The Paul R. Cramer Center for the Arts Adds Professional Spaces to the Steward School

The architecture may be inspired by old-world Tuscany, but the entertainment venues at the Paul R. Cramer Center for the Arts at the Steward School in Richmond, VA, are thoroughly modern and up-to-date. Open since August 2002, the center houses a 500-seat proscenium theatre and a 115-seat black box, both used for school productions as well as hands-on classrooms for the coeducational, non-sectarian, college preparatory theatre program at Steward, a private K-12 day school. The center is named after a former headmaster.

Designed by the Richmond-based architectural firm of Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith, the 49,565-sq.-ft. performing arts building echoes the same style as the rest of the campus, with walls in two types of local stone topped by a forest-green standing-seam metal roof. Brick terraces and a covered colonnade add to the old-world look of the exterior. Inside, the lobby leading to the performance spaces is flanked by an art gallery and dance studio that can also be used for meetings and receptions. In addition, the building houses a choral/orchestra room, a music room, and an art room for the Lower School, a painting/drawing room, a sculpture/ceramics studio, a scene shop, a computer graphics room, a TV studio, offices, and storage.

“We gave the campus a Tuscan flavor to contrast with other private schools in the area. We designed several additional buildings on campus in the same style over the past few years,” says Dennis Craig, project architect for Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith. “Our charge from the school was to make the theatre as intimate as a similar one, the Jepson Theatre, which we designed at the University of Richmond.” Even the 70' fly tower has the same architectural flavor, with a sloped roof and decorative architectural detail.

The theatre consultant for the project was Theatre Project Consultants (TPC) in South Norwalk, CT, with David Rosenburg serving as project manager. “We collaborated with them from the get-go,” says Craig. “Once we had an idea of the layout of the spaces, we got them involved right away on the design of the theatre and how it functions.”

For Theatre Projects, the project brief was also clear. “The Steward School needed a quality performing and fine arts building, and a space that would give students a feel of what they would find in the working world,” says Rosenburg. “The school also wanted the ability to rent the theatre out to community groups/productions, therefore it needed to meet at least some of the standards that one might find in a roadhouse.” To date, there has been just one such rental, as the school has its own very full schedule for the venue.

“They also wanted a world-class facility, and we believe that they achieved their goals,” adds Rosenburg, who describes TPC's approach to a high school theatre project. “We definitely take the level of expertise of the user into account when designing high school theatre projects,” he says. “We don't dumb the project down, but safety is of paramount concern.” This means, for example, using a bar grating for the grid instead of an inverted C-channel grid iron.

“This gives the students, who don't have a lot of experience on grids, a gentle introduction (and a stronger sense of security) when they are able to see the stage floor 60-plus feet below,” Rosenburg explains. “On the other hand, we are strong believers that today's high school students are tomorrow's working professionals. To that end we try to equip them with all of the tools they will find in the real world.”

One of the areas TPC concentrated on was the sightlines in the main theatre venue where the audience is primarily students. “It was important that the sightlines work not only for adults,” says Rosenburg. “On this particular project, the architects specified the seating, which was provided by Irwin.”

The room has a warm feel thanks to oak paneling on the walls and wood railings, while the stage house is painted basic black. The stage measures 88' wide, with a proscenium opening of 40' across (allowing 24' of wing space on each side) and 22' high. There is a depth of 35' from the back wall to the proscenium arch. A large loading/acoustic door to the scene shop off stage right allows for scenery from one act to be stored while scenery for a different act is onstage. Balconies and side boxes wrap around, adding to the intimacy of the room.

“Due to economics and industry standard, we opted to go with a single purchase rigging system of approximately 25 lines, but with an overall capacity of 48,” notes Rosenburg. “The full length of T-track is installed so that over time, as money becomes available, the school can add additional line sets.” The rigging was installed by Secoa in North Champlin, MN, who also installed the bullet-shaped orchestra pit that fills in the reverse curve of the stage front to create an apron. The SpiraLifts (four jacks on two drive shafts) are by Gala in Montreal.

Secoa also provided the soft goods, lighting fixtures in both venues (over 100 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 15 Source Four PARs, 10 Altman 6" and 20 Strand 8" fresnels, two Lycian 400W HTI followspots, and Altman Focusing Cyc sky cyclights), and Steel Deck risers used in the black box theatre. The ETC Express 250 console and ETC Sensor dimmers came directly from ETC.

“As is typical of TPC jobs, the console can be plugged almost anywhere,” says Rosenburg. “The control booth at the back of the main floor, the tech table position, and backstage are the usual locations. This project is one of our last distributed DMX systems, which is not to say that we neglected to add Cat-5 as well. All of the control positions can accommodate Cat-5 for remote video, or conversion to DMX through an Ethernet node.”

Lighting positions include two FOH catwalks as well as vertical box boom positions on each side of the stage, right in front of the side boxes. There are also mid-level positions between the boxes and the catwalks. “The light pipes are demountable,” explains Rosenburg. “You could easily take out a section of pipe and use a catwalk followspot or hang a large moving fixture there without having to yoke it out. The horizontal rails just unbolt and come off.”

Miller, Beam and Paganelli, in McLean, VA, served as acousticians for the project. The main theatre sound system includes a Mackie SR 40-8 console, four EAW MK5164 overhead loudspeakers (two center cluster, two left-right, all over the apron), Crown CE2000 amps for the four overhead speakers, Crown CE1000 amps for four EAW SM122e (portable with floor jacks) stage monitors, Crown CT-210 amps for under balcony and lobby speakers, an Ashly Protea System II EQ, a Tascam CD-RW700 CD player, a Marantz PMD 510 cassette player, and four Sennheiser EW312 lavalier and four Sennheiser EW335 handheld microphones.

“The theatre is used as a teaching venue as well,” explains Andy Mudd, the technical director for the Steward School. “It serves as a classroom for everything from acoustics to lighting. Even the seventh graders learn about rigging and how to focus a light. They'll have so much practical background when they get to college.” This spring the busy calendar of student productions included The King and I, with a cast of 50 students, 22 of which were children from the Lower School. High school theatre can't get much better than this.