Chris Buckley always seems to be on the cutting edge of what's happening in New York City, from the renovation of the Majestic Theatre (now the Harvey) for Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) 1986 production of The Mahabharata, to the renovation of several theatres along 42nd Street, to Mikhail Baryshnikov's new performing arts center in Hell's Kitchen. He is owner of the Brooklyn-based firm, Production & Performance Facility Consulting, LLC, founded in 2001. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux (who worked with Buckley at BAM back in the day) finds out how this 48-year-old production manager/theatre consultant keeps his finger on the pulse of the Big Apple.
LD: What was your training, and how did you evolve from production management to theatre consulting?
CB: I started in high school (yes, drama club), and after that, I spent a year with a country rock band doing sound and lights before deciding college might be a good idea. I was actually an English major at the University of Hartford but spent most of my time at Hartt Opera working in the shop and as an electrician. I eventually became the TD. I also framed houses during this period to pay the bills; the experience in construction proved to be very helpful over the years.
Then, I spent a couple of years in regional theatre and opera before I was hired by Paul King at BAM as assistant production manager. After a few months, I was asked (well, told) to project manage the renovation of the Majestic Theatre for Peter Brook's Mahabharata. I then moved to Brussels and spent several years touring with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's dance company, Rosas, before returning to BAM as director of construction. Over the years, I have gone back and forth between production management and facility design and construction — a mix I find very satisfying.
LD: What was your experience with the New 42nd Street theatre renovations?
CB: I was hired as project/production manager of the New Victory just after construction began in 1994; over the course of seven years at New 42 Street, I ended up as VP for construction and production — once again, that blend of responsibilities I enjoy. We not only designed and constructed the facilities; we also built the operating organizations that ran them. It was a rare chance to take two institutions from idea to a completely functioning organization. Besides the New Victory and the New 42nd Studios building, I had the opportunity to design (with board member Ming Cho Lee) the Duke Theatre and be involved in the design and construction of the Roundabout American Airlines Theater and the Ford Center. It was great — a once in a lifetime opportunity to be involved in a project of scale and real impact and to work with a great staff and an executive director like Cora Cahan.
LD: What goes into renovating a historic space compared to building a new one?
CB: On a historic space, you are working with someone else's design. In some cases (e.g. the New Victory), that's great because the “bones” work so well, and in others, it's a real challenge. It does help focus the design discussion early though, as your choices are often limited. I personally like the challenge of re-imagining an existing space and getting the most out of it. And in the case of a landmark building, there is the constant tension between preserving historic configurations and fabric and making the project work operationally and financially.
On a practical level, there are always the issues of fitting in even basic 21st century theatrical systems along with modern HVAC, ADA, egress, etc. Though in NYC, given the cost of real estate and very limited footprints, even new facilities must struggle with these problems.
LD: What kind of spaces are you working on now?
CB: Mostly small ones in existing buildings — in the past few months Cedar Lake Ensemble and Dance New Amsterdam have opened. We are also working on Rosie O'Donnell's Broadway Kids building, a private school's addition on the upper west side, the South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey, ongoing work with the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as well as a few other projects currently in negotiation. Finally, as I believe it is beneficial for a consultant to keep at least somewhat active in production, in the past year, I worked on Peter Brook's Tierno Bokar and the Watermill Theater's The Winter's Tale. I am now working on Baryshnikov's upcoming tour, looking for a site for a Polish Macbeth, as well the Russian Theater Federation's US tour of Twelfth Night.
LD: What are the important issues for smaller spaces, in terms of technical systems?
CB: Smaller spaces usually mean smaller staffs and budgets, so cost effectiveness, ease of handling and use, flexibility, infrastructure expandability, and the ability to store are all important. We try to take a hard look at the operational realities of a facility and design with those parameters in mind — who is using the space and how often, who is operating the equipment, etc.
LD: What are the differences in designing a venue for dance versus theatre?
CB: Floors, floors, and floors. We spend a lot of time with floors — how they will be used, how they are sprung, what the finished surface is. There are a lot of variables. Sightlines for dance are also key, and we try to provide steep seating rakes, so that the stage floor is as visible as possible. Acoustics and acoustic isolation are also important, as dance often includes significant periods of silence. HVAC is another issue, as it is critical to provide temperature control appropriate for dancers. Overly chilled spaces can be a real problem.
LD: How will spaces in the future evolve in terms of new technology?
CB: Hopefully, they'll be more efficient and more wireless. I am especially interested in LED lighting, as I have always been appalled at the amount of electricity we use (waste) in this business. I'm also heartened by an increased focus on safety equipment and practices, as too often in the past, it took a back seat to expediency.
LD: What would your “dream venue” be like?
CB: On the water, like the Sydney Opera House — maybe Governor's Island or one of the old pier houses on the Hudson — transformed into a 1,000-seat flexible space (with support space, studios, and a 300-seat space) where one could do Mark Morris one week, a circus the next, and a BAM-type, site specific show after that, and all while the Wooster group was in the smaller space.