ON STAGE

The all-purpose Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, MN, consists of a main auditorium seating 1,906 people annexed by a small 315-seat studio showcase room known
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ON STAGE

Jul 1, 1998 12:00 PM, Clive Johnson

The all-purpose Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, MN, consists of a mainauditorium seating 1,906 people annexed by a small 315-seat studio showcaseroom known as the McKnight Theatre. Recently, the main hall has beenupgraded with an audio system designed to accommodate the growingmulti-usage nature of the venue. The $45 million performing arts centeropened in early January, and the range of performance to be found at theOrdway Theatre today recognizes no bounds.

"It's very much a movable orchestra show," says the venue's head of sound,Jim Pfitzinger.

The Ordway regularly hosts performances by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra,the Minnesota Opera Company and the Schubert Recital Series and also servesas one of the two main residencies for the Minnesota Orchestra. In additionto reproducing a wide range of jazz, orchestral and operatic performances,the sound system also has to reinforce speech intelligibly, since theOrdway stages a number of dramatic touring productions. Among thesuccessful performances have been the productions touring from the LondonWest End Theatre in collaboration with the Royal National Theatre,including Richard III with Ian McKellen and The Madness of King George.

Situated in downtown St. Paul three blocks from the Mississippi River onRice Park, the Ordway was commissioned in the early 1980s. Named after oneof Minnesota's most successful businessmen, Lucius Pond Ordway, a majorinvestor in 3M, the venue is operated by a private, non-profit organizationestablished by Lucius's granddaughter, the late Sally Ordway Irvine.

The theatre, designed in 1982 by St. Paul architect Ben Thompson (of BenThompson Associates), opened on Jan. 1, 1985. Ground was broken withconstruction progressing on the fast-track system, meaning that workingdrawings and construction plans were not completed until that phase of theconstruction was ready to begin. Although perhaps more costly, this systemof construction allowed the Ordway Theatre to open for its first publicinspection only 27 months after the project was initiated.

Thompson's premise with the design was that an evening at the theater oughtto be a pleasant experience, even if the performance itself were to bedisappointing. Hence, every architectural detail has been incorporated toenhance the visitor's sense of occasion. He also designed it with a senseof intimacy, exemplified by the seating plan, which sees large areasdivided into smaller, cozier ones. Sightlines are generally excellent, andsuch is the proximity to the stage that opera glasses are rarely requiredto enhance vision from any position in the auditorium.

At the beginning of the decade the theatre completely overhauled itslighting, and it became evident, as the Ordway encompassed a widening bandof productions, that the sound reinforcement would have to follow suit.

"We had been renting in other proprietary systems, but because of thenature of what we do, we wanted a new rig that we could run modularlywithout being permanently installed," explained Pfitzinger. "It had to beflown in towers and stacked in such a way that it could be kept prettyfluid. This enables us to reuse the speakers in other venues."

In pursuit of this philosophy, the processing racks (four XTA crossoverplatforms and Chevin A6000 and Q900 series amps) break down into foursmaller mono-system configurations. Further, the budget for loudspeakers,processing and amplification was set at approximately $65,000, but withrigging, racks and interfaces, spending came to the $75,000 to $80,000range. After auditioning a number of major reinforcement rigs, Martin Audiowas awarded the contract on the merits of the performance of theirWavefront 8 system, which had originally been auditioned two years ago.

"I called Jack Alexander at TGI, whom I have known since he was doingmonitors with Tony Bennett," Pfitzinger said. "He told me about thisinteresting new system from Martin Audio called the Wavefront 8. Weauditioned the original Wavefront 8, with the double 12 inch (305 mm)low-mid horns, on a show with the Brazilian jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval,and really liked what we heard. Then I learned that Martin was developing asmaller cabinet with a single 12 inch (305 mm) horn, and that soundedideal. Because we already had plenty of low-mid, we decided a single 12inch (305 mm) would be perfect. As a result, we turned our attention to theWavefront 8 Compact."

Another series of shoot-outs among four proprietary systems ensued. Thetests were conducted simultaneously in the Ordway's main theatre, theMcKnight Theatre and another auditorium in town called the O'Shaughnessy toget a different perspective on how the various systems reacted in differentspaces.

"All systems had their strengths and weaknesses, and a couple of them,including the Martin, were less colored," confirmed Pfitzinger. "But whatwon it for the Wavefront was that it had extra horse power in the low endand a little more impact generally.

"Also, the rigging method was easier," Pfitzinger continued. "That wasimportant because the transportation was more streamlined. Castors werebuilt into the system, superceding the need for dollies. The purchasedecision was made the week of Thanksgiving, and we had all the rigging andracks built by December 9."

The theatre installed the system itself with technical support from MartinNorth America's Jack Alexander and Rob Hofkamp, and the Wavefront 8 Compactsystem was commandeered to replace the rented Meyer UPA rig at front ofhouse, debuting on a Christmas production of Colors Of Christmas.

For a production of The Music Man, the theatre flew two W8C units and twoW8S subwoofers on either side of the proscenium arch 18 feet (5.5 m) in theair, with two Wavefront 8C units and two WSX loudspeakers ground-stacked oneither side, configured as the stereo upper and lower orchestral system.The Meyer UPAs and UMS, part of the theatre's previous inventory, were usedas the vocal reinforcement system, cradled in towers built for the RichardIII tour. The system is also configured differently for music performance.For example, when Ladysmith Black Mambazzo arrived at the theatre, theyflew 8C and 8S cabinets with further 8Cs on the ground, stacked with theWSX units on either side of the stage.

"Eventually, we will fly two W8Cs with two W8Ss underneath, and then flytwo more W8Cs rigged 10 feet (3 m) below the upper set, each side of theproscenium, with the pair of WSXs still on the floor. We may then beef upthe cluster with W8Cs beyond that and fly the currently ground-stackedW8Cs," Pfitzinger predicted.

The evolution of the house's entertainment program could see further audiochanges. The Gamble EX56 FOH mixing console, purchased when the staple farewas either country shows, jazz or pop, will yield to an F Series from Cadac.

"It has the features we need because our production periods tend to beshort, and with the opportunity to program off-line, ithelps with time,"explained Pfitzinger.

The early reports from visiting sound engineers have been nothing butpositive, particularly regarding the high degree of intelligibilitymeasured against the size of the loudspeaker cabinets. Considering that thereverb in the main hall is on the short side for large classical events,this is the best compromise for musicals and the spoken word.

As for the verdict on the Martin Wavefront, Pfitzinger stated, "It's thesmoothest sounding horn-loaded box I have heard, absolutely seamless fromtop to bottom. It does what is asked of it flawlessly."

He was further delighted that the XTA DP 200s allow the different soundzones to be programmed with different delay times alongside the system EQsettings in a single processing unit. Pfitzinger was additionally pleasedwith the way the Martin enclosures match with the Chevin amplification.

"I wasn't familiar with these products until I heard them running theMartin system," Pfitzingersaid. "In fact, it was Jack Alexander whointroduced me to them. He recommended them as being an ideal power sourcewith the Wavefronts due to the impedance matching. It's certainly a greatcombination."

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