London-based Stufish Entertainment Architects has a big feather in its collective cap. It is the first architectural firm to design all of the interior and exterior architectural elements for a new theatre as well as complete the design for the stage and show’s scenery. Stufish’s theatre design is based on an original concept sketch by the studio’s late founder, Mark Fisher, who also designed the interior elements of the auditorium and sets for Cirque du Soleil’s KA, in a first combination of architectural and scenic design.
In this case, the Dai Show Theatre was designed for the Dalian Wanda Group, a major Chinese developer, and houses a new water spectacular created by Franco Dragone, whose other aquatic shows include Cirque du Soleil’s O, The Wynn’s Le Rêve, and House Of Dancing Waters in Macau, also for the Wanda Group. The new 1,183-seat Dai Show Theatre and its show both opened in Xishuangbanna, China in September.
Heading the project for Stufish is Maciej Woroniecki, architecture design team leader, who followed the firm’s philosophy that there always be an element of reveal in the architecture.
“At Stufish, we design not just for the audience in the auditorium, but the audience outside of the building as well,” Woroniecki says. “For this new theatre, the iconic symbol is the palm frond, and the reveal is the canopy of the building itself. The palm frond design provides a structural influence, as well as a cultural symbol the architects wanted to infuse into the building, which is in a hot, subtropical climate.
“There is a very lush landscape there now,” he points out. “Twenty-five years ago, when development started in this area, a lot of plants were brought in, and they took over. There are good soil conditions so they thrived, with lots of palm trees, bananas, and coconuts. I was immediately impressed by the palm frond. Its faceted and radial form was an ideal inspiration. We expanded all the design language of the frond and carried it into the interior design, always in the feel of a tree canopy, as if its movement was frozen in time.”
With the two-tiered canopy of the round, golden roof—110m in diameter—as the reveal, the design of the canopy “makes its way into the auditorium and then becomes the backdrop for the show,” explains Woroniecki. “It’s a very holistic design. The roof itself is a series of planar folded trusses, finished with fluorocarbon-painted standing seam, and an oblique sun creates lots of shadows that become very textural when sunlit in dusk hours.”
The area also frequently has a nice breeze coming through, and local buildings are often open to let the breeze in for natural ventilation. “In this case, that reduces the amount of energy we’d have to put into the building. Many public buildings are air-conditioned, but we kept pushing to keep it as open-air as possible.”
Since the architects wanted to emphasize natural ventilation, the lobby is outside in an open-air area underneath the canopy, with stairs and escalators to upper level concession areas that eventually lead the audience through sound/light locks into the auditorium. “The color in the auditorium goes from light to dark,” adds the architect. “As you get toward the center of the stage, the colors change from light brown and gold to gray and then green, a very dark green, then black. It is a very intimate theatre, almost a spiritual experience. The closer you get to the stage, the darker it gets.”
The interior auditorium walls feature faceted panels of wood veneer, which act as air circulation and sound baffles. Jaffe Holden did the acoustics for the theatre, while Auerbach Pollock Friedlander served as theatre consultants, with Len Auerbach, chairman and director of design, and theatre consultant Tom Neville taking the lead for the firm.
Inside, the focus for the auditorium is the central, round pool, surrounded with seating on three sides or 270°. A 1,400sq-m space, including the pool and stage, is defined not only by the water, but also by a very deep backstage area in the shape of a keyhole that is 55m at its widest. This upstage area serves as the sole entrance for performers and scenery—there are no voms—although performers can be flown in from above as well. The grid sits at 19m above the pool, with acrobatic gear spread around the theatre, from a 9m height up to the grid.
An annex hugs the western side of the theatre to maintain the ground-level appearance of the structure. This houses a dance studio, physiotherapy, green room, and cafeteria. “Both the annex and auditorium are air-conditioned,” notes Woroniecki, “but the area between the two once again emphasizes the open-air feeling.”
Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, Performing Arts/Media Facilities Planning and Design’s services encompassed site studies, programming, planning, and theatre and technical design services, beginning in the earliest stages of the project through its completion. “We had the great pleasure of participating in the design of the theatrical support spaces as well as the theatrical systems infrastructure including the seating, sound, video, and communications, theatrical lighting control systems, theatrical rigging, performer flying, water filtration/water effects, and the dive pool plug. Working in tandem with Stufish and Dragone, theatrical systems were integrated seamlessly into the space to meet the very specific production needs of Dragone,” explains Neville.
“The experience of close collaboration and being the unifying entity between our client, Wanda, and Stufish was very productive and gratifying,” says Auerbach. “We built upon our history and relationship with Mark Fisher to merge the criteria set by Dragone with Wanda’s TSE group and Stufish to the very successful outcome of the Dai Show Theatre. The success of this project is the result of a huge team effort. The theatre is highly complex and utilizes cutting-edge technology. The show has spectacular aquatic and special effects all choreographed with 3D flying of acrobatic performers.”
The stage areas can easily transition between wet and dry as well as to reveal a deep dive pool. Working with aquatics consultant STO, Auerbach Pollock Friedlander designed all the water effects, including jumping jets, an indoor rain shower, and the physical appearance of an infinity pool edge adjacent to the dive pool basin. The theatre’s large center dive basin plug, measuring 8m in diameter, can raise and lower the water level 5.5m. The perimeter basin—holding 333,661 gallons of water—can be drained in approximately 20 seconds and refilled in 45 seconds, with the help of four 200-HP pumps. The large central basin is 5m deep, allowing performers to dive into the pool dramatically throughout the performance from 15m above the water.
Images from a proprietary computer-controlled video projection system follow performers throughout the venue using several movable tracking video projectors, while projecting and overlaying images on multiple surfaces and re-projecting live images from the show onto surrounding surfaces. Advanced audio systems also allow complex mixing and routing of live sound and sound effects throughout the auditorium.
“The elegant, circular palm frond exterior conceals the structural web of triangular trusses that creates the backdrop for the Dragone performance,” Neville notes. “Acutely angled light dramatically reveals the skeleton of the building, which looms over the water basin like a delicate array of moonbeam shadows. Within the circular performance area dramatic video images move you from a red-hot churning cauldron to the cool jungle of exotic performance. The Dragone performers move gracefully from one seemingly impossible athletic exploit to the next.”
The theatre itself is intimate, with each audience member within 10m of the main performance area. This very short viewing distance creates an intimacy between the audience and the athletic feats of the performers. “Effortlessness: what makes working in a space with a large pool of water challenging is the need to make every transition look effortless,” admits Neville. “For 90 minutes, the performance must be a seamless journey through a visually stunning imaginary world, uninterrupted by the monumental technical sophistication which is necessary to make ‘effortless’ a reality.”
Helping to create this sense of effortlessness is a sophisticated automation system, with control and winches by Waagner Biro. This system comprises 13 acrobatic hoists (typical capacity 250 kilos) and two multiline scenic hoists, each with a capacity of 1,000kg.
“Auerbach Pollock Friedlander brought our broad knowledge and understanding of the theatrical technical industry to bear in the facilitation of our systems design, where a diverse group of international vendors were required,” says Auerbach. “The need to react to cost considerations and the creative demands of the show producer, well into the construction period, required us to be flexible, considerate, and to be able to represent the ultimate criteria of our designs.”
Part two of this story in the December issue of Live Design will cover the design aspects as well as sound and lighting systems for the show in the Dai Show Theatre.