Nestled in the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley, Bard College is located in the rural community of Annadale-on-Hudson, NY. But there is nothing rural about Bard's new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, with its undulating stainless steel exteriors, designed by architect Frank Gehry, wrapping around two state-of-the-art theatres and multiple studio spaces. The Center opened last April to thunderous applause.
Built under the leadership of Bard president Leon Botstein, this building has a dual purpose. The first is to house teaching, rehearsal, and performance spaces for the college's dance and theatre departments; and secondly to provide a home for the American Symphony Orchestra, for which Botstein serves as music director, Bard's Summerscape festival and other professional performing arts events.
Looking a bit like the post-modern version of a country cottage (or something out of Hansel and Gretel), Gehry's building is a star, posing majestically on a lovely tree-lined site with sweeping mountain views. But this site was not the first location Bard had in mind for its new venue. “The original plan was to add onto an existing performing arts building that no longer met the needs of the departments,” explains John Tissot, project manager for Theatre Projects Consultants. Tissot started working on the Bard project as early as August 1997 and saw it through completion, working with John Bowers, the project architect from Gehry Partners, and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, director of Nagata Acoustics (both have offices in the Los Angeles area; both collaborated on the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, again with Theatre Projects Consultants).
“This project has had numerous iterations,” says Tissot. “The site was moved due to environmental concerns.” In the long run, the freestanding building allowed Gehry more architectural freedom than if the theatres had indeed been tacked onto a rather undistinguished building (that is now happily a home for film and television studios). “Once the new site was selected, Bard was able to do additional fund raising and add the Theatre 2 wing to the project,” Tissot adds. “This allowed them to add the second theatre space, its lobby, the new dance and drama studios, two smaller classroom studios, a seminar room, scene shop, and other facilities for student use.” There are no traditional classrooms as the acting, directing, playwriting, and choreography programs focus on studio training.
In its final form, the Center includes Theatre 1 (the Sosnoff Theatre), a multi-purpose proscenium/concert hall venue with seating that can vary from 800 to 900 seats, depending on the forestage and orchestra pit configuration; and Theatre 2 (the Resnick Theatre), a 200-seat totally flexible teaching/studio theatre that has already been used for professional events as well. “Theatre 2 is something of a sleeper and will prove to be a really excellent performance space once it gets out of the shadow of its big sister next door,” Tissot predicts.
The goal for Theatre 1 was to create a space that addressed a diverse performance program and to give the venue a different look in concert mode than in dance/theatre mode. As a result, the proscenium is flexible and retracts into side pockets and the ceiling. “It essentially disappears,” says Tissot, who notes that the Douglas fir wood on the theatre walls extends onto the stage for concert events.
Covered in the same wood are 13 massive rolling and vertically telescoping (to a height of 38') towers that wrap around to create a hefty concert shell along with three ceiling panels that fly down and tilt into place via motorized counterweight rigging. The towers roll on and off the stage via “moon buggies” that move them into place or back to their offstage storage area. “In concert mode, the venue really looks like a totally integrated concert hall, not an opera or ballet theatre with a flimsy concert shell,” Tissot says proudly. “This theatre has a great integration that makes it look totally different in each of the two configurations.”
The rigging for the space is by JR Clancy, including 74 single purchase counterweight line sets on 6" centers (68 all purpose line sets, house curtain, house valence, and four side tabs). There is also a portable motorized chain hoist system for use over a forestage extension, along with a modular system for suspending lighting and masking for the extended downstage area (with an orchestra pit below) for large-scale dance and opera events.
There is an Austrian house curtain for use with this extended stage configuration. Clancy also supplied the concert towers and ceiling units, with Adirondack Scenic building the moving pieces and Polybois a Montreal-based company, doing the millwork in the theatre where squiggles of wood accent the concrete walls. “They matched the wood finishes beautifully,” compliments Tissot. Stage traps, orchestra risers, orchestra pit risers, and other platform systems are by Staging Concepts, while the portable, sprung dance floor by American Harlequin can be configured for use in Theatre 1 or Theatre 2. The house curtains and soft goods are by Syracuse Scenery, including the main house curtain, which is blue, and both raises and opens to the sides.
Manufactured by Poltrona Frau, an Italian firm (that also makes seats for Ferrari sports cars), the seating in Theatre 1 incorporates the same pale Douglas fir veneers as used on the walls and stage. The seats are upholstered in blue fabric with gold thread spelling out the names of all the students who graduated from Bard College in 2003. “The seating layout has two balconies, and each balcony has four side boxes with loose chairs and some higher stools, while the balconies themselves have bench seating,” notes Tissot. “The idea was to offer maximum seating for student congregations, reducing the 21" seat spacing to 18" by asking everyone to move closer.”
The theatre's warm interior is also steeply raked. “The floor to floor spacing is very high. This is good for sightlines, but may be a little steeper than we would have liked,” says Tissot, pointing out that the ultimate shape of the room depended on many factors, most importantly the Nagata-style acoustics. In this case, the room design and concert tower system define the acoustics, with fewer adjustable options than many other contemporary concert halls employ. Despite the large volume for a 900-seat hall, this room has an intimate feel and a nice relationship between the stage and the audience.
The lighting system, with dimming and control by ETC, was supplied by BMI Supply, includes seven racks of Sensor dimmers, Unison house lighting controls, and an Obsession II console with remote focus unit. The Ether-net/DMX distribution layout includes 40 receptacle stations. There are two company switches as well.
Lighting positions include two slots that are carefully concealed within the “clouds” or the curvature of the ceiling, as well as traditional box boom positions, balcony rails, and a follow spot room (for the opening production, five Robert Juliat followspots were brought in from Big Apple Lights in Manhattan). Dual control booths for lighting and sound sit at the back of the main floor with a projection booth one level up where it is also possible to use the lighting console if needed. There is also a live mixing position for sound, lighting, and video. This position can be three rows deep the full width of the center seating area. “This is an ideal position in the center of the auditorium, and carefully coordinated so as not to block audience sightlines,” says Tissot.
Designed by Engineering Harmonics and installed by SPL Integrated Solutions, the sound and video systems include the left and right main loudspeaker arrays with Meyer Sound CQ-2 and CQ-1 self powered speakers, NHT VS-1.2a stage front loudspeakers, EAW UB infill loudspeakers, EAW LA212 stage monitors, EAW JF-80 surround and effects units, QSC PLX4202 amplifiers (for the EAW speakers), and a Soundcraft K3 Theatre console that can be used either in the sound control room, or at the house mix position.
Digital output processing is via a Peavey Media Matrix system, with a Richmond Sound AB DM1616HD sound effects routing and storage system. Microphones include Shure dual-diversity wireless units, plus wired units including Shure Beta 58A, 87A, 57A, Shure SM81 & SM94, AKG C535, and 414B/ULS, plus an Active Direct Box BSS AR-133. The production intercom is a Clear-Com 4-channel system with assignable matrix, and the theatre is equipped with an assisted listening system by Sennheiser (SZI1029). A performance video system includes a Hitachi KP-D51 camera with Cosmicar H6Zbe lens and Sony KV-27S42 monitors.
Theatre 2 is an extremely flexible space with moveable seating, yet with a fixed end stage and stage house. Due to budgetary as well as height restrictions, the stage house is not full height but does have a grid (the T1 grid height is 76'-1" while in T2 the grid sits at 41'-0). “This is clearly an adaptable space,” notes Tissot. “A lab for the departments to experiment in. The focus was to have a fully flexible space for dance and drama, not for music.”
The venue can be used in numerous configurations, from a flat floor to a raked room for end-stage productions. Director of the theatre department, JoAnne Akalaitis, predicts that the audience might even sit on stage with the performers at times. “The goal,” says Tissot, “was to get the room to a scale that was accessible for student work. With this in mind, the shorter grid is actually easier to work with as this is not a formal presentation space.” While Theatre 1 is light and airy feeling, Theatre 2 has stained dark wood, but Tissot stresses it is not a black box. “There is nothing box-like about it,” he says.
The manual rigging system here was also supplied by Clancy, with stage traps and various platforms by Staging Concepts, and telescopic seating risers by Sheridan Gym Equipment. These can be stored to create the flat-floor option. Draperies are once again by Syracuse Scenery. The ETC lighting system, supplied by BMI Supply as in Theatre 1, includes 4.5 racks of Sensor dimmers, an Express 250 console, and a Unison control system.
SPL Integrated Solutions supplied the audio equipment for Theatre 2, including a main loudspeaker group with Meyer Sound CQ2, UPA-1P, and UPM-1P units, EAW LA212 portable stage monitors. EAW JF-80 surround and effects loudspeakers, QSC
PLX2402 amplifiers, a Soundcraft K3 theatre console, Peavey Media Matrix digital output processing system, a SaDie 24.96 digital audio workstation, a Richmond Sound Design AB DM1616HD automated routing system, the same microphone package as Theatre 1, as well as a Clearcom intercom system and Sennheiser assistive listening system, making much of the equipment in the two spaces interchangeable.
The two main theatres are separated by a gap for acoustic isolation. Wrapped around the theatres are the main studio spaces and lobbies (of which there are two with no joint access), all with large expanses of glass that peek out onto the rural landscape. The studios are placed at the house left side and extreme downstage edge of Theatre 2, and could eventually be used for small public performances. Each is equipped with a sprung floor, vaulted ceilings, and mechanical blackout shades to cover the windows, as well as small ETC lighting systems and portable audio equipment (including EAW LA212 loudspeakers).
There is also a 200-amp company switch in each studio, allowing for extra gear to be brought in (there is also a 400-amp switch at the loading dock for broadcast and other production functions. Acoustic panels of cloth-covered glass fiber are placed on the studio walls and in the dance studio, a wall of mirrors and portable practice faces a wall of glass, creating quite a dramatic classroom.
A tour of the Center with resident lighting designer Brian Aldous revealed a well-thought out facility that blends form and function quite nicely. “One side effect is that the success of the new building is attracting even more students to the performing arts programs at Bard,” he says, hoping they won't outgrow their new facility anytime soon.
“The building has proved to be a pilgrimage for architectural aficionados,” points out Tissot. “Even a year before the opening there were numerous drive-bys.” And why not? This is Gehry at his best. He has created a beautiful contemporary building with a stunning sculptural form that looks perfect in its idyllic country setting. And it's a lot closer than Bilbao.