When theatre consultant Van Phillips and senior design architect Fred Gore sat down to plan their most recent project, Phillips saw the potential to make a major leap forward in performing arts center design.
“For years, I’ve been saying to Fred, ‘We’re doing it backwards,’” said Phillips, the owner of theatre design consultancy Jones & Phillips Associates. He and Gore—a senior design architect with URS Corporation—have completed more than twenty projects together. “Every school we do is more driven by music than by drama. Drama programs are relatively small, and music programs are huge, and involve as much as a third of the student body in some kind of music. We’ve been building theatres and trying to put the orchestra on that stage.”
For the Jenison Public Schools Center for the Arts in Jenison, Mich. (outside of Grand Rapids), a focus on music made solid, practical sense. The district’s orchestra program alone includes more than 500 string players, with three orchestras at the junior high level and four in the high school. The high school band program welcomes 120 new players every year into three ensembles, and every school in the district has at least one choir.
“I said, ‘We need to build a concert hall and have it work as a theatre,” said Phillips. “I was confident I could fit a theatre into the footprint we had for a full orchestra.”
The rigging challenge
The Jenison Center for the Arts design—now under U. S. copyright as “Concert Hall that Transforms into a Complete ‘Working Stage’ Theatre”—features a 90-foot stage opening. At its full width, the stage can accommodate a large high school orchestra, and a choir in the loft that surrounds the stage. To accommodate a theatrical production, tall sliding walls can move onto the stage to form the proscenium at 40 feet wide.
Over the top of the forestage, Wenger Corporation created a 6,000-pound front-of-house eyebrow that serves as the ceiling for the acoustical shaping. The eyebrow assembly is 17 feet deep and 48 feet long, and it features a major speaker cluster within the eyebrow structure.
To achieve the flexibility Phillips and Gore planned for the space, contractor Beck Studios turned to J. R. Clancy for the required rigging.
The Clancy/Beck team provided three line shaft hoists to raise and lower the onstage ceiling panels, and a separate front-of-house line shaft hoist to operate the lowering of a portion of the eyebrow. “The orchestra ceiling pieces were provided by another contractor, and they came in heavier than specified,” said Dan Ilhardt, president of Beck Studios. “Clancy went back and designed a more powerful motor. It’s great when you have the product line to do that.”
The eyebrow provided the greatest rigging challenge, both in size and in aesthetic requirements. “The house crew needs to move the eyebrow to match the over-stage ceilings to create a continuous look,” said Kevin Auses, J. R. Clancy project manager, “We designed a custom line shaft that allowed us to pick up this heavy eyebrow on the upstage and downstage end at the same time, and move the eyebrow and the speaker cluster as a unit. It’s one hoist with twelve lift lines for the eyebrow, and two lift lines for the speaker cluster.”
The eyebrow itself was all in a day’s work for the Wenger team. “We’ve been doing projects like this for more than 60 years, and we pride ourselves on making a custom design/build panel,” said Mark Ingalls, Wenger product manager for the performing arts. “The eyebrow is a welded-steel tube frame with our two-inch thick honeycomb composite panels on the face side. There is also an area in the middle of the eyebrow where the speakers are located, and we just covered the steel frame with an acoustically transparent fabric.”
This kind of construction is fairly common, said Ingalls, but on this job, the assembly required some tricky coordination. “Typically we assemble the eyebrow on the stage floor and bring the rigging down to pick it up,” said Ingalls. “The design did not allow us to do this, so we had to assemble it in the air. It takes a lot of experienced people to do that.”
Wenger worked closely with the Beck team to maneuver the eyebrow into place in midair. “We were all pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily it went together,” Ingalls said.
Ilhardt agrees. “Clancy and Wenger had to work together on this, and it was great to see them do it so well,” he said. “This was the first time we’d worked with both Wenger and Clancy on one project since Wenger bought Clancy, and now we really see the benefit of that collaboration.”
The full production package
In addition to the rigging for the ceiling and eyebrow assemblies, J. R. Clancy supplied 23 PowerLift® motorized hoists above the stage for raising and lowering scenery, soft goods and electrics. Twenty-one of these hoists can move scenery at variable speeds between 0 and 120 feet per minute. The two fixed-speed hoists are used for the electrical battens, which do not require special moving speed variations.
To control the rigging system and make it easy for a crew of volunteers and students to use, J. R. Clancy supplied its Altus® control console. Altus provides touchscreen programmable capabilities that allow users to create up to 200 cues using as many as 48 hoists. Users have direct up/down control and a joystick for adjustments on the fly, with the ability to program acceleration and deceleration for dramatic effects
“Altus allows the operators at Jenison to program the PowerLifts and the onstage shell ceiling,” said Auses.
With the Jenison Center for the Arts now open and booked with nearly daily events, Phillips and Gore have had the opportunity to hear from their clients about the versatility of their innovative performance space.
“It opened on December 3, and they were doing a show a night until the day before Christmas,” said Phillips. “We have heard nothing but good things. The whole concept required quite a bit of rethinking on the part of everyone involved—from a technological standpoint, from the performers who are using the space, and from the management who will promote the hall. Also, it takes an owner who is willing to try something entirely different.”
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