Around the corner from Times Square, the Second Stage Theatre has slipped into its new home, causing a stir Off Broadway. From the outside, it is difficult to discern that anything has changed at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street. The Art Deco facade of the State Street Bank, which now houses a 296-seat theatre and support spaces, is mainly intact, with minimal signage added to mark the arrival of its new tenant. Inside, the new space calls attention to itself, a transformation from bank to theatre by renowned architects Rem Koolhaas of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam and Richard Gluckman of New York-based Gluckman Mayner Architects (GMA) with theatrical consultant Joshua Dachs of New York-based Fisher/Dachs Associates.
"Everything about this theatre is kicked up a notch from what you would normally expect to encounter Off Broadway," says Dachs, who in the early 80s planned and designed the company's original space, the 108-seat McGinn/Cazale Theatre on the Upper West Side, and was instrumental in bringing the powerhouse design team of Koolhaas and Gluckman onboard for the new space.
"I knew Rem has always been intrigued by New York City," says Dachs, who met the Dutch architect when Fisher/Dachs organized the Miami Performing Arts Center competition and Koolhaas was a finalist. "Frankly, Rem is the closest thing to a rock star in architecture and I thought that would give us some extra horsepower in fundraising and publicity," Dachs adds.
Koolhaas was willing to bring his talents to the project, but he recommended that New York-based Richard Gluckman, whom he had worked with on a proposal for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside, London, be brought on to supervise the day-to-day. Known for his work on the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, Gluckman brought his own cachet to the project.
Other key players included Second Stage artistic director and co-founder Carole Rothman, OMA's Dan Wood, GMA's project architect Elizabeth Rexrode and project team Elena Cannon and Michael Meredith, structural consultants Robert Silman Associates, and acoustical consultants Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, with project manager Russ Cooper.
The other major figure dictating the design was the space itself. "Second Stage and I had been looking literally for years for a space," Dachs remembers. "We must have visited every large, column-free space in New York City in search of something that would work for them until we walked into this huge empty banking hall."
The design preserves elements of the former space, including the existing bank vault, which serves as the box office. Upstairs, the second floor is bathed in a deep orange that directs theatregoers to the theatrical experience behind the "wedge." "This was one of Rem's excellent ideas," says Dachs. "You start with the empty room, plunk this wedge down, and suddenly it makes the lobby behind itself, the auditorium, the seating area, and bathrooms underneath, and it locates the stage."
A wall of windows to the right of the wedge also became a crucial design element. The hope was to maintain all eight windows, however, due to budgetary restrictions, only four at the side of the space were renovated, and if the budget allows, the remaining four in the back may also be resuscitated. A concern with incorporating the windows was sound penetration. "It's a very noisy corner and everyone was extremely concerned about not being able to hear the play," Dachs explains. "So the acoustical consultants Jaffe Holden Scarbrough did something very interesting. They recorded sounds in the space from the loudest to the quietest. They digitally modeled different window options and then we went to a recording studio one day, listened to the raw noise, and were able to auralize the options. And the owner decided to go with the most stringent one."
In addition to sound, the windows also brought in light, a magical preshow look, but one that became a distraction during performances. So, in lieu of a house curtain, which Rothman told the architects the company never really uses, the window curtain became a focal point, signalling the beginning of a performance when it is drawn. Designed by Petra Blaisse, the curtains are golden with metal grommets on the inside and blackout with silver circles on the outside. Seats in the auditorium are a combination of simple Country Roads wooden chairs with toffee-colored, ultra-comfortable Levagel(R) pads made by the Italian firm Royal Medica.
At stage level, there was no room for dressing rooms, so the design team engineered a hidden passageway from the stage to a staircase in back of the auditorium which leads to dressing rooms on the third floor. The architects then embellished the circulation solution by illuminating the wall hiding the corridor from the audience and building a deck above for additional audience seating.
Turning their attention to the stage itself, the architects were able to once again offer the unexpected--significant fly space for an Off Broadway theatre. Dachs explains, "The space itself is about 27' tall and the third floor above the theatre where the dressing rooms are is about 10' to 12' tall. We laid out the dressing rooms and a rehearsal space and we realized that there was still some space left over. Then it occurred to us that we could demolish the third floor in the first structural bay of the building and have fly space over part of the stage."
Like Second Stage's original theatre, the McGinn/Cazale, which is still used by the company, the new theatre doesn't have a permanent stage floor, so directors and designers can construct different staging and scenery for each show. The new theatre has already ushered in its first successful season, the company's 20th anniversary, with an inaugural production of That Championship Season, followed by a revival of Albert Innaurato's Gemini, and Cheryl L. West's Jar the Floor.
"Second Stage has always been a highly respected company artistically, they've always attracted terrific casts, and many productions have gone on to Broadway," says Dachs. "But until now they haven't been able to ratchet up their production budgets or expand their programming because their income is extremely limited. Even a big hit in a 99-seat space doesn't make back its expenses, so they needed more seats." And now they have them in a critically praised design that sets a new standard for Off Broadway theatres.