The new Port Theatre anchors the harborfront redevelopment of Nanaimo, a city of 80,000 on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Designed as a multipurpose facility accommodating a variety of performance styles--from local drama groups to touring plays and concerts--it overlooks the Boat Basin on the Georgia Straits with sweeping views of the scenic harbor. While larger venues may cast their eye on cultivating a reputation in the international cultural scene, this handsome, 806-seat theatre takes a homegrown approach: addressing the needs of the local community while incorporating environmentally aware design strategies.

The Port Theatre was designed by noted Canadian architect Terence Williams, a principal of Victoria-based Wade Williams Young + Wright. Throughout his career, Williams has combined a specialty in performing arts architecture with a concern for creating energy-efficient, sustainable buildings. The Nanaimo project brought him together once again with two longtime collaborators from San Francisco, theatre consultant S. Leonard Auerbach and acoustician Dennis Paoletti.

"Terry and I have enjoyed a professional relationship for over 25 years designing a number of projects," Auerbach says. "The first venue we did together in the mid-70s was the concert hall at the University of Victoria, a prototype of the surround-format concert hall form in Canada. Later we designed the theatre at Expo 86, and also collaborated on the Malaspina University-College theatre. He's a first-rate architect with a solid understanding of the many requirements necessary to make performance spaces work."

"To maximize the function of the Port Theatre, careful collaboration between the many design consultants was required," adds Adam Shalleck, AIA, project manager for Auerbach + Associates. "It was a smooth process, since we were already comfortable with the architect's approach, and vice versa." The project team also included four Victoria-based firms: structural engineer Read, Jones Christoffersen; electrical engineer Hayward Wells & Associates; mechanical engineer Hirschfield Williams Construction; and general contractor NS Campbell Construction, Ltd. Vancouver-based Greystone Properties, Ltd. served as project manager.

The development of the civic theatre had been on the drawing boards, via various proposals, for the past 25 years. The $12.8 million project received 1/3 of its funding from the Canadian federal government, 1/3 from the Province of British Columbia, and the remainder from financing by the local community. The Nanaimo Harbourfront Centre Theatre Society, a non-profit organization which owns and operates the theatre, oversaw local fundraising. In addition to designing the theatre and a 300-car parking structure, Williams and his team completed the master plan for the entire harborfront. The development site also includes a library, a commercial complex, and a proposed conference center.

"Nanaimo has a rich history as a mining, fishing, and logging port," Williams explains. "In the last century, it was essentially a mining community, with British, Scottish, and Welsh laborers immigrating to work here. Dating back to the 1800s, there has been a strong tradition of choral and orchestral music as part of the city's culture; an opera house constructed of wood at the turn of the century eventually burned down. Today, Nanaimo has become more sophisticated as a community of commuters to Vancouver, but we wanted the new theatre to still reflect a basic honesty and integrity indigenous to the port. Our building has very few overlays of decoration."

The Port Theatre was built at the water's edge on an existing landfill. "We have historic photographs of this site when it was an inlet being used at the turn of the century," Williams says. "Ships were actually moored where the theatre now stands." More recently, "it was your classic site that wanted to be a theatre--a parking lot," Auerbach deadpans.

Because of the site's sandy soil quality and high water tables, the theatre's foundations rest upon steel piles driven into rock. "We are in an earthquake zone, so we went for the more expensive, conservative option of drilling to rock," Williams says.

"The construction faced a very difficult subterranean water condition," Auerbach notes. "The theatre is right on the waterfront, and the orchestra pit was a complicated and costly procedure to dig and keep dry. When the concrete for it was first poured, the crew was in a hurry to get the proscenium up because it was literally going to hold the orchestra pit from floating way. Trap areas were inordinately expensive to create." Since the pit and traps are actually below sea level, a steel dam was built during the construction phase to keep the tide back.

"We wanted to make the facility accessible by wheelchair so that a person could come in from the street, into the lobby and chamber, onto the stage, and then to backstage and the loading dock, all at one level," Williams says. "The stage is essentially at street level, which has worked out extremely well. Loading and unloading is a cinch, because trucks can move gear onto the stage from street level."

The building's use of wood, concrete, and stucco reflects the elements of seas, mountains, and forest that comprise the island's landscape. The architects also underscored the connection to sea and trees with an accent color palette of blue and green for the carpet and upholstery. "We used a lot of woods, mostly maple, in the interior of the building," Williams says. The acoustic reflective panels overhead and along each side are maple, as are the backs of the seats. Concrete and local granite aggregate surfaces within the audience chamber are straightforward and unadorned.

"For the past 15 years, we as architects have been exploring sustainable building, or 'green' architectural projects," Williams says. "When we were commissioned to do this theatre, here was an opportunity to introduce some of those strategies into the design. Many criteria of theatre design are similar to those of environmentally responsible design approaches. The architects, for example, chose to employ a structure largely of concrete that could be produced locally rather than by importing steel to the island. Much of the structural components of the building, from the foundation walls, and roof, are entirely poured-in-place concrete. "They do concrete very well in that part of Canada," Shalleck says. "And they don't mill steel on the island. It's very expensive to drag it over. So all the steel would have had to come over on a ferry. Instead, we worked with materials that are more indigenous to the area." Adds Auerbach, "Of course, it makes it much easier to coordinate design in concrete buildings and onl y put steel where you absolutely need it."

Besides its durability, the concrete structure serves as a good surface for supporting performance acoustics. "Encasing the main chamber is a shell that is essentially concrete, which is good for sound reflection and a good natural acoustic environment," Williams says. "And the use of that concrete mass begins to isolate exterior noises. Then there is a buffer, a series of air spaces and lobby spaces, that also masks exterior noise. The exterior walls, which are another mass of concrete, provide another layer of sound isolation." From an energy efficiency point of view, the concrete works well, too, "because we isolated the chamber, which generates the most heat," the architect says. "It's like a bubble within a bubble, and we can address containment of heat, reusing that heat, and how can we more economically deal with cooling within that space."

"It's very difficult to deal with theatrical systems from a green building point of view," Auerbach acknowledges. "We adopted the attitude that we were going to look at all the new light sources and develop a lot of electrical efficiency in the building. But it sometimes seems like the more we do, the more efficient we get, the more designers want. And I guess that's okay, since we're here to serve the stage productions. The theatre has a responsibility to the environment as well, yet it's the nature of theatrical lighting to use lots of power."

The Nanaimo venue was designed for the varied constituency of the community at large. "There was a lot of community interest in the theatre but no actual user client," Auerbach says. "We worked with a civic task force in the very beginning on planning." Williams reports he met with more than 55 local organizations to gather input on the theatre's design. "It really is a very multipurpose theatre," the architect says. "We met with everyone from the local dance groups to the local Malaspina University-College choir to the local TV cable and radio stations to groups representing people with disabilities. Of course, we weren't able to satisfy every aspect of everybody's concerns, but the theatre addresses most of the major issues raised on all fronts."

One of the theatre's major features--an adjustable proscenium--grew out of such discussions with community groups. "There are several amateur dance troupes within this community who wanted a very large proscenium arch," Williams says. On the other hand, local drama companies thought such specifications were too big. "The drama contingent wanted a proscenium arch that was smaller and more intimate. In the end, we arrived at a piece of the side wall that pivots to create an adjustable proscenium, about 42' wide at its maximum."

"The smaller seat count also is attributable to the theatre's users," Auerbach says. "The local government wanted to boost cultural activities. They're also in the process of adding an exposition center downtown. The theatre was part of a move toward helping the city 'grow up.' The theatre's seating capacity and its main thrust configuration were developed to accommodate small-to-medium-size touring events, from dance to drama. "There is a strong network of Canadian companies that tour quite a bit," Auerbach notes, "and this venue fit that market. The community leaders had no misconceptions about building a 'grand theatre' larger than they could support. They don't have an audience base to support large Broadway-style tours."

Acoustical consultant Paoletti Associates collaborated with Auerbach to integrate theatrical systems effectively with the acoustical systems. Adjustable sound-absorbing panels and heavy velour curtains distributed around the walls and upper ceiling help change the acoustical environment from "live" for musical concerts to "dry" for lectures and theatre use. An extensive wiring and cabling infrastructure for audio systems will enable the theatre to eventually accommodate and support the most sophisticated needs of theatre performance.

"Besides meeting the needs of various performers, the variable acoustics were requested by the civic leaders," Paoletti says. "They wanted to be able to use the main chamber for conference sessions since the theatre is built adjacent to a hotel. So we are able to adjust the room for speech, reducing the reverberation time down to about 1.5 seconds. Then we take all the banners out and remove all the soft surfaces on the interior to increase the reverberation time for orchestral or symphonic music." The acoustic panels open up to expose absorptive material on one side and close to display hard reflective maple surfaces on the outside.

In order to support the varied slate of productions, the theatre includes a counterweight rigging system and an orchestra lift with thrust stage. A modest fly tower and wings are part of the design. The audience seating is arranged in small groups, with side boxes on two levels. The building also encompasses a founder's lounge, administrative offices, and complete backstage support.

The final package of theatrical systems, though versatile, was budget-driven. "The idea was not necessarily to give them brand-new, terrifically advanced technologies," says Auerbach, "but a good, workhorse package. It's a very solid group of end-users. And the best thing we could create for them within the budget was to make sure the stage and equipment were as cleanly detailed and highly functional as possible. To that end, a significant design feature was the coordination within the building. There are no obstructions, no misplaced engineering elements that get in the way of what production teams need to do. The design team--the engineers and the architect--was very respectful and cooperative in that way."

In terms of electrics, power is provided for 474 20A and 11 50A circuits, including 28 rehearsal circuits and 14 cue light circuits. The circuits are distributed with twistlock 20A and three-pin Joy 50A receptacles. Six-circuit multipanels with individual breakouts, extension cable, and fanouts are provided. Stage electrics are served as needed from fly gallery overheads with tracked multicable pickup rigging. "They haven't bought all the dimmers yet," Shalleck says, but all the power is provided. "In essence, they've got about a rack of dimmers installed, yet there are enough circuits for four racks." The initial installation includes 108 20A and three 50A ETC Sensor dimmers.

Theatrical fixtures include ETC Source Fours, Altman fresnels and Q-Lites, and FE PAR-64s and cycs. The lighting control system is an Express 48/96 console with ETC Expression 2 remote focus. A distributed DMX512 network is linked to lighting positions, including three catwalk box booms, and the balcony rail pipe.

The venue can accommodate automated luminaires brought in by touring companies. "As a matter of fact, the opening production was pretty exciting," Williams reports. "The first act was a symphony, followed by an a capella group. The room started in the symphony mode with a somewhat reverberant audience chamber and a very straightforward light plot. The symphony was out on the thrust about mid-stage. After intermission, the variable acoustics had been flipped to the absorptive side, since it required amplification. The crew brought out additional sound reinforcement and set out moving lights. It was a dramatic juxtaposition of looks, and the intermission changeover took about 15 minutes."

The Port Theatre also features a Gala Spiralift in the orchestra pit, providing 2.7m (89') of travel. The stage curtain was supplied by Westsun Vancouver, its cost donated by a local women's organization.

"This is the most well-equipped theatre on Vancouver Island," Shalleck says. "In terms of community performing arts, it already takes the island a big step forward."

Still on the drawing board is an adjacent rehearsal space that could produce additional civic revenue. "Local politicians have seen this theatre as a catalyst of economic and cultural redevelopment within the community," Williams says. "And it's proven it could successfully fill that role. Unfortunately, British Columbia is in the midst of economic doldrums, but this development has been viewed as helping Nanaimo stabilize quite a bit. My history of collaborations with Len Auerbach and Dennis Paoletti really came together in this theatre. The site and budget were extremely tight, but we achieved a high degree of efficiency. Certainly from a cultural point of view, it has been a gratifying success."

Operator: Nanaimo Harbourfront Centre Theatre Society; Don Campbell, building committee chair; Sandra Thomson, development officer; Karen Killeen, general manager; Bruce Halliday, technical director

Architect:Wade Williams Young + Wright; Terence Williams, principal architect; Richard Young, Chris Gower, Greg Damant, Gary Bearham, John Fradley, John Heartland, Stefan Chieslik, Michael Williams

Theatre consultant: Auerbach + Associates; S. Leonard Auerbach, principal; Adam Shalleck, project manager

Acoustician: Paoletti Associates; Dennis Paoletti, principal; Red Wetherhill, Kurt Graffy

Structural engineer: Read Jones Christofferson

Electrical engineer: Hayward Wells & Associates

Mechanical engineer: Hirschfield Williams Construction

General contractor: Campbell Construction

Project management: Greystone Properties Ltd.

Partial equipment list

(21) single-purchase counterweight linesets

(6) ropeline leg sets

(three pairs of legs), 5m (16.5')-long battens.

(4) tab/tracked lighting ladder sets with five-pair, four-rung tracked ladders

Borden welded steel gridiron deck

Westsun guillotine house curtain

Gala Spiralift orchestra lift

(111) Electrical Theatre Controls (ETC) Sensor dimmers (initial installation)

(104) ETC Source Four luminaires

(30) Altman fresnels

10 Altman Q-Lites

(30) FE PAR-64s

(15) FE Lighting 8", eight-leaf barndoors

(35) custom Kee-Klamp

14" side arms

ETC Express 48/96 console w/ Expression 2 remote focus

Distributed DMX512 network