Anyone who happens into the theatre complex in the base of the Worldwide Plaza in Manhattan hoping to catch a cheap screening of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle or White Chicks would be sadly mistaken…and sadly out of touch. Once a Cineplex Odeon movie house that showed $3 movies — an unbelievable bargain in New York City — the site is the new home of Dodger Stages, a 61,300 sq.ft. off-Broadway theatre complex with five theatres that can hold 1,917 patrons.
So put away your three bucks and take out your credit card to catch one of the premier productions at the new complex — the new musical The Immigrant, the underwater experience Symphonie Fantastique, the Australian performance group The Umbilical Brothers, Modern Orthodox, a new play by James Lapine, or even Mandy Patinkin in concert. That's quite a variety of acts under one roof and that was the goal of Dodger Holdings; to create a community of theatres in the heart of New York that would be a convenient magnet for both artists and audiences.
The $23 million dollar project was very much a team effort comprised of Richard L. Blinder and Erik Chu of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners LLP; Klara Zieglerova (principal designer of public spaces); and Sachs Morgan Studio (theatre design). The first step that was required of all the designers was to take a tour of the deserted cineplex to see if it was even viable for Dodger Stages' new home.
“Everybody was kind of turned off by the fact that you were going into a hole in the ground,” says Richard Blinder, principal, Beyer Blinder Belle. “What we wanted to do was to hopefully make it so spirited and bright and interesting that you didn't feel you were underground. That was sort of the primary goal without thinking about how you were going do it.”
It was up to theatre designer Klara Zieglerova to transform the dank and uninviting movie house into a destination that theatre patrons would relish. “I gasped when I walked in there,” says Zieglerova, whose credits include assisting on the recent revival of Annie Get Your Gun and designing the recent revival of Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. “When I walked in I saw a typical American movie theatre interior with festive carpets, false ceilings, faux marble, and neon lighting.” She explains that the main lobby downstairs was a two-level open area that was more of a dark hallway than a public space and simply served to shuttle movie patrons in and out of the six theatres. Zieglerova was charged with overhauling the public spaces. “I was asked to create a modern, fun interior that people would want to hang out in,” she adds.
Sachs Morgan Studio had the responsibility of transforming the six cinemas into five off-Broadway theatres, which is a lot more difficult than it may sound. “It was dark, gloomy, and dingy,” says Roger Morgan, principal, Sachs Morgan Studio when he first scoped out the site for Dodger Holdings. “If you contrast the space in movie theatres with legitimate theatres, you're missing two very important things. The first is stage area; you need to add in a significant amount of floor space for that. The second is dressing rooms, which had to be created for each of the five theatres. So one of the six original movie theatres got eaten up to make room for dressing rooms.” That theatre was located between new Theatres 2 and 5; the orchestra level was transformed into dressing rooms and circulation space while the mezzanine level area was transformed into a mechanical room.
Morgan added that most movie theatres are not blessed with a generous amount of public space, at least until recently. However, the old Cineplex Odeon space had an unusually large amount but it was not being used to its full advantage.
“Our job was to organize the theatres, develop the seating plan, deal with accessible seating, sightlines, how big or small the stages could be,” Morgan explains. “When you're doing this stuff you're always squeezing one good against another. Often you say the stage ought to be a foot longer and you push it toward the seating and suddenly all the rows of seats got just a little less comfortable. In a commercial theatre it's a never-ending struggle between comfort and greed. You always want that extra seat so you can offer a producer that much more money if someone could sit there.”
The patron's theatrical experience begins as they approach the main entrance on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues [There is an additional entrance on 49th Street]. The tall windows remain from the movie theatre but that, along with the escalator and grand staircase that lead ticket holders downstairs, are the only remnants of the space's previous incarnation. “To me theatre is all about starting your theatre experience the minute you arrive at the front door,” Blinder says.
Ticket holders pick up or purchase their tickets at a row of box office windows along the west wall of the upper level. The false ceiling panels and various support pillars are long gone and in its place is a soaring, simplistic arrival point. An oversized handcrafted brass chandelier created by Queens-based LiteMakers hangs above and behind a 14' by 55' framed scrim suspended at an angle to the box office. The mesh in the frame is a 40% black speaker mesh by Rose Brand that both captures light and allows it to bleed through. So while the chandelier is visible through the mesh, the scrim is also capturing a variety of projections of famous ceilings from a Sanyo PLC XP45 10,000 lumen projector above the box office.
The angle of the framed mesh and the fluid direction of the projections combined with the signage on the floor (by 2×4 Design) subtly guide patrons downstairs, according to Zieglerova. “How do you invite people to go underground?” she asks. “It's not the most pleasant thing to do. I was looking for a way to invite people to see what is down below. I wanted to have something that oozes you in.” Originally she had envisioned large curves or wave shapes before settling on the framed mesh.
Once at the bottom of the stairs, patrons encounter Bar 39, the only bar in the complex that people can belly up to without having their tickets torn. Zieglerova says that this is an ideal spot where people can have a glass of wine while waiting for their companions show up. In the bar space is a long, 24' stainless steel bar built by Hudson Scenic, which also built all of the new pieces of furniture within the public spaces, including a number of large gold leaf rococo mirrors.
The main lobby beyond Bar 39 is a far cry from the dark and dreary hallway that preceded it. One half of the upper walkway was taken out and the result is two sleek bridges that lead directly to three of the theatres' mezzanines; two of which seat 360 and the smallest “studio” theatre seats 199. The two 499-seat theatre mezzanines are accessible on the opposite side. The right angles of the old hallway have been replaced by a vast curving walkway with an open space to the orchestra level lobby below that is home to two more bars. There are two sets of restrooms at either end of the orchestra level lobby in addition to the single set on the south end of the mezzanine lobby. The orchestra level also contains the coat check directly below Bar 39.
Intermittently placed throughout the public spaces, Zieglerova has created intimate settings or scenes for theatre goers. Most of the period pieces of furniture were gleaned from Dodger Holdings' own vast warehouse in New Jersey; she was told she could take whatever she wanted and the result is a mix of chairs, loveseats, dress forms, books, shelves, benches, and even motorcycles cut in half that add to the modern, theatrical feel.
The Comforts of Home
The biggest difference, however, is the main lobby that serves the mezzanine and orchestra levels of the theatres. It was the designer's intent to create a space that was somewhat theatrical in its own right. Again, the false ceiling panels were ripped out to reveal a catacomb of pipes, ducts, and venting systems wending their way overhead. “So many people use exposed pipes so that was not the initial design idea,” she explains. “But to me it looks like a Manhattan grid, with pipes suddenly turning at right angles and running parallel to one another.” She added dimmable 2' fluorescent strips on top of the ductwork sheathed in GAM gels that illuminate the pipes and fireproofing.
The lobby space also has ETC Source Four PARs and Source Four Juniors throughout to enhance the area but also come into play when the lobby is used as a performance space as it was when Dodger Stages was officially unveiled on September 9th with Mandy Patinkin as the informal master of ceremonies. Selecon Acclaim PC fixtures equipped with barndoors from City Theatrical are also used to highlight the intricate ceiling architecture. “A similar lamp would've been a fresnel,” Morgan explains, “but I wanted a lamp with nice, sharp edges rather than something fuzzy.”
Taking up the entire north wall of the two-level lobby is a massive 50' wide projection screen broken up into individual panels that receive images of various walls — a subway train, a city wall plastered with posters, a fire escape — from another Sanyo PLC XP45 that uses the moving mirror heads of a High End Systems Catalyst operating with Media Beam software by Learning Worlds — situated just below the walkway of the mezzanine level. Rose Brand's 40% black Mesh Supreme makes up the projection surface. Behind the screen are 10 Altman customized T3 cyc lights on the floor, along with fluorescent strips in the shape of numbers 1-5 that serve as a reminder to patrons when the time has come to return to their respective theatres as intermission winds down.
The goal was to create a public space that would be theatrical, according to Zieglerova. To that end the lobby can host various art or video installations as well as smaller-scale concerts or other performances. “The main space is a living entity in its on right,” she says. “I think some of the most interesting conversations happen in theatre lobbies when people talk about what they've seen and even argue. It's fantastic to design a space for these kinds of discussions. Great things happen in these spaces.”
The sleek and modern lobby demonstrates Dodger Holdings commitment to creating something extraordinary that will elevate the standards, according to Morgan. “The great thing about Dodger Stages is having good public accommodations,” he says. “You are in the hospitality business if you are in show business. It's like running a hotel — you want the customers to come back, especially if you have five theatres. You don't want them to be unhappy because they're uncomfortable.”
Masters of the House
As comfortable as the patrons will be in the public spaces, they should be equally at ease in the theatres which — with the exception of the 199-seat studio theatre — are configured very much like modern movie theatres with stadium seating. In other words there are no “partial view” seats and there is not a single bad seat in any of the houses. Also, unlike many Broadway and most off-Broadway theatres, the seats are brand new from Stage Concepts, which, as anyone who has sat through a 2+ hour show in a seat dating back to the Roosevelt administration can tell you, is a big improvement.
The theatre spaces themselves have been created as a blank canvas able to take any type of show. The stages are comprised of a series of SECOA stage platforms — 1,000 sq. ft. in Theatres 1 and 3; 800 sq. ft. in Theatres 2 and 4; and 550 sq. ft. in Theatre 5 — that can be adjusted as per the designers for each of the shows. The platforms' flexibility was important to Morgan. “There are two kinds of scenic designers,” he explains. “Those who love a flat stage and will work on that and those who create a stage with steps, slopes, angles, and rakes. They can tear it all out and create a stage without limitations and we went to a lot of trouble to do that.”
The lighting possibilities in each of the houses are endless. While walking through a theatre that is currently without a show, the lack of a rig may seem like a barren landscape to the uninformed but Morgan stresses that every possible location has been taken into account. “When you stand at the front of the stage and raise your arm thirty degrees and look out, there's a lighting location,” he explains. “If you back up ten more feet and do the same thing, there's another lighting location. We tried to give them as much as we could possibly imagine to meet their creative needs. Most off-Broadway theatres are in found space — store fronts, restaurants, churches. Hardly any of them are actual theatres. These are actual theatres.”
There are also lighting positions on the balcony rails and in Theatres 2 and 4 there are even wings that extend into the audience that can either be used as lighting positions or as staging locations, depending on the production. Each theatre is equipped with an ETC 12-dimmer Unison system for house light control.
Acoustics are a primary concern for any state-of-the-art theatre, but for venues that are underground, it became tantamount. “The original construction of the movie complex from the standpoint of sound isolation was quite good in many respects, but for some reason no sound-isolating ceilings had been installed to protect the theaters from the plaza above,” explains Jerry Marshall, principal, Marshall/KMK Acoustics, who served as acousticians for the project. “As you might imagine, the plaza [above the theatres] is subjected to a good deal of impact noise which were easily heard in the theaters below.”
Adding to the typical big city cacophony, the area below the plaza is filled with various kinds of services such as drainpipes, sewer pipes, steam pipes, and so forth. “Still another concern was that theater management would presumably have no control over possible noisy activities that might occur on the plaza,” Marshall says. “Because of all this, suspended gypboard (sheetrock) ceilings were installed to improve the isolation between the theaters and the plaza.”
One of Marshall's main concerns was the “shoehorning” of so many spaces, activities, and equipment (elevator, escalators, electrical room, mechanical rooms, toilets, dressing rooms, offices, and so forth) in a tightly bounded complex. “Although the isolation between movie theaters was inherently good, the new theatres were enlarged for increased capacity by moving the rear wall of each further back, so new construction was required to accomplish that,” he says. “The space lost by enlarging the theatres naturally resulted in tighter spatial relationships.”
Aside from the stages and the theatrical seating, another new component of theatres is the fact that they actually have mezzanine seating. When the complex was still showing second-run movies, the theatres were only accessible on the lower level; the upper level housed the projection rooms. Those projection rooms were demolished and the floors extended to create the mezzanines, complete with additional handicapped seating.
Morgan feels that his own work as a scenic designer informs his efforts as a theatre designer. The theatres at Dodger Stages have been created for the designers and performers as well as the patrons, at least that's the hope, Morgan says. “People come in to live a life inside a theatre and the more you know about that life, the better chance you have of making a building that serves it well,” he says. “So that's what we tried to do. It's good raw space. Like all off-Broadway, I would love it if it were bigger, but compared to other off-Broadway theatres, there are hardly any that can beat it.”