The CMU Drama Department Moves Into the New 500-Seat Chosky Theatre Theatre students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA are enjoying their first season in the new 500 - seat Chosky Theatre, the largest performance space in the Purnell Center for the Performing Arts. Inaugurated last May, the Chosky replaces the out-dated Kresge Theatre, where the drama department performed for the past 90 years.
One CMU alumnus who remembers his salad days at the Kresge is S. Leonard Auerbach, principal of Auerbach + Associates, the theatre consultant for the Purnell Center. "The new building is part of an overall campus master plan developed by architect Michael Dennis for new dorms, a new stadium and a new student center across `the Cut,' or campus entrance, from the Purnell," says Auerbach, who served as principal theatrical designer for the Purnell project. "The facade treatment and expansive scale of the building with a colonnade along the front is similar to the student center."
The Neoclassical design of the Purnell Center includes a rotunda lobby at one end, to echo the rotunda of another campus building. The architectural team for the project was DDF Associates, a joint venture including John Sergio Fisher, AIA, for the theatre spaces, Michael Dennis and Associates, and Damianos + Anthony, local architects. Auerbach + Associates began working on the project over 10 years ago, providing feasibility studies for various configurations in the Chosky Theatre.
"The old space had so much soul and was a birthing place for so many actors, directors, and designers," notes Auerbach, whose fellow alums include lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer as well as such actors as Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, and Jack Klugman. "There was a real desire to bring the essence of the Kresge into the new theatre," Auerbach continues, pointing out that the old space had both warmth and intimacy. "We wanted the same feeling without actually replicating it all. The new theatre conveys the spirit of the old."
The interior architecture of the theatre space embraces the audience in warm wood panels and red brick. The theatre seats are upholstered in a warm gray fabric by Irwin Seating. Aisles are carpeted, with concrete under the seats. The shallow tiered rows in the lower orchestra lead to steeper tiered rows in the parterre. Cascading boxes at the side walls complete the seating options in this rectangular theatre with its radiused seating plan. "The theatre can be configured in two performance modes," says Michael McMackin, a senior associate in Auerbach + Associates San Francisco office. He served as the firm's project manager for the Purnell and is also a CMU Drama technical production grad. "It can play in a traditional proscenium configuration but can also convert to a thrust stage by means of movable seats and a platform system in the lower orchestra.
"The goal of the project was to provide a state-of-the-art performance and teaching facility," McMackin continues. "The potential capabilities in the new Chosky theatre far exceed what could have been done in the Kresge. The entire Kresge Theatre would fit onto the Chosky stage. The shops in the old Fine Arts Building were located down the hall from the theatre. Scenery had to be built to fit through doorways to get onto the stage. The paint and scene shops in the Purnell Center are located directly behind the Chosky stage. Large scenic elements can be moved from the shops directly on to the main stage through 25' - tall doors. When the doors are closed, the shops and stage are acoustically isolated from one another, so set construction can proceed while a performance is taking place."
A primary design feature in the Chosky is the tension grid constructed of walkable wire mesh custom-built by JR Clancy. The grid is suspended over the seating area, similar to the grid in the Kresge. The tension grid, in conjunction with catwalks, provides great flexibility in the placement of lighting instruments for front-of-house positions. A 45' x 10' electromechanical orchestra lift, also provided by JR Clancy, can be used as an orchestra pit for a full orchestra up to 35 players, at audience seating level for additional seating, at stage level for a deep apron, or at any position in between. The stage house is 86' wide by 40' deep with a full working gridiron 72' above the stage. JR Clancy installed 48 counterweight linesets and counterweight-rigged tab masking battens and lighting ladders. The stage floor is sprung for dance with snubbers to take heavy scenery loads. An 18' x 24' area of the floor has removable traps to a generous traproom below the stage. Tracking architectural tormentor panels provide a variable width proscenium opening from 34' to 50'. Ample power is available at stage level, at the gridiron, and over the house for motorized stage machinery, lighting and sound equipment, and effects.
Auerbach conceived the two - story walkable technical galleries flanking the proscenium opening. An integral pipe grid with onboard theatrical systems provides support for lighting, sound, and special effects. The galleries are hinged at one end and suspended by a tram beam allowing them to pivot to accommodate various stage configurations.
The shaping of the gallery side walls, determined by acoustician Russ Cooper of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acoustics, is instrumental to the acoustic response of the room. To accommodate many different programs, both theatrical and musical, the Chosky also has elements of the variable acoustic systems tucked up in the catwalks.
The sound system for the theatre was specified by Anthony Nittoli, senior consultant at Jaffe Holden Scarbrough. "The room was designed to support reinforced sound with optimal intelligibility and even coverage," he says. The main elements of the system are Crest amps (various CAs, CKSes, and CKVs) and EAW speakers (JFs, KFs, SBs, and SL12-JHS speakers, among others). A center cluster is winch-mounted from the ceiling over the proscenium, and supplemented with left and right speaker groupings placed at the sides of the proscenium.
"There are two different hang positions," says Nittoli. "You can move all three speaker groupings downstage when the stage is in the thrust configuration. This adds flexibility to the system." There is also an effects monitor system which allows portable speakers to be plugged in around the theatre for sound effects or onstage monitoring. The mixing console is a 40 - channel Midas Heritage 1000 series with an eight - channel by eight - channel matrix for routing.
A remote mixing position is located on the orchestra level at the back of house in front of the control booth. "This theatre is very well equipped for a teaching facility," notes Nittoli.
The sound system was installed by SPL Integrated Solutions (formerly ProMix Installations), with Felix Robinson supervising the project as Northeast regional operations manager and Bruce Manning serving as project manager. "Every theatre has a system specific to its own acoustic nature and signature," Robinson notes. "The seating surfaces, type of ceiling. and shape of the walls make important contributions to what the final version should be."
The system can be made more airy and open, or closed and more intimate, depending on the production, with the system is configurable for different sound patterns. SPL spent three months on the install. "These kinds of systems must be installed carefully, so that every seat gets the consideration it needs," says Robinson.
Additional sound equipment includes a Clear-Com intercom system, a range of Sennheiser MD421 II and MD431 II microphones (including wireless receivers and transmitters), additional microphones by Shure and Electro-Voice, Lexicon MPX-1 digital effects units, and a Tascam DAT recorder, cassette player, and CD player.
The theatrical lighting system was designed and specified by the Auerbach team and provided by ETC. An ETC Net2 system with distributed nodes provides data distribution throughout the theatre's technical spaces. The Chosky control console is an ETC Obsession II, with an ETC Unison system to control house and work lights. There are seven ETC SR48 installation dimmer racks with five-hundred-sixty-six 20A and 12 50A dimmers, fourteen 20A rehearsal light circuits, sixteen 20A Q-light circuits, and sixteen 20A high rise time dimmers for house lights. Fixtures include over 120 ETC Source Fours of varying degrees and 30 Source Four PARs, as well as 48 Tomcat PAR cans, two Strong Super Trouper medium-throw followspots, and 36 Wybron Coloram scrollers.
"We have created a flexible teaching environment with a strong infrastructure," says Auerbach. "While the old Kresge theatre with its Baroque style and extremely challenging small dimensions will certainly be missed, the new Purnell Center will become the birthing place for the talent of the future."