Flexible Acoustic Elements Put the Minnie Evans Arts Center on a High Note

The Minnie Evans Arts Center began life as a plan to build two small auditoria to serve a new high school and middle school at Veterans Park in North Carolina's New Hanover School District. When Boney Architects joined the project, they suggested combining the two halls into one large performing arts center. According to project architect Roger Leeson, the idea caught on and evolved into something much bigger. He says, “It ultimately became a very ambitious performing arts center to serve the whole county, rather than just the schools.” With the help of a design team that included Acoustic Dimensions of Connecticut and North Carolina-based theatre consultant David Long, the two small halls morphed into one arts center to showcase the artistic works of the student body and local artists, and a 955-seat auditorium designed to accommodate both musical and theatre events for the area. The center opened for school use in October 2001, and hosted its first event for the public in August 2002.

The first challenge was to create a nearly 1,000-seat auditorium that was intimate. Budget restrictions precluded a balcony or side boxes, so the design team settled on a raised rear section to keep seats at the back from being pushed too far from the stage. Theatre consultant Robert Long, who oversaw sightlines, backstage and support areas, as well as designing the performance technology systems, says, “Volumetrically it is a fairly satisfying room, but it would have benefited from a balcony.”

The second challenge sprang from the need to make the acoustical ambiance of the room flexible. Leeson says, “In schools, music tends to dominate, so we needed a multifunction auditorium [with] the higher reverberation you need for musical performances.” To make the space more adaptable, Robert Long and Ron Eligator, a principal consultant at Acoustic Dimensions, designed motorized side and rear wall curtains, supplied by CRS Technologies Inc. of North Carolina. The curtains can be lowered to deaden reverberation in the space for drama or musical theatre or stored for live music performances.

The auditorium also boasts an orchestra shell, a feature Warren Givens, area sales manager for Wenger, the supplier, terms fairly significant. “Usually it's not something an architect will design and put into the general contract as the school is built, because of budgets,” he says, suggesting that it is something more frequently added to a high school auditorium later, if at all. To fit the orchestra shell into the budget, Givens provided alternatives to the original specifications. Small sacrifices included replacing a wood grain finish with a painted surface and cutting some acoustic shelves to hold the sound onstage. The orchestra shell can be dismantled and put into storage for drama and dance performances, something Catherine Brumm, general manager of the Arts Center and sole on-staff theatre technician, trains students to do. “If I get six kids who know what they are doing,” says Brumm, “they can take the shell down in about an hour and a half.” She oversees outside productions held in the space that she calls “acoustically professional grade” and says that visiting college performers have been known to be jealous of the high school's facilities.

Those facilities include a stage that is 38' deep and 60' wide, with a standard counterweight rigging system and drapes provided by CRS Technologies, and a lighting system that includes mostly ETC Source Four PARs, Source Four ellipsoidals, and Altman fresnels run on an ETC Express 3.1. Audio equipment includes a Yamaha GF23/12 mixing console and monitor speakers, Shure Beta 58A and Microflex MX391 microphones, and BiampAdvantage Power Amplifiers and equalizer. The school also owns a Telex USR-100 lapel wireless mic.

The stage has a sprung floor suitable for dance performances, and backstage facilities include storage space for the school's baby grand piano and two dressing rooms. Because of the limited dressing facilities, the theatre is not suitable for large touring productions, but the space has hosted events as diverse as a local school production of the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and an African dance festival.

One unique aspect of the arts center which highlights the designers' and school's commitment to the performers is soundproofing on the exterior of the structure. School officials were concerned that the sound of planes landing at a nearby airport might interrupt a soloist. Leeson explains, “We used varying densities of material: hard, dense concrete and then a layer of soft insulation and then another layer of rigid insulation to break up any sound trying to pass through the building.” The acoustical consultants also worked closely with the mechanical engineer to make sure the mechanics of the adjustable acoustic elements such as the retractable side and rear wall curtains are inaudible.

Leeson describes the process of working on the project as very collaborative. He says, “When you have expert consulting you have to set the tempo and control the direction rather than making decisions independently.” Long also calls the close involvement of the school district representatives in the process “very refreshing and much appreciated.”

Givens detects evidence of a trend in this collaboration, citing “the emergence of community involvement with the school district to provide performance space.” The idea that providing quality performing arts facilities for schools can benefit the community as a whole and, in the long run, save money on duplicate facilities of lesser quality, seems to be catching on. After all, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing right.