Perfect Harman-y

Washington, DC's cultural and political elite, augmented by assorted diplomats and other foreign dignitaries, was out in force on October 1st to walk the red carpet into the gala inauguration of the $89 million Sidney Harman Hall, one of the most keenly anticipated performance facilities to open in the area for decades. Champagne flowed, fireworks lit the night sky, and a colorful street parade provided entertainment for those unable to afford the $1,500-and-up cost of joining the elite gathering clearly visible through the theatre's 60'×90' glass façade.

In addition to the obligatory speeches, the A-list gathering — from Chelsea Clinton and Britain's Duchess of Gloucester to DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — enjoyed a Sam Waterston-hosted program of drama, music, song, and dance that included such luminaries as jazz great Wynton Marsalis, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and ballet superstars Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca.

The gala's varied programming, which also featured the Washington Ballet and WPAS Gospel Choir, was designed to highlight the fact that the adaptable, state-of-the-art, 775-seat hall will not only serve as a new home for the organization that built it, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), but also provide a much needed, mid-sized downtown venue for local and visiting artists from other performance genres.

The 21-year-old STC's board of trustees committed to building a new theatre after an impassioned plea from artistic director Michael Kahn, the celebrated director and teacher who has made STC one of America's most important classical theatre companies. Kahn argued that, after more than a decade leasing the nearby, fixed-proscenium, 450-seat Lansburgh Theatre, STC needed to expand its capacity and artistic potential by acquiring a second stage. In Kahn's bold vision, the second stage would be a flexible space, “an ideal theatre for the 21st century,” where directors could explore a wide range of staging approaches without being limited by architecture.

Audio industry mogul and STC trustee Sidney Harman responded to Kahn's call with a series of donations now close to $20 million. Despite their geographic separation — the Lansburgh is a block-and-a-half away — the two theatres are now collectively known as the Harman Center for the Arts. Meanwhile, acknowledging the role STC has played in revitalizing Washington's once urban-blighted Penn Quarter area, the city came through with another $20 million. To date, however, STC's capital campaign is still $19 million shy of its target.

Given the cost of downtown land, STC had to find a development partner. As a result, Harman Hall is nestled within an 11-story complex directly across F Street from the 20,000-seat Verizon Center sports arena between 6th and 7th Streets. The five-and-a-half floors STC does not occupy are home to building co-owner the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.

Combined with Kahn's ambitions for an adaptable, multi-use venue, this busy, tightly confined downtown location presented extraordinary challenges for STC's chosen architectural firm, Toronto's Diamond and Schmitt; for Chicago-based acoustical firm, The Talaske Group; and for such industry leaders as ETC, Barbizon Capitol, Aeris Corporation, JR Clancy, Niscon, and Professional Audio Designs, which were responsible for the planning, supply, and installation of the new hall's sound, lighting, rigging, stage mechanics, and control systems. As Richard Hoyes of theatre consultants Fisher Dachs Associates emphasizes, the project required close collaboration throughout the development process.

Jack Diamond, whose other recent cultural projects include Toronto's much acclaimed Four Seasons Centre opera house, uses the metaphor of a Russian matryoshka doll to describe the design of Harman Hall: “shells within shells.” The outermost shell is the office building. Next comes the glass-fronted shell enclosing the hall's lobby areas. Finally, there is the performance space itself, separated for noise-isolation purposes from the rest of the structure by a 3' gap spanned by bridges on three levels to connect the lobbies to the auditorium. “It's like crossing a drawbridge into another world, where disbelief is suspended,” says Diamond.

To emphasize the building's architecturally dramatic layering, the opaque Venetian plaster that coats the innermost shell is discreetly illuminated by cove lighting on each level. Shaili Patel of Toronto electrical design and engineering company Mulvey and Banani says this wall wash helps distinguish the theatre shell at night from the bright welcoming ambience of the lobby spaces, illuminated by an array of fully dimmable, low-voltage recessed halogen ceiling downlights from Zumtobel. Meanwhile, Patel deployed incandescent, recessed downlights of different wattages from Indy, part of the Juno Lighting Group, within the theatre to ensure that patrons seated at any level can read programs without eyestrain.

Configuring the theatrical lighting presented more complex challenges as a result of the hall's adaptability. Kahn wanted a room that could be configured variously as a proscenium, thrust, arena, or bare end-stage. He also wanted a genuine cross-over, a trapped stage, full-height fly tower — none of these available at the Lansburgh — and the capacity to store the first five rows of seats and lower the relevant floor area to create a small orchestra pit.

The basic issue, as STC master electrician Sean McCarthy explains, was to acquire sufficient inventory “to cover that much real estate,” especially in an open end-stage configuration, and to pay foresighted attention to circuit locations. “With performances running in repertory,” says McCarthy, “there's not enough time to make adjustments.” Hoyes adds that, in such situations, you cover the lighting needs with a saturated hang that covers both lighting plots.

McCarthy says the hall's lighting inventory, purchased through Barbizon Capitol, is more than equal to the task; additional acquisitions will be made as special needs arise. With a total of 654 dimmers, as compared to the Lansburgh's 365, and an ETC Eos console — combining “touchscreen flexibility with the tactile response of buttons” — the Shakespeare Theatre Company's overall lighting inventory includes instruments and accessories familiar to any major live-performance venue. A balcony rail, three catwalk positions, and floor-to-ceiling piping behind each of the sidewall's pilasters provide plenty of flexibility for instrument placement. From Wybron's Coloram IT scrollers to a pair of Lycian followspots — a soundproofed booth is designed to accommodate three — Harman Hall will satisfy the requirements of lighting designers from multiple performance disciplines.

For acoustician Rick Talaske, a primary challenge was to provide a quiet interior insulated from street noise and vibrations generated by the offices above and, underground, by a three-level parking structure and nearby metro line. Noise and vibration control specialist George Wilson of Wilson, Ihrig & Associates determined the specifications for the 7" rubber pads on which the hall rests. The elimination of rigid connections between the thick concrete-walled room and its surrounding structure means that Harman Hall essentially floats. Then there were the interior acoustical challenges of a room designed, as Talaske almost understates, for “quite a broad spectrum of intended uses.”

Talaske ensured equitable sound distribution throughout the range of planned uses by various means. Motorized banners are concealed behind the room's fixed interior finish: cherrywood screens whose slats differ in width and depth to aid sound diffusion. Curtains along the back wall can also be deployed for additional sound absorption.

In its bare end-stage configuration, a storable colonnade can optionally be flown in at the rear to consolidate the room's aesthetic appearance. When the front four rows of orchestra level seating are wheeled on Aeris casters to flank the open stage — arena style — the aluminum-framed wooden proscenium folds away for storage in the fly tower. Screens that can be moved to form an acoustic shell for music recitals are then positioned behind the flanking seats for lateral sound reflection. The wooden fronts of the balcony extensions also tilt forward to serve the same acoustic function. An adjustable canopy aids in uniform sound distribution while a series of sound-absorbing elements on the canopy's upper side counteract any potential boominess.

In a hall bearing Sidney Harman's hi-fi name, it would be unthinkable for the audio systems not to include top-of-the-line equipment, much of it donated from brands owned by Harman International. Says Talaske Group senior audio consultant Aaron Downey, “The hall includes very specialized and flexible systems.” These are able to reinforce the spoken word should a director so wish, provide full-range sound reinforcement for a fully amplified music ensemble or for musical theatre presentations, and to support multichannel surround sound effects.

Owing to the variety of house configurations, the primary sound system includes loudspeakers that can be rigged as required off catwalks, gallery rails, lighting pipes, or other locations. Three primary reinforcement loudspeaker configurations are included within the design: thrust stage drama, end-stage drama, and amplified music event. The drama configurations are supported by powered JBL loudspeakers distributed over the stage and in the balcony areas.

Music events rely on a medium-format line array and subwoofers. A Studer Vista 5 digital audio mixing console is at the heart of the performance audio system. Audio is sent via fiber optic between the stage and mixing booth. Routing of effects, recall of show presets, sound processing, and many other controls are all handled through this digital work surface. A 16-channel SFX system is provided for effects playback. In addition to the digital audio network, a secondary analog cabling infrastructure to and from the stage can accommodate an analog mixing console.

In addition to the house sound system, the infrastructure (cable hooks, passthroughs, and electrical disconnects) is available for outside presenters to bring in their own systems, including those for broadcast and recording.

Seamless internal communication throughout the theatre's different spaces, whether during rehearsal or performance, is, of course, crucial, and Harman Hall is fully equipped for this. Routing of pages and selection of background music and video in the lobbies is handled via AMX touchscreens. Audio and control routing is managed by BSS SoundWeb London.

Remote control and monitoring of all audio systems is possible through a laptop computer. Amplifiers, audio processing equipment, powered loudspeakers, and support systems are connected by a dedicated network to transport audio and provide centralized control to simplify operation and troubleshooting. Support for the visual and hearing impaired is provided by wireless transmission to personal earpieces available to patrons. The system can provide description for the blind, language translation, hearing-impaired support, or any other audio program the theatre wishes to transmit.

Given the realities of settling into a new home, especially one as sophisticated as Harman Hall, it will likely be several years before its versatility is given an exhaustive workout. In the meantime, the design team has done its best to see that the workout will be a happy and painless one for Shakespeare Theatre Company and the hall's other users.

Suggested Articles:

ETC continues the tradition of connecting lighting students with industry mentors.

The Elation US team will be back on the road again this August meeting clients and demoing products on Elation ON TOUR LEG 2 across the western US.

LD Systems installs new A Series system at park’s 3,000-seat Nautilus Amphitheater