US Correspondent Sharon McHugh took some time out with John Coyne, Principal of Theatre Projects Consultants, a theatre design collaborative based in Connecticut, USA and London which together with REX and OMA, designed the new Wyly Theatre in Dallas, which opened last week to a fanfare of publicity. The global interest in the project is, of course, a hankering to see the next, new building designed by the out-of –the-box thinkers, Joshua Prince Ramus and Rem Koolhaas, but beyond the Wyly’s spectacular beauty and the presence it commands what’s interesting here is how the project led to a total reinvention of the traditional theatre, as we know it...
Q. Our readers are mostly architects and design professionals, so they know a thing or two about theatre consultants. But tell us about Theatre Projects Consultants…what is it that you do and how do you it differently than say other theatre consultants?
A. That’s a good question. Most people view theatre consultants as the people who deal with the technical aspects of theatre like other consultants and engineers and that is true for the most part. What we do that I think is very different is that we’re very interested in what form the auditorium and the stage take, particularly how to heighten the experience and relationship the audience and performers have to one another. Where those two things come together that’s what creates theatre. So what we do that most other competitors don’t is that we really work on developing what the concepts for the room and theatre are and how they relate specifically to what the client is trying to get out of their new building. We have people here who have worked in all aspects of theatre. Personally, I’m an architect and a scenic designer. In fact, I was the scenic designer for the Dallas Theatre Company, the resident group of this project, the Wyly Theatre.
Q. How did you become to be involved with this project? Was it your former connection to the Dallas Theatre Company?
A. Our Company was involved with this project for a long, long, time, in fact almost 25 years. We’ve been working with Dallas on this concept of developing an arts center or an arts district. I joined Theatre Projects to work on this project, about eight years ago. The client came to us way before there was an architect to develop the brief for the program.
Q. Did you recommend the architect?
A. No. We were part of the architect selection process. We helped the client develop a short list of architects. Beyond a theatre, they wanted this building to make a strong statement in Dallas with the arts district. They ultimately chose the architect themselves but with a lot of advice from us.
Q. Is this project, then, also seen as an important revitalization project?
A. Absolutely. When it was first conceived to create this arts district, it was intended to help develop the downtown, especially to bring it life after working hours. It’s one of those downtowns that dies after five o’clock. It is amazing how much is already developing in that area.
Q. Once the architect was hired what was the working relationship with your group and REX and OMA. How did you integrate your work and theirs?
A. I just have to say that working with OMA and REX on the project has been very, very collaborative. They very much recognized that they needed our input because we were the people who not only understood theatre but this theatre company specifically…but then obviously they challenged a lot of other assumptions made in developing a theatre building. We had to work very closely with them to not only make sure the spirit of what the theatre was supposed to be was not only reflected in the architecture but also that it just worked on a basic level because it was such a unique approach to how to solve the problems of the lobbies and dressing rooms, rearranging that diagram if you will. So it was a very collaborative relationship, a lot of fun actually.
Q. Regarding that ‘unique approach’, the conventional theatre organization of front and back of house is here conceived anew as above and below house, whose idea was that?
A. That really did come from OMA. It’s interesting because early in the project we were working with them to help them understand how a theatre works and what the theatre components were. They never challenged what the auditorium needed to be but I think they recognized the conventional solution wasn’t really going to work on the site and was going to have very low impact. OMA’s interest to literally look into the theatre so that people from the street can really see what’s happening in the theatre was what also drove this vertical idea to liberate the edges of the theatre so you could see into it. Also, urbanistically, the building wanted to be a vertical one. It is not a very big building, only 70,000 square feet and it is surrounded by all these huge office towers. Also, across the street from it is located the Meyerson building, a concert hall designed by I.M Pei, and the new Winspear Opera House, which we also worked on, designed by Norman Foster, which are very big iconigraphic buildings. So I think in a way just to hold its own this became the best approach to create a mass that had some kind of presence on this arts district square but also achieve some of these other goals, like looking into the theatre and connecting views from the inside to the outside.
Q. Regarding this new spatial arrangement, what is gained or lost over the conventional diagram? How do you deal with such things as acoustics, and managing the glass?
A. Well I think that’s a really good question because in a conventional solution you have walls. Those walls from a technical point of view and even just from a privacy point of view are there for good reason. People use them to rig to, they lean scenery against them, a lot of the equipment that we have has to be placed on those walls, like fire cabinets and also they are acoustic, they help separate the outside from the inside. The glass was really fascinating so once we accepted that idea we had to very specifically look at how the glass was set up so it could do these things of opening up to the outside and vice versa but also keep the outside sound out and black out so you weren’t forced to use it all the time. And that was an important thing for us that this should be a choice and not an imposition on the artistic staff. So we had to develop black out shades and all that as well as things like what we call the crash wall- this piece that flys in and prevents things from hitting the glass when they have large scenery elements. But all that can go away as well. Also, a lot of equipment that goes on the proscenium wall , we moved all of that under the stage with connections through the stage to these technical vaults. So we had to kind of rethink not the function of what we needed to do but how to do those things. In the case of the glass it is several layers of laminated glass in combination with air space and how the lights work with that, all of this had to be considered so that it wouldn’t sacrifice what the original function was in that more traditional format but then also give you new opportunities with openness and light.
Q. Is there a learning curve for the actors and the stagehands and the riggers? Is there a totally different way of doing things?
A. I think there is. What we tried to do is make sure that in its base format that it could work as a theatre very much like you would normally see a theatre. There were some differences…I think in a way that’s an opportunity to let them figure out some other things as what to do that are outside that realm of normal technical theatre. How do we use the glass? How can we use it artistically? How can we bring that into a performance? What does that mean to us when we’re rehearsing a show and want to close it versus when we want to open it and the audience sees it? I think it gives people more choices. But the goal is not to take away the normal functionings that you would expect to find in a more traditional theatre. And there is always a learning curve anytime a company moves into a new building, traditional or non-traditional, because hopefully you’re giving them more capabilities than what they previously had. But I do know that they are very excited to explore it, especially the way these seating towers work and the flexibility of the room as well as the openness. I’ve been talking with the artistic director and he has a lot of different ideas of what to do, not just this season but future seasons.
Q. Was everyone on board with the new format? Were there any holdouts?
A. Uh, yeah! There were some holdouts (laughter). I think as exciting as it was, because it’s so unconventional there was a lot of skepticism and I would say it existed in a lot of different organizations. So we kind of had to prove that this building would not be compromised because of these ideas. That it would give you everything a traditional theatre would but add something to that menu, if you will.
Q. I read that the Dallas Theatre Center was renowned for being ‘the most flexible theatre in America’ but that they had to stop reconfiguring their house because of escalating costs. How is this not going to be an issue here?
A. That’s a good question. The space they had before, which I personally had done a lot of work in, was essentially a big barn space. And it was wonderful because you could anything. If you wanted to drill a hole in the floor or put a jackhammer to the floor you could. You could set up the audience and the stage any way that you could imagine. So it was very, very exciting artistically. It was very raw, very exciting but also technically very difficult. There was no rigging, there was no isolation of acoustics, you could hear the airplanes flying overhead. And because of that, because it was just this big, blank space, every time you wanted to change it, it cost a lot in labor to covert it over…The thing we really wanted to investigate and do at the Wyly theatre was to put a lot more into the capital investment of equipment so that the capability of changing it and converting it into different uses was there and that we could change it over in literally less than a day… So while there was more money spent say on the front end, there’s a lot less money and time, which has a big impact on the schedule, in changing the room over. So, even on the opening weekend it was a proscenium theatre. The next day it was a big flat floor that was essentially done like a night club for the gala opening and then the next day it was a thrust theatre- so it solved three of its configurations in three days, which is something they would have never been able to do before.
Q. How long it did take to reconfiguration their prior space?
A. It would take them a crew of eight to twelve people anywhere from a week to ten days.
Q. I was reading an article about the Wyly, its new technologies and unconventional configuration, and the writer said “much of what is happening at the Wyly that is so called innovative, really isn’t and is in fact frankly media hype”. The article went on to say that some of the mechanisms and technologies that support this project are in fact not new at all but the same ones used in big stadium venues that must transform themselves from hockey rinks to stages for rock concerts, etc. Can you speak to that?
A. Yeah! That’s a really interesting question because while what we wanted to do with the Wyly for a theatre was very unusual, the client was very clear that they did not want to beta test new equipment or equipment design on their project. They wanted to use systems or solutions that existed and had some sort of history. I think what we did differently was where we didn’t look to a lot of theatres necessarily, although we did look at theatres as well, we looked in other places to look for equipment and technologies
to do what we needed to do. The scoreboard winches are a great example of that. The seating towers that flank the main auditorium, store up high in the building so you can open up the entire floor. We didn’t want to invent new systems to do that so we looked at the technology of scoreboard winches to do it, because they have proven to be able to hold many tons of equipment over say professional basketball players’ heads. It already has a track record…And I think what’s interesting about the Wyly isn’t what the individual pieces can do. Its what they can all do together. So there’s a lot of different technology in there, some of it is not that unusual or out of reach even in theatres, but in combination, altogether, that you can remove the entire theatre from the space is pretty remarkable.
Q. The Wyly has been open now almost a week and has been host to a couple of different performances. How’s is it going? Is there any tweaking to be done?
A. As far as the performances, it’s just been so exciting to see it working in its various configurations. To see it run through those paces as it was intended to do I think it’s a huge success. I do think because the building is not 100 percent finished, like with many new buildings where the client moves in and everything hasn’t been punch-listed yet. So there are still some tweaks. Like the elevators and programming is still being fine-tuned so there are a lot of tweaks going on because we are still finishing up the building.
Q. One last thing, I’m curious to learn how the spectator experience is different in this building. What is the procession through the spaces like?
A. What I’ve heard from people is that even though you can see the theatre from the outside it’s a complete surprise when you walk in, because you go underneath, you go into the lobby and then you go up underneath the theatre and up into it. And when you get into it, its kind of different every time you go. So it’s surprising from that point of view. But also just the impact of natural light and the performance space, just the ability to open and close the shades is kind of magical and very unexpected. So even though you know it’s going to do it, when you are in the space you realize you haven’t been in a space before that can do this. So it’s very new for everyone. One of the other things I heard people talk about was how cool it was that you could see inside this thing. So the anticipation is always there and that’s very nice.
Q. How are the acoustics? I’m sure you know the story about Carnegie Hall, and how it reportedly had the best acoustics and that after its renovation it did not…destroying in the process the reputation of one of the best acousticians in the business?
A. Yeah. The acoustics are really great! Now, one of the advantages we had was in knowing the building’s main use, which is a drama theatre. So it’s about the spoken word. We also knew they would do amplified productions as well as light music. The week that we were there we heard it in all its different forms. We heard lectures, hip-hop, Alan Menkin playing the piano, people just speaking and it really worked well in all those conditions. But you never know until you hear it.
Q. Was the capacity greatly expanded and are they filling the seats?
A. It’s still early. The capacity isn’t a lot greater than what they had before. That wasn’t a goal of the project. The project wasn’t looking to expand in that sense, it was really looking to expand their offerings to create exciting theatre.
Q. This has been really interesting, John. But, before we go is there anything you’d like to tell our readers? What are you up to next?
A. We’re working on the New World Symphony project in Miami with Frank Gehry. It’s going to open in about a year. And, this is a very new model of the concert hall. It’s not a big concert hall, its only 700 seats, but it integrates a lot of technology into the space so you can augment and supplement the performance. Michael Tilson Thomas, the artistic director, wanted to explore how to bring technologies and effects and lighting into the music experience.
And also, through Internet too, you can connect virtually to performers elsewhere throughout the world. So this is one of the halls specifically designed to do that. And we’re working on a new opera house in Athens with Renzo Piano’s office, which will be just beautiful, as well as a new project in Orlando.
Q. How do you get these great gigs? Obviously you’re good at what you do?
A. We’re good! We do great work! (laughter). You know we’re fortunate. We have a very strong group of people, we’ve been around a long time, we’ve always shown very innovative solutions in a very dedicated way. When we work on a project we put everything into it. We really want everybody to succeed not just the theatre company, but the architects, the clients, too. Through that we’ve gotten to work on some of the best projects that are out there. With the Wyly, I can’t say enough about how collaborative Josh Prince-Ramus of REX and OMA were. They were so collaborative. I know they talk about that a lot but they really were. Quite often the theatre consultant gets grouped in with the mechanical or structural consultant, but they really recognized what we brought to this project. We pushed each other and we are all better off for it.
Thanks John. It’s been fascinating. Good luck with future projects.
View timelapse footage and animations of transformations
See Dallas Center for the Performing Arts project page
Editorial , London
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