Built adjacent to the 401-seat thrust theatre that has housed Berkeley Rep for the last 20 years at 2025 Addison Street, the new 600-seat Roda Theatre was an inside job — the result of dedicated effort from a primarily local design team, most of whom had longstanding personal involvement with the company. This team knew what it wanted, and in finding ways to creatively make the most of its resources, reflected the same ingenuity that goes into the onstage productions.

The Roda Theatre opened to the public in March of this year with the Oresteia trilogy, and concluded its first season with The Laramie Project. The proscenium stage includes a 171-seat balcony, an 80' scenery flytower, a capacious, well-equipped trap room, an ETC ethernet-networked lighting system, and a state-of-the-art custom sound system.

The Berkeley Rep has come a long way since it was founded in 1968 in a 153-seat converted storefront on College Avenue in Berkeley, CA. In 1980, it established its present home, on a block once dominated by auto body shops. In 1997, it received a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Now, Berkeley Rep is the keystone of the new downtown Berkeley arts district, a revitalizing concentration of theatres, performance spaces, and museums. The Rep raised some $17 million in civic, corporate, and individual gifts to build the Roda, which included $4 million from the City of Berkeley and $2 million from the Ask Jeeves Foundation.

Architect of the Roda Theatre was ELS Architecture and Urban Design, winner of the 1997 National AIA Urban Design Award. Says Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, “The greatest thing is the combination of intimacy and large scale. That's rare. You usually find just the opposite — a spacious house with a small stage. Creatively speaking, it's like being in a great big playpen with all your favorite toys. It really opens things up. We could never before have considered staging a certain kind of musical; now, we're negotiating to do one. Anything that relates to music at all is now much more possible.”

“Tony likes a raw, gritty theatre,” says Bruce Veenstra, production manager of the Berkeley Rep. He describes the Roda interior as a “refined warehouse space.” Poured concrete surfaces are visible throughout, touched up with cherrywood paneling and details, black seats, and green carpets and walls. The main drape is dark plum and was provided by Rose Brand, as were all draperies and soft goods. Seating was provided by Irwin Seating of Toronto.

“Non-extravagance was part of Tony Taccone's vision,” says Tom Neville of Auerbach + Associates, consultant on the project. “He emphasized from the start that we had to put in the right number of seats, still have a lobby, and still have intimacy.” To serve these ends, it was decided not to have an orchestra pit. “That allowed us to bring the audience 10' closer and to have more lobby,” explains Neville, who prior to joining Auerbach was production manager of the Rep. “An orchestra can go anywhere: in the trap room, onstage, in the boxes. The Rep is used to putting musicians somewhere that works.” The presence of Auerbach + Associates on this latest project is fitting in that Len Auerbach himself consulted for the Rep when it first moved to Addison Street.

Having a new, 14' × 14' loading dock, a removable stage floor, a 10'-deep trap room, and 51-lineset counterweight rigging system with a capacity of 100,000lbs, the Roda can handle plenty of scenery, in larger and heavier pieces than ever before. Naturally, the Rep went all out for the first production. “The Oresteia trilogy had seven scenes. We had so much scenery that we used the loading dock to store two plays and make room for the third,” recounts Veenstra. “The temple unit weighed 5,000lbs. We put it on five linesets, ganged to a single chain motor, so one person could move it easily. Clearances were so tight, we had to install special scenery bumpers to protect the lights.”

The Rep worked with JR Clancy to design, manufacture, and install the rigging system. The theatre used its own staff of carpenters and welders to build the truss bats for the linesets. Each can hold more than 2,000lbs and can be modified for special tail-downs as required by the show.

The trap room is outfitted with hot and cold running water, natural gas, electricity, and compressed air. Its generous depth can accommodate a variety of hydraulic lifts or other mechanisms, hold pools of water, and allow actors to comfortably walk into position rather than crawl, which they must in the 4'-high trap beneath the Rep's thrust stage.

The stage, built of structural floor modules, is completely removable from its front edge to its rear wall. It can be deconstructed and configured in many ways. Designers can work steps and other scenery into its front edge. The stage is mounted on jacks that can be raised and lowered between productions, so that platforms and turntables can be integrated.

Neville consulted on the design of the theatrical lighting system, while Auerbach + Glasow, the architectural lighting division of Auerbach + Associates, was architectural lighting consultant for the house and lobby lights. The new theatre has more than 600 lighting instruments provided by Musson Theatrical. The system includes primarily ETC fixtures (Source Fours, Zooms, and PARNels), plus Strand Fresnelites and Iris Cyc 3s, Altman 3" fresnels Q-Lites, and Focusing Cycs, Lycian Superarc 400 followspots, L&E Mini-Strips, TPR pinspots, Morpheus M-Faders, Rosco 1600 fog machines, and LeMaitre Neutron Pro XS haze machines. There are 576 ETC dimmers in six dimmer racks, and the rig is run on an ETC Obsession II console.

Berkeley Rep designed, engineered, and built its own cue light system. “The stage manager flips the lights to cue an actor onstage or a stagehand,” says Veenstra. “We have stations around the entire building: at entrances, at the flyrail, around the theatre. We couldn't find what we wanted off the shelf. We wanted more flexibility — patching, for instance. We can take any cue light and patch it to any pattern of switches the stage manager has.”

Peter Maradudin, who has provided lighting design on many Berkeley Rep shows over the years, assisted with the Roda's lighting plan. “Peter would do a light plot and we'd lay out the circuits,” says Neville. Auerbach designed a complete, 100 base-T ethernet computer network for lighting control. The network includes 18 tap locations, each of which allows computer-controlled lighting equipment to be integrated into the system. Thirteen computer-controlled relays give the light board operator complete control over all the worklights in the theatre. “The ethernet network allows you to move lighting installations and for gel changers to be easily located anyplace. Ethernet is becoming standard now, but when we were designing this two years ago, it was very new,” says Neville.

Garth Hemphill of GLH Design, resident sound designer for San Francisco's ACT Theatre, was recommended to consult on the Roda audio system by the Rep's former resident sound designer, Jim LaBrecht of Berkeley Sound Artists. “The Rep really believed in my system design and went with it,” Hemphill says. “They gave me almost everything I asked for. I think we finally did it right.”

Veenstra speaks highly of Hemphill, and both speak highly of Helen Meyer, who sits on the Berkeley Rep board, and whose company, Meyer Sound, donated all the speakers for the Roda. They were installed by BBI Engineering, which did all the wiring installation within the building.

“There's practically no speaker cabling,” says Hemphill. “It's all self-powered Meyer cabinets, with the amps built in. This eliminates those huge amp racks that create heat and fan noise. It also distributes the power usage more evenly around the building. A disadvantage is that you have to service each speaker individually, but these have very low failure rates.”

The Roda may have one of the largest surround-sound systems of any regional theatre in the US. Eight Meyer Self-Powered UPM-1Ps serve as dedicated surround and house effects speakers, with 29 additional UPM-1Ps serving as front fills, box fills, upstairs effects speakers, and as speakers for the upstairs and downstairs lobby areas. There are eight self-powered CQ-1s in use: four in the center cluster, with pairs to the left and right. The CQ-1s are also fed via Meyer Sound's VEAM — an all-in-one connector that replaces the amplifier's AC connector with a multipin connector that handles AC power, audio, and RMS™ (remote monitoring system) data.

Meyer Sound provided four self-powered USW-1P subwoofers, four UM-100Ps and two UPA-1Ps, which serve as foldback speakers. In addition, 12 of Meyer's new 4" cube MM-4 speakers have a home here, acting as “cricket speakers” that can easily be placed throughout the performance space.

For system calibration, 10 Meyer CP-10 parametric equalizers were provided. While the matrix mixer has its own equalization available at the outputs, the addition of the CP-10s freed up the DSP horsepower on the mixer. Also, Meyer installed its SIM® System II; Meyer's RMS software, running on a Windows® PC, which enables the sound crew to keep tabs on every self-powered loudspeaker in the theatre.

“It's so important for the audio system to be invisible,” says Veenstra. “This system is digital from console to speakers, and it's amazingly quiet.”

Hemphill calls the new, 16-track LCS Cue Console, with Matrix 3 hardware and asynchronous hard-disk playback, the “crowning glory” of the audio system. “We can move the mix position from the house to the booth in one hour. It's fully automated, but you can take manual control at any moment just by grabbing a fader. Space mapping lets you draw a picture of the theatre showing where your speakers are, to create spatially dynamic sound cues.” The console has 40 inputs and 32 outputs, all computer controlled. “It allows any number of matrices. It's very flexible without tying up inputs,” says Hemphill. “Everything is built into one computer system with great software interface, and it has great redundancies. The hard drives back up each other instantly. If the cueing goes down, you can still run the show.”

According to Hemphill, the Roda's new Cue Console may currently be the only one to be permanently installed in a venue. He expects others to follow suit. “Detailed sound design tends to be a large part of production now. More LCS systems are popping up in regional theatres, so we can carry our show around on disk, like a lighting designer does.”

Other audio equipment includes mics from Audio Technica and Sennheiser, BSS Soundweb, and Clear-Com intercoms, as well as gear from Aphex, Tascam, TC Electronics, Lexicon, Intellix, Quam, and Atlas.

Being shepherded by people who had seen it through previous incarnations has helped keep Berkeley Rep focused and in character while it grows. In 1980, the goal was to bring the old College Avenue intimacy to the 401-seat thrust stage. Similar issues arose in adding the new 600-seat Roda. “Sometimes striving for a signature space can be detrimental to its workability, if the vision isn't revolving around the stage space and the audience,” says Neville. “But we all had a personal commitment to making sure this one worked. Theatre is a person-to-person connection. It's storytelling: making the audience members feel something for the situation and the performers onstage. If it works, then we've all succeeded.”

Photo: Robert Canfield/ELS Architecture & Urban Design