything but the Boston Pops for the next several weeks."

Designed by New York-based theater designer Fisher Dachs Associates in collaboration with design architect David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services, Washington, D.C., and architect of record Earl Swensson Associates, Nashville, the system at Schermerhorn will consist of eight motor-driven wagons, each spanning the full 60-foot width of the main floor and encompassing four rows of seats that move on rollers guided by rails on either side on floor. The wagon adjacent to the stage rests on a hydraulic lift that lowers to a storage area directly below the main floor.

To ensure safe, quick, and precise configuration of the movable seating system at the 650-seat Judith and Arthur Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York, San Francisco-based theater design consultant Auerbach Pollock Friedlander created a novel computerized control system that incorporates sensors and safety switches on and around the facility's 12 stepped and six flat seating wagons. The program guides facility personnel with step-by-step directions for setting up the seating in any number of arrangements, including end stage, center stage, flat floor, and thrust stage.

"The program won't allow the facility people to go to the next step until they've hooked up safety switches and locked down the wagon," says Charles M. Griffith, AIA, senior associate with design architect Polshek Partnership, New York.

To create a flat floor, each 12x15-foot wagon is moved with air casters to a storage area behind the instage wall (which opens like a door using motors and counterweight) where they are stacked vertically.

Air the pits

Musicians playing in the orchestra pit at the newly renovated Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle are some of the happiest people in the house these days. That's because they're finally getting fresh air.

As part an $80 million facelift and structural and life-safety upgrade project for the 77-year-old opera house, the 90-seat orchestra pit was equipped with a custom-designed underfloor displacement ventilation system that supplies conditioned air through thousands of tiny holes in the pit floor, "sort of like a giant air-hockey table," says Norm Brown, project manager with mechanical engineer CDI Engineers, Lynnwood, Wash.

Brown says orchestra pits are notoriously warm and stuffy because there's usually not enough space to run mechanical ductwork and supply air grilles directly to the pit. CDI solved this problem by creating a 20-inch-high plenum space beneath the entire pit floor using sheet metal riveted to the structural framework of the double mobile lift platform. The plenums are served with air from several flexible "telescoping" supply ducts that can accommodate all possible positions of the lifts. Each platform is about 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

Brown says the air velocity is kept low for comfort reasons. "Musicians are pretty particular — they don't want any air drafts," he says. "Also, we did not want any sheet music to be blown around if it fell on the floor."

Underfloor displacement ventilation is used throughout the auditorium space, as well. Air is supplied via eight-inch-wide diffusers underneath approximately every other seat and exhausted near the ceiling.

Rarely used in the U.S., the system is more energy efficient than a traditional overhead forced air system, especially in large, open theaters, because, says Brown, "it supplies air right at seat level, where the people are, as opposed to trying to condition the entire space." As a result, the system utilizes slightly warmer supply air — 63 degrees vs. 57 degrees for overhead — saving air-cooling costs. Since it also requires less airflow velocity, slightly smaller fans and ductwork could be specified.