Turning an 80-year old civic auditorium into a state-of-the-art performance hall that could compete with the world's best opera houses, and also be a terrific space for dance, was quite a challenge. A multi-faceted design team including LMN Architects, Jaffe Holden Acoustics, and my group, theatre planners Schuler & Shook, did just that in creating the venue now known as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, the home of Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). The venue began as a civic auditorium in 1927, with an arena-seating bowl surrounding a flat floor and a stage at one end. The outer façade, public areas, and auditorium were renovated in 1962 for the Seattle World's Fair. The building was renamed the Seattle Opera House, becoming the home of the newly created Seattle Opera in 1964, the Seattle Symphony, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1973. By the end of the century, the facility was badly in need of another significant update.

There were four critical factors to address in the $127-million transformation, which was approximately 30% renovation and 70% new construction. First, the very wide, fan-shaped auditorium had difficult sightlines and acoustics that were highly regarded for vocalists but a bit uneven for patrons. Ballet-goers sitting at the far sides sometimes saw as much of the wings as the main stage. The backstage areas needed substantial expansion and functional upgrades. Throughout, the building's technical systems and seismic stability were deficient. To address all of these concerns and more, it was determined to be less expensive to substantially reconstruct the building than to start from scratch.

The scope of work was extensive. Only the shell of the auditorium, the audience chamber back wall and ceiling, and orchestra-seating slope were to remain. The side walls of the audience chamber were brought in 16' feet on each side. The balconies were extended forward toward the stage, while wings — now called galleries — were built from the first balcony down to the orchestra level on the house left and right sides. New forward-facing boxes were built on two levels above the galleries.

LMN design partner Mark Reddington explains, “The largest factor affecting the redesign of the performance space was the desire to create a powerful and engaging relationship between the audience and the stage. Everything we did — narrowing the room, extending the balconies forward, creating the seating galleries — brought the audience around the edges of the room closer to the performers. The visual presence of the audience is much more assertive, reaching forward toward the stage. Obviously, this work is completely interwoven with the acoustic and sightline issues, as well as the technical requirements of the space.

“We were very interested in breaking down the separations between the different levels of the audience,” says Reddington. “The galleries connect the orchestra audience members to those in the first balcony. The entire chamber now feels smaller and more intimate.”

Schuler & Shook was highly involved in the planning process for the audience chamber. Partner Robert Shook explains, “We were extremely vigilant about everything that was happening near the side walls. The old hall was too wide, so the first move was to narrow the room by 32'. The second move was the creation of the galleries connecting the main floor with the mezzanine, which has rarely been done successfully, and the third move was to create new audience boxes. The design team studied arrangements for the galleries and boxes for several months before arriving at the final solution. The sightlines resulting from audience side-wall boxes are never absolutely perfect, so we determined appropriate criteria that would allow us to judge what degree of visual obstruction would be acceptable. Then we judged the 3D drawings against those criteria to arrive at sight lines that would be acceptable to all audience members. There are no ‘obstructed-view’ seats. We are extremely happy with the final audience plan.”

The acoustic challenges fell to Mark Holden and Russ Cooper, principals of Jaffe Holden Acoustics. “The acoustic goal was to preserve the fine sound in the hall for singers while improving the evenness throughout and eliminating certain dead spots,” says Cooper. “To do that, we needed to maintain the volume and spread the sound from the stage and pit more evenly. Since the volume was reduced by bringing in the walls, we created an upper volume chamber, called the ‘red zone,’ which brought the volume back to its original size. We opened up the variable acoustic chambers from the original hall, extended them toward the side wall, and made the entire zone highly reverberant with wood floors and hard finishes. The old symphony forestage reflector and catwalk blocked sound to some areas and was too articulated to spread sound evenly. It was replaced by a less articulated reflector and lifted to allow more of the pit sound to “breathe” in the room. Finally, since all of the seats now have good sightlines to the stage, all patrons will be able to now accurately hear the orchestra and stage performers.”

Early in the project planning, Schuler & Shook led a series of interviews to assess the needs of the individual groups using the hall-Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Seattle Center, the entity that makes the facility available to touring performances, local and regional festivals, and concerts. Our team met with house managers, technical directors, crew chiefs and shop managers, covering everything from production needs, load-in and load-out strategies, operations within the hall, and inter-company communication.

“We also did not try and reinvent the wheel,” says Schuler & Shook design partner Duane Schuler. “It was agreed that many design decisions should be based on field-proven techniques. The collected knowledge of the participants in our initial discussions was impressive and we listened carefully to what they had to say. Our firm prides itself on the fact that we have all been-and continue to be-involved in production as well as theatre planning. We understood the requirements of the various Seattle clients through our own experiences and were committed to designing a facility that accommodated all of their current needs and allowed room for future inspiration.”

These roundtable sessions covered both the needs for the Opera House and the revisions to Mercer Arena, which was redone prior to breaking ground for the Opera House renovation (See “Lords of the Rink,” ED May 2002, page 14). The 8,000-seat space was earmarked to provide a temporary home for Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet. LMN Architects and Jaffe Holden were also charged with the renovations to Mercer, working closely with the technical crew of the opera and ballet, while Schuler & Shook served as advisors.

Robert Schau, technical director of the Seattle Opera adds, “It was critical that the people on the design team could hear directly from the actual users. And the seemingly small things can make a big difference. Opera, for example, is extremely labor-intensive. The more handling that goes into producing it, the more expensive it gets — at $5,000 an hour, if you can save 10 hours a year, that's $50,000 a year in labor savings. So, one focus, among many, was on access and handling.”

Schuler & Shook integrated all of the wishes, needs, and concerns from the user meetings and published the results to the Seattle Center. During the design phase, these documents were referenced to assure fulfillment of the various requests. One of our chief concerns was successfully integrating the needs of these two world-renowned tenant companies- both of whom are technically sophisticated with very high production values-with the Seattle Center's guest performers. Not correctly synthesizing these sometimes contradictory requests could have resulted in over-engineering the backstage systems, making them needlessly expensive and more operationally complex than necessary.

“Typical of any municipal project, there were tons of input to be solicited and opinions to digest,” says Randall Chiarelli, lighting designer and technical director for Pacific Northwest Ballet. “The design team did a really good job of getting to what was important. This became even more difficult as the budget got tight.”

All of this input fed the design of the lighting and rigging systems, as well as the redesign of the backstage area, which was modified as significantly as the front of house. The backstage wall was kept, retaining a stage depth of 70'. We raised the grid floor from 80' to 100' above the deck. This was necessary to accommodate the increased proscenium height — which was raised from 26' to 35' — and the very tall, very wide scenery typically used in opera. The proscenium width remained at 60'. On the stage itself, a duplex manual trap system, 25' wide × 42' deep, was installed, with levels at 9' and 25' below the stage.

The orchestra pit shape was maintained, but the apron was shaved back 2' and the existing two pit lifts replaced with GALA Spiralifts. Duncan Mac-Kenzie of Proskenion Design collaborated with Schuler & Shook on the lifts' design, as well as advising on the motorized rigging.

The stage left wing space was expanded, adding a 72' × 80' area. A 45' × 60' receiving area is adjacent to stage left, with two loading bays at the deck level and two loading bays in the basement level. Smaller scenery and supplies to feed the production areas can be brought in at the lower level, using a scenery lift to get to the stage, leaving the upper dock free for semi-trailers.

In the house itself, the lighting bridge over the seating was removed and replaced with one new FOH catwalk. There are three box boom positions per side and two balcony rails. We also included two large-format projection enclosures at the first balcony.

The lighting system is fronted by an ETC Obsession II dual-processor unit with two face panels, eight monitors, printer, and hand-held remote focus unit. The Ethernet backbone is actually two networks, with 52 network control points, nine portable ETCNet 2 DMX four-port nodes and two video nodes. The 11 ETC Sensor AF Dimmers racks are populated with 500µs and 800µs rise-time 2.4 kW dimmers. High-capacity 6.0 kW dimmers are provided as portable equipment.

A portable stage manager's console integrates a script desk with work lights, three production video monitors, lighting and rigging systems monitors, fire alarm reporting, cue light control, backstage communications, and audio playback interface. The installation supports a custom houselight, worklight, and cue lighting system as well.

The existing instrument inventory was to be supplemented with an extensive array of new conventional luminaires and scrollers. Many choices were apparent and we finalized our specification quickly.

Because the field of automated lighting changes so rapidly, we postponed a decision on that technology until late 2002. We invited the major moving light manufacturers to Seattle for a shoot-out, in which the design team and the key players from Seattle Opera, PNB, and the Seattle Center participated. All of the manufacturers were very open with their products and shared information willingly. We made the choice to go with the Martin Mac 2000, largely based on the stability of its 1,200W lamp and smooth fading capabilities, both of which are critical concerns for the Opera and Ballet.

The rigging system, which was provided by JR Clancy, consists of one hundred twelve 2,000-lb. capacity linesets on 6” centers, thirty 750-lb. capacity variable-speed point hoists, one 5,000-lb. capacity variable-speed motorized main curtain lineset and one motorized wing partition curtain line shaft winch (which hauls a curtain separating the stage from the scenery handling area). The motion control system for the point hoists is a Stage Technologies Nomad.

Every project has at least one large concern; on this project it was the schedule. The 18-month building period left no margin for error or work slowdown for any reason whatsoever. Any problems or questions onsite had to be resolved immediately. Luckily, the project had a creative, collaborative team of very smart and accessible people who were up to the challenge.

The Seattle Center, Seattle Opera, Seattle Center Foundation and Pacific Northwest Ballet assembled a group to help manage the day-to-day practical issues and another group for larger aesthetic design choices; both worked closely with the design team. So much of the success of the project is based on this fundamental dynamic, proving that it is very possible to make rapid, well-considered decisions with a large group of people.

The design teams included: Seattle Center's project managers, Stephanie Van Dyke and Jill Crary; owner's representatives Maria Barrientos and Frank Martin; Seattle Opera technical director Robert Schaub; Randall Chiarelli, lighting designer and technical director for Pacific Northwest Ballet; and, representing the Seattle Center, Marty Pavloff, stage crew chief, Richard Erwin, Seattle Center sound department, and Patty Mathieu, hall production manager.

Participating Schuler & Shook staff included partner-in-charge Robert Shook, design partner Duane Schuler, project management Partner Todd Hensley, theatre consultants Jeff Childs and Josh Grossman, and theatre specialist Lisa Bernacchi.

Todd Hensley has supervised theatre consulting services for over 150 projects since joining Schuler & Shook, Inc. in 1988. He can be reached atthensley@schulershook.com