"The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."
At the end of Act II in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the central character utters these words when planning a play to reveal his uncle's guilt in the murder of his father.
When designing a new venue for the Shakespeare Theatre Co., architect Jack Diamond planned a play of architecture to heighten the experience of theatre-goers.
The production starts at the street when guests approach the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C. A two-story bay window cantilevers 8 feet over the sidewalk. The transparency lends an air of excitement as the activity inside the walls can be seen from the street.
A stuffy venue it is not. Shakespeare comes alive in this facility. "It's not a historical event, it's a living event reinterpreted for the 21st century," says artistic director Michael Kahn.
Inside are three lobby levels, all light and airy with glass and stainless steel, against the backdrop of Sidney Harman Hall's intense orange Venetian plaster exterior. Each lobby space can be self-contained with both audio and video. "We spent a lot of time in the design phase making sure that we were going to be able to isolate those sound systems for each portion of each lobby so we can have multiple functions taking place at the same time," says Martin Desjardins, the theatre company's audio supervisor.
The heart of the audio system is in BSS Soundweb London digital signal processors that control audio signals, says Aaron Downey, senior audio consultant with Oak Park, IL-based Talaske. They do so both in the lobby and theatre areas. AMX wireless touch panels allow users to control and route audio and video throughout the lobby spaces. Each lobby is individually zoned, much like a ballroom would be in a hotel, says Scott Leonard, president of Professional Audio Designs Inc., Wauwatosa, WI, who, with Vice President Kim Leonard, led the systems integration. In addition, lobby surfaces contain sound-absorptive finishes, says Greg Miller, senior acoustics consultant at Talaske.
Cross the Bridge
While acoustics are a major part of every theatre design, this 775-seat theatre presented such heavy-duty challenges as a nearby subway hub and a fire station. Isolation was key. Therefore, the lobby structure and the auditorium structure don't touch, says Jennifer Mallard, AIA Int. Assoc., project architect with Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc., Toronto. Instead, the 80-million-pound concrete auditorium box sits on 130 rubber pads and a 3-inch gap separates the structures.
The architects could have chosen to disguise the gap. Instead, they chose to highlight it, turning the 3-inch gap into a 3-foot gap in public areas. "I don't buy the fact that architecture can be separated from function; otherwise, it's purely sculpture. The principle that I work on is that the best of design is making virtues of necessities," explains Diamond, principal of Diamond + Schmitt.
A virtue it is. The gap serves as a visual cue for guests to suspend their current reality and prepare for a new one. They walk over a bridge to enter a space with a completely different vibe. Contrasting the bright lobby and transparent façade, the theatre uses dark African slotted wood panels and deep colors. Ornamental this is not, but rather, clean and sleek.
"You cross from the everyday world, even though it's a heightened one in the public areas, into this world of drama where disbelief is suspended and your focus is on the stage," Diamond says. "There's a dramatic move from a transparent, animated, audience-oriented space to an opaque, focused, performance- or actor-oriented world."
Let the Show Begin
That world needed to accommodate a variety of productions. Kahn wanted three entirely different stage configurations—end stage, thrust stage, or a traditional proscenium—available for his artistic staff and other groups that use the facility. The venue also needed to house both musical and spoken performances with pitch-perfect acoustics and sound.
Achieving such lofty goals was no small task. "I had an epiphany about it. It struck me that scene changes get done in seconds and done by stagehands; there's a technology of stagecraft. Why not create the flexibility of the theatre by the very stagecraft that gets used in the theatre?" Diamond asks. The design team created flexible structures at every turn. The proscenium can be flown like a scene set. The front 100 seats sit on blocks on wagons that can be moved for different stage setups. The architecture of the stage can change. Yet, the look of the theatre remains visually intact.
Behind the walls, Scott Leonard estimates there's enough wiring for three theatres. Everything from Cat-5 cable, fiber optics, Ethernet, digital audio, analog audio, and speaker connections are included. This gives Desjardins' team the freedom to create any acoustical or sound arrangement needed for a production without the time intensity typically required for setup.
Helping, too, is a Studer Vista 5 mixing console that allows the mixing and processing of various audio signals and routing them throughout the theatre. It also allows elaborate sound designs. "It cuts down on the amount of equipment that needs to be at the front of house or in the mix booth because instead of having racks and racks of equipment next to the console, it's all integrated inside the console itself," Downey explains. Adds Desjardins, "If you were setting up a more traditional analog front-of-house setup, you would be talking about losing 14 to 16 seats per night, and at $75 a ticket that's not an insignificant amount of revenue just going away. With the Studer, we lose four seats."
JBL loudspeakers surround the stage and seats. Other notable sound products include Brown amplifiers, Lexicon effects processing, and AKG microphones. To ensure precise sound, Talaske set up a drama system for the spoken word and a line array system for music.
To ensure that sound is heard, the design team carefully calibrated room dimensions and gave good sight lines for all 750 seats. The dark wood wall panels have horizontal slats that disperse sound. At the push of a button, variable acoustic curtains behind the panels can be raised or lowered according to acoustic needs but remain hidden. "No matter what mode the curtains are deployed in, the room still feels the same and looks the same," says Mallard of Diamond + Schmitt. The total woodwork cost was $2.5 million.
Movable towers on stage help reflect sound to the audience. Balcony fronts can tilt to move sound. The acoustics team used every surface they could to ensure quality sound no matter the stage configuration or the performers' location and orientation. "We make sure that we have something in place for every orientation the actor might face so they're getting the sound to everybody," says Talaske's Miller.
Jack Diamond made beauty out of function, creating a space as interchangeable as the variety of productions within. Desjardins recalls the first time they used the space: "We put the audience ... on the stage and stuck our musicians right in front of the seats. We literally used the space 180 degrees from the way anyone would think to use it."
Because of the creativity used by the designers and builders, Sidney Harman Hall can continue to perform brilliantly for any production.
"There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple:
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,Good things will strive to dwell with ‘t."
--William Shakespeare, "The Tempest"
Maureen Patterson was managing editor at ARCHI-TECH.
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