To Dai For, Part One

(©Raphael Olivier courtesy of Stufish Entertainment Architects)


Scenic designer Alicia Tkacz, architect and production designer at the London, UK-based Stufish Entertainment Architects, brought the exterior design into the interior of the Wanda Group’s Dai Show Theatre in Xishuangbanna, China, when she created the sets for The Dai Show, as directed by Franco Dragone. Tkacz reports that, for the first stage of the project, approximately one year, the Stufish team was meeting regularly with the client Wanda, Dragone, and theatre consultants from Auerbach Pollock Friedlander in Beijing, initially for architecture-focused meetings. Be sure to read about the Dai Show Theatre in Chinese Dragone.

“Once construction started on site, I then started going to Belgium to Dragone’s offices to work more on the set design,” she recalls. “As we had been developing the building for over a year, we were in a great position, as we could translate the theatre for the show people, and having the exact 3D model for the building meant we could be extremely precise in specifying everything. Combining our roles of architect and set designer allowed us to utilize our in-depth knowledge of the theatre space and ensure the design of the scenery blended coherently into the architectural concept.”

One example of this is how the exterior roof structure covers the auditorium, giving the impression that the audience is seated beneath a canopy of palm trees. This natural setting carries through the scenic design. As Tkacz notes, “We were involved in early concept discussions with Dragone and knew it was a water show, but smaller and more intimate than the first one he did in China.”

©Raphael Olivier courtesy of Stufish Entertainment Architects

The result is a 1,183-seat theatre, three-quarters in the round, with a keyhole, or gateway, leading to a huge, mysterious space behind the pool. As Tkacz explains, “The vast, dry upstage area at the back edge of the keyhole is the main entrance point for the scenery and serves as the only access to the stage. An early design concept was to create a portal framing the upstage area that we called the ‘dragon roots,’ a permanent set piece that segues from the theatre to the auditorium, like roots breaking through the stage and taking over the building.” The roots are a natural brown, with orange tones to make them look like they have a rusty metal finish.

Most of the scenery for this show was built in China at the Yang Liping workshop in Beijing, which built The Han Show for Dragone as well. “They understood what kind of treatment the scenery needed to be submerged in water and worked on corrosion issues,” notes Tkacz.

Because of the low grid height, just 18m above the seats, and the ceiling that peaks in the center, there was not a lot of space to hang scenery above the stage or the pool. Stufish integrated ten acrobatic gates with an elaborate 3D flying system into the design of the roof structure, allowing performers to fly from nine-meter-high platforms and soar above both stage and audience. As Tkacz observes, “With the acrobatic gates around the nine-meter-high railing, winches, projectors, and the roof structure all exposed, it feels almost like you are in a circus tent.”

The stage itself measures 1,400sq-m and is divided into three sections: a central stage with a 14m-wide performance basin containing an eight-meter-wide pool plug that lowers down 5.5m to allow for a dramatic 15m-high dive off the catwalk above; the forestage that can be either wet or dry, like the main or central stage; and a dry upstage section used symbolically to convey a vast infinity and for such practical purposes as storing and transporting scenery. Each area can be filled with water separately, or the entire performance basin can be filled in 45 seconds and then drained in just 20 seconds, thanks to four 200-HP pumps. Theatre consultants Auerbach Pollock Friedlander designed the system.

©Raphael Olivier courtesy of Stufish Entertainment Architects

Various scenic elements are designed around the performance requirements of acts in the show, such as a flower that hangs from the center grid and comes down early in the show for a number by the lead female performer. “It is then struck and taken out,” explains Tkacz, “so other things can happen in the grid.” The flower itself is quite complicated—automated, computer controlled—like a pink lotus flower that descends upside down and opens, evoking a Buddhist influence.

On the dry upstage area, flat panels printed with a dragon root pattern were laser-cut into shapes placed on a net backing. These are manually pulled into place by stagehands and used to close down the space to draw attention to the center of the stage. Platforms for acrobatic balancing acts are raised above the floor and molded to look like the dragon root world. 

Another set piece is called the Bodhi Tree, and performers bring out baskets with ropes and create a maypole around the tree. “Franco was keen to make this a low-tech show in some senses,” says Tkacz. “Other than the flying, most of the scenery has to be easily moved around by the actors. We wanted to create a fantastical kind of world in which nature and transformation were the key inspirations.”

Ripples Of Sound

“The Dai Show Theatre is influenced by both local culture and local nature, fusing them to create an iconic cultural symbol for the Wanda development in Xishuangbanna, China, near the border with Burma,” says Mark Holden of Jaffe Holden, acoustics consultant for The Dai Show Theatre. “Housing a water acrobatics show, the theatre is a highly sophisticated venue that sets a new level of artistic and technical achievement to excite audiences from all over the world. Everyone involved was sensitive to both the budget and aggressive schedule, and worked together toward a common goal of successfully opening the theatre.”  

Holden explains that the theatre is located adjacent to a noisy main highway that was eventually baffled and attenuated with acoustic berms. The theatre was also “acoustically challenging,” he says. “Round walls with a conical roof might have caused disastrous acoustics. The metal roof might have been a giant ‘drum head’ in the torrential downpours in this part of the tropics.”

To avoid this eventuality, Holden reports that his team “performed an acoustic 3D modeling analysis of the curvilinear geometry to determine optimum locations of acoustic treatment.” To reduce destructive focusing of sound at the curves’ center, “the roof was folded and articulated with deep ridges and valleys. Roof materials were interwoven with sound dampening and resilient mats to eliminate rain noise and adjacent highway noise,” adds Holden. “Natural timber slats on the walls were shaped and spaced to absorb and control negative reflections between custom-painted silk acoustic panels, strategically located for optimal acoustics on perimeter walls and partitions. No detail was too small. We control the noise of 333,000 gallons of water from perimeter drains with acoustically designed perforated attenuators.”

©Raphael Olivier courtesy of Stufish Entertainment Architects

The consultants at Auerbach Pollock Friedlander designed the audio system. “Placement of the loudspeakers was driven by a combination of architectural and artistic needs, as well as coordination to ensure that the sound system is never in the way of any of the acrobatic or special effects systems,” says Paul Garrity, principal AV consultant for Auerbach Pollock Friedlander. “The goal was to achieve a fully enveloping surround sound environment in what was a difficult acoustic environment, due to reflections from the round shape of the space, the water, and other special effects systems in the room. It was a challenge to find locations for the systems that were not in the way of the 3D-performer flying and other stage effects systems. The use of traditional large line arrays was not possible, so smaller systems were discreetly placed within the architecture to achieve the necessary coverage.”

Sound designer Corrado Campanelli notes that the main PA is entirely from Meyer Sound and consists of ten UPA-1P loudspeakers in a ring to cover almost the entire auditorium, except the last three rows of seats, which are covered by 23 UP4-XPs installed under the soffit. For the subs, there are three LFC-1100s up on the grid in the middle of the UPA-1P ring. “We installed an additional source point at the band platform with two UPQ-1Ps and three UPJs,” says Campanelli. “This gave us the possibility to shift the image down from the UPA and provided us more options for mixing. In a 270º configuration like The Dai Show Theatre, the surround is very important. Here we have two rings of speakers, the main one being made of 19 UPJunior-XPs installed on the edge of the soffit to cover up until the fifth row. For the last five rows, we have another ring of 40 MM4-XPs installed on the rear wall of the auditorium.”

In terms of the quality of the sound, Campanelli adds, “We tried to get the best out of the system during tuning. In a configuration like that, with many different speakers, it can get tricky to make them all come together, but I think, together with Chris Moore from Meyer Sound, we managed to find the best settings. The sound is very intelligible, a typical feature of Meyer’s speakers. The warmness of the UPQ and the punch of the 1100 LFCs complete the picture.”

©Raphael Olivier courtesy of Stufish Entertainment Architects

The show features live music, with a five-piece band performing every night, comprising drums/percussion, electric bass/up right/cello, keyboards, violin, and vocals. “They also use a sequencer, running on Ableton Live, but the musicians play live in every song,” says Campanelli. “There is a lot of sound design in this show, and all the sound effects have been purposely created for the scenes. We use Wildtrax from the Meyer Sound D-Mitri as the playback system. The front-of-house sound operator triggers some of the cues manually, and some are triggered directly by the Photon video system via UDP.”

For sound in a wet environment, Campanelli admits, “The water is certainly an element to take into account when mixing. It’s important to be in the correct state with the lifts and with the special effects—fountains and waterfalls—when mixing, as the impact on the sound is massive. Luckily, having worked on a few other Dragone water shows, it was a known element. The difference is actually amazing. If you listen to a song you mixed for an act with a lot of water effects and then again without any effects, the mix will sound completely wrong.”

Another challenge was certainly the location of the theatre. “Very beautiful, but quite remote, so if you just realize during the process that you need a new piece of equipment, be prepared to wait a long time as it is not that easy to get items over there,” notes Campanelli.

For more, download the December issue of Live Design for free onto your iPad or iPhone from the Apple App Store, and onto your Android smartphone and tablet from Google Play.

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