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Arena Stage, Washington, D.C., Part 2

Start early and stay with it.

Arena Stage, Washington, D.C., Part 2

Feb 3, 2010 3:49 PM,
By Brad Hathaway

Start early and stay with it.

Construction of Kogod Cradle

When the Mead Center for the American Theatre —Arena Stage’s revitalized three-theater campus in Washington, D.C.—holds its gala opening later this year, it will be the culmination of the planning, balancing, testing, and installation efforts of an audio team formed 8 years ago by Facility Project Director Guy Bergquist.

If construction didn’t begin until January of 2008, why was the team in place in 2002? “Well, we thought we’d be able to begin building a lot earlier” says Bergquist, who has overseen the entire effort from the beginning. The downturn in the economy caused delays in the $125 million project that turned what they hoped would be an early start with a fully formed design team into a very early one indeed.

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Through the vision of Canadian architect Bing Thom, the determination of Artistic Director Molly Smith, and the financial support of donors led by benefactors Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, what had been the two-theater campus of Arena Stage is well on its way to becoming the Mead Center enclosing three theaters, rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, scene, props and costume shops, administrative spaces, and a fully equipped sound studio, all served by an integrated audio system that has been in the works for a number of years.

Arena Stage is one of the pioneers in the evolution of regional theater and was the winner of the first-ever Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1976. It has long operated in Southwest Washington, some six blocks from the National Mall and its multiple Smithsonian museums. At first, Arena had just the Fichandler, which, true to the company’s name, is an arena-style house seating around 800. They added the Kreeger, a 514-seat proscenium theater in 1971. After 30-odd years, the campus cried out for modernization, expansion, and a touch of reinvention. Architect Thom proposed demolishing everything but the auditoria, adding yet a third house, building everything else from scratch, and enclosing it all within a glass and concrete frame topped by a giant cantilever roof.

The project design team responsible for in-theater, in-studio, lobby, and back-stage sound capabilities (which was formed in 2002), consisted of representatives of the architect, the Illinois based sound-consultation firm Talaske (which was responsible for both audio systems and noise control/isolation), the New York based theater design and planning firm of Fisher Dachs Associates, and the arena’s own Master Sound Technician, Timothy M. Thompson. Talaske’s Aaron Downey has been with the project from the start and the team has remained relatively stable through the initial design phase, the finalization and purchase, and a comprehensive assembly/test/storage process designed to detect and correct problems prior to final installation. The budget for all this? Roughly $1 million.

Rendering of The Robert and Arlene Kogod Cradle

That budget would go toward covering five major systems (the three theaters, the lobby, and the audio studio) and smaller systems for spaces such as rehearsal rooms, each digitally linked via fiber optics carrying CobraNet with multiple virtual local area networks (VLANs). A complex signal routing capacity throughout the facility was envisioned in order to avoid temporary cabling to the extent possible and to facilitate communications throughout the complex. In addition, through the use of Clear-Com Communication System’s CellCom, a digital wireless intercom system allows up to 20 simultaneous wireless users per theater.

To avoid bleed between the programming in different theaters, the team devised a system of dedicated and isolated electrical infrastructures for the audio systems with Lyntec MSP series electrical panelboards with motorized breakers. The power conditioner is by Controlled Power Company.

Each theater presented its own unique challenge for the designers. The arena-style Fichandler was to be reduced in seating capacity from 800 to 650. As a theater in the round, it required acoustics permitting the audience on all sides to understand unreinforced speech no matter what direction an actor was facing. The Kreeger, on the other hand, as a proscenium stage needed full left-center-right reinforcement capabilities. Both would need full surround sourcing for effects, music, and amplified performances.

Both existing theaters would receive entirely new audio systems, with the exception of microphones. (The arena will use its existing inventory of mics, including 24-channel wireless Shure U series UHF mic packs and handhelds and 6-channel Shure R series UHF mic packs. For elements, they use primarily Countryman B6s and E6s. The arena also has 40 various wired mics from Shure, Audio-Technica, Crown Audio, and Sennheiser.)

The existing supply was deemed sufficient. It was clear, however, that this would free up a good deal of existing equipment from amplifiers to loudspeakers that might be put to good use. As the design and budget was refined, it was decided to use as much of that equipment as possible in the third, new theater which was dubbed “The Cradle,” a 200-seat semi-flexible space to be devoted to the exploration of new works.

This was the principal design choice that was seen as reducing the overall budget. Most other changes to the original plans were refinements to take advantage of developing technologies. However, Thompson and Downey point out that such changes were identified early and there were no major budget-driven cuts after the final design plan was put in place in 2006.

Both acoustic and electronic isolation were crucial given the fact that the three theaters could well have performances underway at the same time in very close proximity to each other and that they would be sharing lobby space, so the audiences would be mixing and separating as curtain times or intermissions overlapped. Lobby spaces were divided into six zones for audio with a touchpanel including a visual matrix in the house manager’s office to route background music, announcements, or even separate performances to one, some, or even all lobby zones.

A separate, completely equipped audio studio provides preproduction capabilities for recording music and sound effects with the capacity of streaming content to each theater from a central media server. There’s even an isolation booth for voiceovers.

As construction began in 2008, equipment began to be assembled in a warehouse for pretesting. The entire system was assembled and tested during the summer of 2009 and then packed up and stored for actual installation this summer in preparation for the grand opening of the Mead Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 25, 2010.

Major Equipment

Theater loudspeakers: EAW and Lares
Lobby loudspeakers: EAW, Frazier, Tannoy
Backstage loudspeakers: Atlas Soundolier
Amplifiers: Crown CTS with USP3cn Cards
DSP: BSS Soundweb London
Mixing consoles: Yamaha PM5D, M7CL, and DM1000
Headphones: Sennheiser
Console input snakes: Whirlwind
Equipment racks: Middle Atlantic
Audio patchbays: Audio Accessories
Power sequencing: Lyntec
Power conditioner: Controlled Power Company
Cabling: Belden
UTP and fiber patching: Hubbell
Layer 3 switching: HP
Assistive listening: Listen Technologies
Cue lights: Leon Audio
Lobby control system: Crestron
Audio studio recording: Digidesign ProTools
Intercom: Clear-Com Partyline and CellCom

Brad Hathaway has written about theater for many publications, including .

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