[Excerpted from “The Long Center for the Performing Arts” by Richard Cadena in PLSN, May 9, 2008.]
To the uninitiated, an elevator ride in Austin’s newly-opened Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts might give the wrong impression. The green and orange metal skin that lines the interior of the elevator is replete with dents about the size of a ball-peen hammer. It wasn’t the carelessness of the construction workers who left their marks on the elevator walls, but Mother Nature herself.
You see, the sheet metal from which the elevator was finished used to be the roof of the previous incarnation of the building, and those marks are the hail damage from almost 50 years of Texas weather. It’s a reflection of the community’s enthusiasm for sustainability and environmental responsibility because more than 97 percent of the material taken from the deconstruction of the Palmer Auditorium, the building from which the Long Center arose, was recycled, including steel, concrete and dirt. Much of it, about 65 percent, found its way back into the Long Center. In addition to the inside of the elevator, sheets from the old metal roof can be found on the exterior of Michael & Susan Dell Hall, and the 2,400-seat concert hall. In addition, the glass panels recognizing major supporters of the center were fabricated from the recycled glass walls of the old facility.
The Long Center was borne of the desire to find a permanent home for the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Lyric Opera and Ballet Austin, as well as to replace the existing Palmer Auditorium, a multi-purpose venue that was plagued with problems including poor acoustics and a 10-foot high stage that was guaranteed to give the audience a stiff neck. After a false start in 1998, the post-dot-com-bust economy allowed enough funds to flow into the new project to get it off the ground. From the ashes of the Palmer came a first class venue that retains all of the good parts of the old facility — the downtown riverfront location, the familiar circular “ring beam” from the framework of the Palmer and the old Palmer stagehouse — while updating and improving the rest.
Fisher Dachs Associates came into the project as the theatre consultants in the early stages before the budget cuts forced the shuttling of one of the smaller performance spaces. By the time the dust settled from the partial demolition of the existing Palmer Auditorium, the Michael and Susan Dell Hall remained as the main venue, along with the Debra and Kevin Rollins Studio Theatre black box, the City Terrace outside, the Kodosky Donor Lounge, the West Donor Lounge and Lobby and the AT&T Education Room. “The priority,” said Associate Principal Bob Campbell, “was to make sure that the new home for the symphony, opera and ballet was pristine acoustically and functionally.” The largest cuts, he said, were in square footage to the lobby and the front of the building.
FDA began by working with the client to define the project, said Principal Joshua Dachs, before the architect was hired. “We did a study that resulted in two things,” said Dachs. “One was the concept for the building and also a building program — the brief defining the project, space by space, room by room. Our responsibility includes the overall disposition of the major elements — the auditorium is going here, where the loading dock will go, where do the dressing rooms go, where does the lobby go, how do you start to put the pieces together? The backstage planning and layout, front of house planning and layout and the geometry of the room — the plan, sections, the seating layout, sightlines, all were driven by Fisher Dachs, with the aggressive involvement of Mark Holden, the acoustical consultant (Jaffe Holden and Associates) and architects, Mike Nelson and Gino DeSantis from Zeidler Partnership Architects. There were a lot of iterations.”
Although FDA has been involved in a great number of designs for performing arts centers, including Radio City Music Hall, The Hollywood Bowl and the Lincoln Center, this project was like no other. “The unusual thing about this project,” Dachs said, “is dealing with the former Palmer Auditorium. The stage house was existing, and in order to get more fly space we dropped the entire stage by 10 feet.”
That was no small feat, considering the stage is solid concrete. While the crew was busy lowering the stage, they also installed HVAC plenums in the foundation so that it comes out through perforated stanchions in the seating. “It’s called displacement air,” said Campbell. “It brings air up into the lower area where people are and draws it out from above, rather than dropping it from above. It’s a lot more efficient.”
FDA’s involvement also included specifying all of the technology in the performance spaces including the lighting and rigging. The design of the lighting, Campbell said, was complicated because it had to serve the needs of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Lyric Opera and Ballet Austin. “The symphony requires not only fixed locations in the house, which are within the catwalks and within the orchestra ceiling shell,” he said, “but they also have a separate system which has very quiet dimming.”
The lighting that was designed for the symphony is not intended for use by the opera. “The opera shouldn’t use (the concert lighting) because when the theatre completes a changeover between opera and symphony events, it should not require a minimum four-hour crew call in order to re-focus,” Campbell added. “So there’s a fixed white light system for the symphony, and the opera would rig off of another system that’s part of the stage lighting system. When touring shows load in they can drop stage lighting trusses off a fore-stage grid located above the downstage acoustical reflector.”
The “quiet dimming” to which Campbell referred to are 96 ETC dual 20-amp Sensor “high-rise” dimmer modules with 800?sec rise time. The lighting system also includes another 636 dual 20-amp and 18 50-amp “Advanced Features” Sensor dimmers, 90 relay modules, 294 Source Fours, 25 Source Four Zooms, 48 Source Four PARs, a number of L&E MR-16 mini-strips and Runt cyc lights, Altman Q-Lites, Strand 8” 2K Fresnels, 24 Wybron Coloram InfoTrace Scrollers and three Lycian 1293 3K followspots. Also part of the Dell Hall is a group of High End Systems Studio Command 1200s, which lighting supervisor Todd Drga says are “super bright.”
The control system includes a pair of consoles, either of which many venues can only dream of having. There’s an ETC Eos and Flying Pig Systems Full Boar console. Both are networked to 40 remote network stations, and each station has an RJ-45 Ethernet connector and a 3-pin XLR jack that ties into the Leon Audio Cue Light System. Twelve ETCNet2 Portable DMX 2-Port Nodes provide network access and it’s all tied back to the front of house with a fiber optic backbone.
Next door in the Rollins Theatre is another system of ETC Sensor dimmers, Source Fours, L&E mini-strips and six Ocean Optics SeaChanger color changers. The console system comprises an ETC Expression with an Emphasis server.
San Antonio-based Texas Scenic supplied the rigging system as well as a custom fabricated automated system that adjusts soft goods in the house for acoustic dampening and control. The stage rigging system re-uses the Palmer gridiron and it’s still a manual counterweight system.
To help staff the production team, Director of Operations David Poole hired in Drga along with Frank Cortez as rigging supervisor, Jim Larkin as technical director and assistant technical directors Scott Braudt, Jeff Strange and Eric Miller.
“We’re trying to create a culture that’s different,” Drga said. “We want to be a top notch service provider.”
If the grand opening gala was any indication, then they just might achieve that goal. The two-day event featured performances by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Lyric Opera and Ballet Austin on Friday night and Asleep at the Wheel, Lyle Lovett, Rick Trevino, Flaco Jimenez and the unofficial ambassador of Austin, Willie Nelson. Austin-based lighting designer Tony Tucci and associate lighting designer Chad Jung hired in Phil Gilbert, formerly of Austin but now residing in New York, to program the automated lighting and four High End Systems DL.2s. Upstaging provided a circular truss and a handful of Vari*Lite VL3500s, some VL5s and High End Systems Showguns. J.T. McDonald, who happens to live in Austin, was the production supervisor for Upstaging.
For many Austinites, including band leader Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, the new incarnation of the old Palmer Auditorium had a very familiar feel along with its shiny new image. The old dome may be gone, but the history remains a part of the new center. Benson remarked that he had first played on the stage of the Palmer Auditorium with country legend Ernest Tubb in the early ‘70s when he first moved to Austin and Elvis graced its stage long before that. The Clash made the video for “Rock the Casbah” in the early ‘80s and everyone from the Cars to Van Cliburn played there.
“The grid over the stage is the old grid from the Palmer Auditorium,” Campbell reminds us. “And the wood…a lot of that is re-used material. It was terrific talking to a lot of the contractors who had been to all of these concerts (in the past) and they were excited to work in this space to make it into something else.”
And if you listen closely, you can almost hear the last strains of the reverb from the old Palmer Auditorium. Rock the casbah indeed.
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