“It was pretty scary before,” says Dan Ionazzi, the production manager at the Los Angeles-based Geffen Playhouse, about the theatre's production capacity. “Be careful where you plug in that coffee pot,” he laughs.
“The building was barely functional,” he adds, referring to the site erected in the 20s and essentially retrofitted from a hall to a performance space in the 70s. There was no handicap accessibility, inadequate power to support performance lighting and audio/visual equipment, few dressing rooms, and barely any wing space. “It was remarkably sad,” Ionazzi chuckles.
He can laugh after working on an 18-month, $17-million renovation of the Geffen designed by architect Ronald Frink, which includes the debut of a new second stage, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse, a 117-seat theatre addition to the main stage auditorium.
“The fundamental criteria of the project was, number one, improve the creature comfort amenities for the patron,” notes Frink. “That included better seating, better sightlines. Given that we had a historical building that we had to give both preservation work, renovation work, and adaptive re-use and code upgrades, that was a huge challenge.”
Dave Conant, principle, McCay Conant Brook, was the project acoustician and worked on both the acoustical and audio elements of the job. Speech intelligibility was the main hurdle to clear in the big room. Conant's team built a scale model of the house to do laser studies and examine what surfaces inside the room could be reasonably modified, angled and adjusted, or added to better direct sound to the audience.
“It turned out we didn't have to do very much,” he says. “Well, we couldn't do very much. We weren't allowed to do very much because of the historical context.” What Conant did was add three banks of slightly curved reflectors in the rear of the room on the ceiling to direct sound to the audience and titled forward and downward the back wall at the balcony to redirect sound to mezzanine patrons from behind.
In terms of lighting and audio/visual, Ionazzi's main goal for the theatrical element of the renovation was flexibility. “We wanted to install an infrastructure that would make our lives easier from an installation point of view,” he says. “We didn't invest in loose gear, no new additional instrument inventory for the main space. Over the years, we built up an inventory of some stuff, but we still don't stock a lot. We still go to the rental house a lot. It didn't seem wise to invest in that type of equipment if it's not always used.”
Ionazzi contracted Curtis Kasefang, a consultant from Theatre Consultants Collaborative in Raleigh, NC, to help him design the new lighting system. “What we did for them was not only put the lighting system together but very much help the architects through the renovation in terms of space planning, space layout, integration of the technical elements into the structure, seating, sightline work, all of that detail,” explains Kasefang.
The historic structure put specific constraints on what Kasefang could do. He was not allowed to do much damage to the interior, which created challenges, such as where to put the dimmer room and how to get the conduit to it. “Between the two theatres, there are six racks of dimmers, which means somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand wires that had to make their way down to that room,” he says.
The dimmer room needed to be placed so that it least interfered with the visibility of the stage and was accessible to the electrical features of the building without using valuable space needed for dressing rooms and backstage support.
“Once all the constraints got into the mix, it became really clear that there was one spot possible below stage right that put it in relative proximity to the studio theatre and to the circuits of the main theatre,” Kasefang says. “It was far from the ideal space, but it was the best space.”
Production Resource Group (PRG) sold and installed the Strand lighting equipment for the job. The electrical engineer was Dan Martin, Syska Hennessy Group. The public space lighting was handled by Lighting Design Alliance. “One thing that's nice about a contractor like PRG and one of the major lighting manufacturers like Strand, you know they're going to do their darnedest to get it right the first time,” says Kasefang.
They needed to get it right the first time. Renovation was supposed to take 15 months but ran 90 days over schedule for a variety of reasons. It took several crews to find and prepare the transformer vault, and construction occurred during one of the worst rainy seasons in Los Angeles history. All of that made rehearsal schedule tight for the November 16 opening night gala of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Kasefang is confident that his lighting system is fully functional. “I'd like to make it glorious and difficult how we plodded through the woods in the middle of winder dragging consoles behind us,” he says. “But frankly, in terms of the challenges from the project, they forced things to be relatively simple.”
Geffen Equipment List
Main Stage Theatre Dimming:
288 Strand Lighting CD-80 2.4K Dimmers
400A Company switch
200A Company switch
Strand Lighting 520i Console
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater Dimming:
192 Strand Lighting CD-80 2.4K Dimmers
400A Company switch
ETC Obsession™ II 750 Console