Whitinsville Fine Arts Center Nears Completion

Matt and Gene were commissioning theater rigging and lighting equipment earlier this week at the new Whitinsville Christian School Fine Arts Center. Nextstage Design provided theater planning and equipment design as part of the design build team. The theater equipment was provided by PDO under separate contract to the owner. The new facility has a Wenger acoustic shell and AcouROLL banners to provide an adjustable acoustic environment for performances by the school’s multiple chorus, band, and string ensembles. The drama and musical theater productions of the middle and high schools are served by an ETC motorized rigging system with a QuickTouch+ controller. All house and concert lighting fixtures have LED sources with full dimming through an ETC Paradigm control system. Performance lighting is a mix of conventional and LED sources, controlled by an ETC Ion console. The new venue will also be used for chapel, convocation, and other gatherings of the school community.

Whitinsville Fine Arts Center

Production Infrastructure for outdoor public places

Nextstage recently worked on a project to upgrade the production infrastructure on the historic New Haven Green in Connecticut, just blocks from our office. Balancing the needs for up-to- date power, network, water, and sewer while respecting and maintaining the historic look of this public space was a challenge.

Events on the green require varying degrees of infrastructure. Some events can be a few hours long and completely stand-alone with no power tie-ins or staging. On the other extreme are festivals that run for two weeks or more, with a full outdoor stage, portable rest-rooms, and full production lighting, audio and video. We were asked to suggest improvements that would enable simple events to be accommodated quickly and easily, and complex events to be held with adequate support and low impact on the greens trees and lawn.

One example that we studied was the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal (QDS). Billed as a square kilometer of culture, the QDS is an urban zone fitted out with robust production infrastructure that supports over 30 indoor performance spaces, 8 outdoor public spaces, 9 building facades with architectural video projections hosting over 100 events a month. QDS had the advantage of being built recently as part of an extensive urban renewal project, so they could install lots of infrastructure underground while the ground was open during demolition and re-building. Their fiber network is amazing, controlling video, audio, communications, and show control throughout the quarter. Check them out at http://www.quartierdesspectacles.com/en/

On the historic New Haven green (a grass covered public area) installation of underground utilities needed to be done gradually and in concert with the constant schedule of events during our short New England summer. A phased process has begun to upgrade existing power cabinets, install some cable tunnels to reduce the amount if cable run over the ground, and water supplies and sewer connections were located where they were most urgently needed.

Future work may include permanent structural tie-downs for anchoring temporary stages, a fiber network to support events, and video cameras to allow monitoring events and daily use for security and safety. With the advent of more energy efficient lighting systems the amount of electric power can be reduced from the ubiquitous 400 amp feeds we are used to specifying. A wider distribution of smaller (200 amp) feeds will serve the needs of the various events located all around the green. Temporary turf protection has been purchased to help maintain the grass.

Making outdoor public spaces suitable for performances requires a sensible balance of practical accommodations (protecting the turf from large crowds and staging), and robust network backbone and distribution, power, water, and sewer. Municipalities will benefit from careful study and design. If the opportunity exists to install infrastructure during other major construction work, it can make all the difference.




Daylight in Auditoriums

Many pre-modern theaters were dependent on daylighting. This was obviously true of open air theaters—the theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, Japanese Noh theaters, Taoist temple theaters, the Spanish corrales de comedias, the public playhouses of Elizabethan England, and so on. Daylight was also the principal source of illumination in some indoor theaters, including the private Elizabethan playhouses. Even as performances were lit with improved artificial light sources, daylight continued to be provided in a few theaters. And daylighting has always been a common feature in rooms for music.

Today, daylight seems to be a feature in more new performance spaces and auditoriums. Do you want daylight in your new performance space? The response to this question is often a vehement “NO!” but sometimes it’s “Maybe” or “Let’s talk about it.” What follows is an overview of the issues this question raises.

Why provide daylight?

Daylight itself is pleasing. It provides a connection to the world outside the auditorium and creates a more humane environment. Daylight increases what environment psychologists call the “information rate” of an environment. Spaces with high information rate promote arousal (also called activation) and invite active participation.

Daylight can reduce the need for artificial lighting and contribute to the energy efficiency and sustainability of the building.

Sometimes daylighting is a “side effect” of the desire to provide views out of (or into) the auditorium. The Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts is one example; the auditorium provides a striking view of Back Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. Some venues provide views into the auditorium to allow audience seated on the surrounding lawn to experience the performance. Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood is a notable example. Sometimes the motivation is to increase the visibility of the activity within the auditorium and provide visual connections with the surrounding spaces or landscape. An example is the Ruth Caplin Theatre at University of Virginia, shown in the photo below.

Ruth Caplin Theater

Ruth Caplin Theater

How is daylight provided?

We can divide daylighting features into two broad categories. Clerestory windows, light monitors, and skylights provide daylight but not views of the exterior. Windows that are closer to floor level, curtain walls, and large openings (barn doors) can provide both light and views.

Potential concerns

A primary concern is the need to black out the auditorium, so that artificial lighting can be used to control the visual experience. An effective blackout can be achieved with motorized shades, but they add costs—both initial capital cost and ongoing maintenance costs. While some shades are high-quality and reliable, lower-cost products can be problematic, leading to fears of a breakdown a half-hour before the curtain rises.

Windows, skylights, and curtain walls may all raise acoustical concerns. These elements are not as massive as the surrounding walls and may be weak points in the effort to isolate the auditorium from exterior noise. This concern can be addressed with careful design and detailing, which may increase costs. Also, because these elements have less mass, they absorb rather than reflect low frequency sound, resulting in a room acoustic with less “warmth.” This may be a concern, especially in music spaces. The planar surfaces of windows and curtain walls do reflect mid and high frequency sounds, and these reflections can be unwanted. Again, careful design can address these concerns.

Direct sunlight (as opposed to daylight) can be uncomfortable for both audience and performers. It’s best to orient the daylighting elements to minimize or eliminate direct sunlight during likely performance times. If necessary, a brise-soleil can be used to block direct sunlight or fritted glass can be used to filter it.

If they cover a large area, clerestory windows, light monitors, and skylights can be a distraction during daylight performances even if they don’t allow direct sunlight. The changing sky or an approaching storm can dramatically alter the daylight (and the mood) within the auditorium.

Views out of the auditorium can be distracting, and views into the auditorium can raise privacy concerns. Lower windows, curtain walls, and openings can be distracting if activity outside of the auditorium is in view of performers and audience. Views into the auditorium can raise concerns about voyeurism and occupant safety. These concerns can be addressed by the use of fritted glass or light filtering shades, but obviously both block the views that perhaps were intended to be provided.

- Gene Leitermann is co-founder of Nextstage Design, an educator, and a theater consultant with more than 30 years of experience.


Conference Season Wrap-up

Nextstage attended several performing arts conferences this summer. An alphabet soup of organizations from TCG, to SCUP, to NATEAC. Conferences are our chance to check the pulse of performing arts among the practitioners at Theater Communications Group (TCG), campus planners at Society of College and University Planners (SCUP), and architects, engineers, and other theater planners at the Quadrennial North American Theater Engineering and Architecture Conference (NATEAC).

Now that the name badges are hanging off the task lamp at my desk and the work that piled up is under control we can reflect back on what we learned at all these gatherings.

The non-profit professional theater universe is expanding and becoming more and more vital to our national debate over inclusion and unity. Now perhaps more than ever before the field is a voice to be reckoned with as fresh new voices find powerful ways to express our state of turmoil. Institutions are supporting them, and making homes to promote these critically important expressions. Of course, the conference was in Washington DC, maybe that had a bit to do with the theme – “Theatre Nation” ? Technology and digital media are becoming another tool in the artistic toolbox. Performance spaces will need to adapt to some of these changes, but mostly good intimate spaces continue to host powerful performances and experiences for audiences.

Universities, where the new fresh voices are trained are struggling to keep their aging buildings in good condition. Performance spaces are being renovated and replaced, but the challenge for many educational institutions is to balance the demands of rapidly emerging technologies with time-honored practice of drama, music, and dance.

Technology dominated the sessions at NATEAC, from how best to deliver complex systems in construction projects, to understanding the power and flexibility of video and streaming capability that the audience is coming to demand. Nothing stands still, and either can we.

So, onward to the next generation of performance spaces, virtual or real, new or repurposed. Nextstage is excited about all the possibilities!

Notes from USITT 2016

A month or so ago I attended the annual USITT conference and expo in Salt Lake City. This annual gathering of teachers, students, professionals, and manufacturers is always a great way to catch up with people and the latest trends in practice and products. I have been going to this conference on and off over the past 30 years, and each time I go I am reminded how valuable it is. I also realize how young all the attendees are getting, go figure.

One piece of technological wonder was not part of the expo. A former classmate of mine, Jon Farley, together with some very clever people at Luxium have developed a LED retrofit lamp for the time-tested PAR-38 and PAR 30 lamps used in border lights, and many other fixtures backstage. It is called the ZR30. He had a prototype in his messenger bag, and he proudly showed me how it works. (controlling it from his smartphone!) This is not my old PAR 38 lamp! This small wonder changes color, color temperature and brightness through its built-in DMX interface. It is available in wired and wireless DMX models and is a small but mighty game changer. Go back to your old high school and figure out how many, or few, of these you need to change the clunky border lights into something really useful. Or, consider changing out your backstage work-lights for the version of this lamp that can be blue, white, or red.

It struck me that this kind of ingenuity enables a wide variety of users to benefit from the power savings, color and intensity control that the advent of LED sources has opened up. Who knows where it will lead, but call your old high school and turn them on to the ZR30, or screw them into a clip light and have fun!

Check out this new marvel at www.luxium.co

*Photo courtesy of Luxium



Tony Forman is co-founder of Nextstage Design and a planner of and advocate for performance spaces that work for audiences, performers, technicians, and communities.