Artec has pioneered and refined a number of design solutions for the zone between the artists and audience
by Ed Arenius | partner | January 1, 2009
In this article, we will demonstrate how Artec has pioneered and refined design solutions for the zone between the artists and audience as a direct response to needs defined during pre-design planning. The design of this area is key to defining the contact between audience and artists. It also significantly affects the architecture and budget of the venue and, therefore, the planning of the facility must integrate these concepts from the outset.
Two of the case studies will illustrate how the use of lifts (and their innovative design) were used to meet project specific needs in accommodating a range of ensemble types, while ensuring optimal audience and performer experience. In the third example, an innovative manual system achieves the same goal with a lower capital cost, but higher changeover time.
These examples are restricted to the incorporation of lifts to shape performance spaces and do not cover examples where lifts are used to move material or as part of an artistic concept.
A Multi-Use Theater Example
Multi-use theaters need to accommodate a wide variety of performance types from theatrical performances (drama, Broadway musicals, dance, ballet, and opera) to music performances (symphony, choir, and pop music). Artec’s pre-design planning process defines the requirements that will make the facility particularly effective operationally, artistically and acoustically.
At the 2100-seat Thrivent Hall within the vibrant Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, Wisconsin (USA), the specific design of the forestage area and its’ lifts responds to program requirements in an innovative manner. The facility was designed by Zeidler Partnership and Artec and then constructed in an extremely short 38 months by the Boldt Corporation.
During the pre-design phase Thrivent Hall was defined to be a roadhouse (or receiving) facility but the operational economics required the seating capacity of the theater for touring Broadway performances be maximized for income.
In such a situation, the incorporation of a mechanized forestage lift or lifts should be considered. The surface of the lift has multiple functions: an extended stage surface; an orchestra pit; and extended audience area for seating. The use of the lifts allows all functions to happen in an artistically optimal way while changeover from one configuration to another to be time and cost effective. Although lifts do come at a cost, the manpower and time saved can make this a valid investment.
Traditionally forestage lifts extend along the front of the stage parallel to the proscenium. In Thrivent Hall, Artec chose to cut the forestage lift perpendicularly to the proscenium in 3 sections. Travelling Broadway musicals using live music rarely travel with more than 20 musicians. Dividing the lifts into the 3 sections allows a smaller center section to be used for a pit band while maintaining 2 seating sections on either side. When a larger pit is needed for opera or ballet ensembles all lifts can be deployed in the pit position.
For symphonic music performance, the acoustics design places part of the orchestra on the forestage lift surface. This same surface will often be used for conferences or corporate events.
Dividing the forestage area in this way posed some minor technical challenges. The center lift needed to be provided with telescopic guides at the front edge (closest to the audience) so the under-stage area can be column free for orchestra pit use.
The line between audience and performer is thus shaped differently depending on performance type, either extending the stage out into the audience chamber or using the orchestra pit in different configurations to maximize seat capacity. Careful collaboration between Artec and the architects ensured that each configuration makes aesthetic sense and also meets all the requirements of ADA access, audience safety, sightlines and quality of experience.
A Concert Hall Example
In a concert hall there is no proscenium, which makes the line between the audience and the artists easier to deal with architecturally. However, there is a need for the stage size to be adjusted to accommodate the acoustic and physical needs of each performing ensemble. Such changes in stage size are dictated by the programmatic needs of the concert hall and the method of creating this changeover is decided by the budget, as well as the operations plan. In Artec concert halls, we also provide for this space to occasionally be used for as an orchestra pit – for semi-staged opera performance or film with live orchestra.
In the Béla Bartok National Concert Hall in Budapest (Hungary), designed by Artec and Zoboki Demeter Architects, the program dictated that all types of non-amplified acoustical performance be accommodated from chamber music and small chamber orchestras to 110- piece orchestras with 240 chorus members. The difference in stage size required from chamber orchestra to large orchestra with choir is dramatic. Creating an acoustically acceptable stage size for each type of ensemble led Artec to incorporate two lifts, an “extension” lift and a “reduction” lift, into the design of the line between the audience and the artists. There is also a third lift, the “work/choir” lift, incorporated at the rear of the stage.
The most commonly needed stage configuration has the “reduction” lift at stage level, the “choir” lift at stage level with seating wagons deployed, and the “extension” lift at audience level with audience seating deployed. For smaller musical ensembles, the reduction lift is moved down and a wagon with fixed auditorium seating is deployed on it. This increases the seat count and reduces the stage size to an acoustically appropriate size while keeping the audience close to the performers in an intimate environment. A stage that is sized for 110 musicians is enormous and empty when there are only 12 musicians. In such a situation, it is very difficult for the auditorium designers to ensure an intimate environment where the performer/audience connection is optimized. For the largest ensembles, the “extension”, “reduction” and “choir” lift are all set at stage level with the various seating wagons stored away.
Concert halls are single volume spaces where the audience surrounds the orchestra. Since audience surrounds the stage, the flexible stage sizes do not have the same architectural impact as it does in a multi-purpose theatre. However, the designers still have to ensure that all configurations look aesthetically coherent.
A small black box theater example
Small seat count “black box” theaters can be changed dramatically by a simple lift. The Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, Ontario (Canada), designed by Artec and Keith Loeffler McAlpine Architects in Toronto, is a good example of the transformational nature of a simple rectangular lift.
The Stockey Centre was defined during pre-design as a simple flat floor space with a telescopic seating bank, two levels of surround seating that create a courtyard type space, seating up to 500 depending on the type of performance.
This space was required to accommodate all types of performance from small-scale drama and musicals, classical and pop music, dance, jazz, film, banquets and lectures. The budget for the facility was, however, limited and therefore a stage tower was not possible.
A single lift is positioned at the front edge of the “stage area”. It can be used to create an open orchestra pit, a flat floor condition, and a stage “edge” when needed. In the last configuration, the lift is lowered 42” and a stepped wagon with permanently installed seats is rolled onto the lift to continue the stepped seating from behind and consequently creating a “stage”. by sinking the audience instead of building up the level of the stage. This solution also makes the circulation requirements between the backstage and the hall far simpler, representing cost savings in a budget-constrained project.
The same concept was employed at the Artec-designed Royal Bank Theatre in Mississauga, Ontario (Canada). However the end result was achieved using different means. As the construction budget would not allow for a mechanized lift in the space, the changeover between configurations is managed through the use of manual platforms.
Innovation Comes as a Response to Need
Artec’s Design and Planning process for new venues or renovations starts with a pre-design phase in which the needs of the community and stakeholders are explored and defined in a way that is most informative to the design team.
The integration of technology, although it represents some initial capital investment, can result in savings in operations cost and/or lower change-over time between events, thus increasing utilization and the income-generating potential of the facility. For this reason, technology options are carefully examined and reviewed with the Client for value and cost-effectiveness.
A key factor of the cost effectiveness of technology is not only in making the right choices regarding the specific systems to be incorporated but also the more subtle choices regarding their architectural incorporation and shaping. Successful design choices are always in response to those needs and parameters determined in the pre-design process.