High-Tech Black Box In Boston

Emerson College in Boston has one of the most comprehensive performing arts campuses in the country. They recently completed the new Paramount Center, which includes the historic renovated Paramount Theatre, as well as auxiliary spaces including the Black Box Theatre. Steve Friedlander and Don Guyton of Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, theatre consultants for the project, discuss the parameters of this high-tech space:

1) What did the client want in terms of the black box design, technology and flexibility?

Emerson College has many performance spaces from large legitimate proscenium houses, to thrust theatres and smaller fixed end-stage theatres. Their goals for the Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center were to create a large flexible space that could be used for both theatrical performance and other events, including receptions. The wide range of uses tended to dictate a space without fixed seating or standard orientations. Emerson College consistently wants a full range of both tried and true and forward thinking technology for their students learning opportunities. Typical for universities, a safe working environment for the students is always a priority.

2) Size, volume, general characteristics? Uses?

The Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center is used primarily for student productions and classes. The 2,300 square-ft space is a four-walled performance venue with no parallel walls. In fact the existing walls, the facade at the front of the building, and the long original wall to the north cut sharp angles through what might have been a simple rectangle in a new construction project. The long dimensions are 69’ on the north side and 44’ on the south side while the ends are a more common 45’ and 43’. The room has a 29’ ceiling height and a pipe grid at 22’ above the stage floor. Mechanical ducts, lighting, sprinklers, and electrical services are located above the grid.

A technical gallery runs around the three longest sides of the space at 14’ off the stage floor providing access to lighting, audio and rigging gear. A full control booth is also located on the gallery level.

The features that create the character of this unique performance space are the existing brick walls to the north and east. These walls are exposed brick from the original side and facade of the 1928 Arcade Building. The facade has two levels of large arched windows. The windows have black out shades for rehearsals and performances, but whether deployed or retracted, the warm brick and arches make the Black Box Theatre a warm and intimate venue for such a large footprint.

The proximity of the Black Box Theatre to the adjacent three-story scene shop allowed the creation of a seven foot wide buffer zone between the two, each with full sliding loading doors to allow direct movement of scenic elements between the Black Box Theatre floor and the paint deck / mezzanine level of the scene shop. The buffer zone acts as a sound and light lock, provides a backstage area when needed and is large enough to be a rear projection bay.

3) What systems are in the space, in terms of lighting, rigging, audio, etc...

The Black Box Theatre has 192 ETC Sensor+ dimmers, an integrated architectural lighting control system, and a lighting system network for moving lights, peripherals and special effects. Lighting control is through an ETC Ion 2000 channel console with a 2x20 fader wing. The circuits and network taps are distributed across the pipe grid, around the gallery level and at the floor level. The space has a custom cue light system, radio frequency focus remote and a 400-amp company switch for additional loads.

A drapery and movable rigging package was designed to easily create a proscenium / end-stage configuration. Masking drapery was specified to hang from pipes located along the edge of the galleries to create a surround or backstage space for audience or performer entrances and exits.

The audio-video systems within the black box theatre include sound reinforcement and effects playback, assistive listening for the hearing impaired, production intercom, modulated and production video, and show program monitor/paging/audience recall systems. One of the main goals of the overall design was to ensure that each system is simple enough for students to operate but still sophisticated enough to meet the needs of Emerson's technical staff.

The audio systems also needed to be as flexible as possible to allow quick reconfiguration of equipment. Portable EAW loudspeakers are C-clamp mounted to the overhead pipe grid and are easy to move depending on the needs of each production. The Yamaha LS9-16 sound mixing console and Stage Research SFX effects playback system are mounted in rolling racks which can be connected either within the control room, or within the theatre's back-of-house corridor as required. A custom stage manager communication & video monitoring station is also mounted portable cases for easy reconfiguration of control positions.

It was also important for the video and communication systems to provide the capability to tie together all three-performance spaces within the Paramount Center to meet expanding back-of-house communication and production management needs. This allows the user's to monitor Clear-Com production intercom, program audio, paging and video feeds between any of the performance spaces.
The wiring infrastructure throughout the Paramount Center provides fiber optic and CAT-6 cabling runs to key locations within each venue. This allows for connection of current and future technologies and formats via proper signal conversion boxes. Empty conduit trunks are routed between the equipment rack rooms, control rooms and stage areas to allow additional cabling to be pulled in the future, if required.

4) How do you approach the design of a space like this... and was there a particular challenge?

The space for the new black box was developed within the gutted envelope of the Arcade Building and was in a sense partly adaptive reuse and partly new construction. The asymmetrical shape of the room and the incorporation of the existing building façade were a challenge. Other major questions revolved around finding the right height proportions for the long room, developing the best connection to the scene shop and coordinating air handling. Connecting the public circulation from the Paramount lobby to the Black Box and designing the space to address its concurrent use with the other venues within the building were also a challenge.

5) Is the space ultimately successful and why?

The initial feedback from the staff and users is very positive. Emerson’s administration, faculty and technical staff foresee many ways to step up to the potentials of the room. While it is a large room, it feels intimate when using various theatre seating arrangements as the unused space is not perceived by the audience. The incorporation of the existing brick walls and window façade make the space feel like a room rather than a “black box” which makes audiences comfortable. Technology is integrated without being intrusive for the performer or the audience.

Black Box Theatre: Gear List

Provided by High Output, Inc., Canton, MA
• 2 Sensor SR48+ dimmer racks*: Electronic Theatre Controls
• 2 Sensor CEM+ control electronics modules: Electronic Theatre Controls
• 192 2.4kW sensor dimmers: Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 12 single pole DMX controlled relay panel: Electronic Theatre Controls
(Controlling cue lights and work lights)
• 1 12-circuit emergency lighting transfer system: Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 Unison architectural system: Electronic Theatre Controls
(house and work lighting control)
• 1 36 port custom Ethernet patch panel Electronic Theatre Controls
• 2 24 port PoE gigabit Ethernet switches Linksys
• 1 4 Port ACN/DMX/RDM Gateway with video remote: Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 6 port DMX Repeater Pathway Connectivity
• 1 Rack UPS Switch Powerware
• 1 Portable 11-way custom cue light system Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 Ion 2000 with 2x20 Fader wing Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 Radio focus remote transmitter and receiver Electronic Theatre Controls
• 1 400-Amp 3-phase company switches
Rigging System
Provided by SECOA, Inc.
• 2300 sq ft pipe grid

Portable Loudspeaker systems:
• EAW JFX100 with fly hardware
• EAW JF60z with brackets
• EAW SB150zR subwoofers
• dbx 223XL subwoofer crossover
• QSC CX254 and RMX-2450 power amplifiers
Digital mixing console and sound playback sources:
• Yamaha LS9-16 digital mixing console
• ADK Pro Audio DAW computer with Stage Research SFX sound playback software
• Layla audio interface
• Sonic Core A16 Ultra AD/DA converter
• Tannoy Reveal 5A digital console monitor loudspeakers
• Tascam CD-01U Pro player and CD-RW900 CD recorder
Equipment Racks & Accessories:
• Middle Atlantic Equipment Racks
• CT Marketing flight cases
• ADC, Leviton and Hubbell copper and fiber patch bays
• Custom loudspeaker patch panel
Assistive Listening System for the Hearing Impaired:
• Sennheiser MKE-44P program monitor microphone
• Listen Technologies LT-800-216 wide-band wireless FM assistive listening system with antenna and receivers

Assistive Listening System for the Hearing Impaired:
• Sennheiser MKE-44P program monitor microphone
• Listen Technologies LT-800-216 wide-band wireless FM assistive listening system with antenna and
Production Intercom & Program Monitor / Paging / Audience Recall Systems:
• Clear-Com MS-702 2-channel power supply / main station
• TOA A-9120DH digital matrix mixer amplifier
• JBL Control 26CT, Control 24CT, EAW SM53 program/page loudspeakers
• Altas AT-35 volume controls
• Custom portable stage manager control stations
• Custom house manager control panel with lobby volume control and intercom station
Production Video System:
• Panasonic WV-CP480 color cameras with Panasonic lens
• Burst Electronics SG-2 black burst generator
• Extron MDA-5V video distribution amps
• Marshall Electronics V-R82DP-2C portable video monitors
• Blonder-Tongue modulators, amplifiers, combiners and taps
• Canare video patch panels

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