There's nothing like a classy new performance facility to raise a university's profile. But in the $130-million, 318,000-sq.-ft. Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the University of Maryland in College Park has been just as intent on raising academic standards for the Schools of Theatre, Music, and Dance as creating a commercial draw. The center's six performance venues exist in symbiotic relationship with classrooms, shops, rehearsal studios, and a performing arts library. Everyone involved seems to have been reaching toward some sort of ideal.

Not surprisingly for a project of such enormity, at least a decade passed from conception to the official opening of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in September 2001. According to Daniel Maclean Wagner, acting chair of the Department of Theatre, the university approached the process with laudable sensitivity to the eventual users' needs. “The university created a process that was very inclusive of the faculty and staff,” says Wagner, a University of Maryland alumnus who joined the teaching ranks in 1990. “We were consulted even prior to design/development in terms of writing the program for the building, and had several years of meetings with consultants and architects. The result is a building that responds very well to the needs of the academic units, as well as the presented events here.”

As is so often the case, those academic needs stood in direct, oppositional relation to existing circumstances. Theatre and music department classrooms were previously housed together, with dance in separate facilities, and performance spaces were all over the campus. Theatre productions had their choice of a typical 1960s-era proscenium house, which spread its 1,300 seats over a long, narrow distance from the stage, and a 100-seat black box converted from an art gallery space. For Wagner, the road to the department's new situation, which includes 100- and 200-seat black box spaces, and an intimate 650-seat proscenium house, the Ina and Jack Kay Theatre, has been a particularly gratifying one.

“We were looking for a proscenium house that was intimate not just in the number of seats, but in actor-audience relationship,” Wagner says. “The goal was to create a welcoming, warm, positive environment for student performers, designers, and technicians to work in, and from an audience point of view, to make the performance so immediate that it's exciting. The feeling that you get when you walk into the Kay is really like an old Broadway house.”

That, of course, is a consistent purpose of Theatre Projects Consultants, which was on several teams that participated in an architectural competition held by the university in the mid-90s. Everyone agrees that the winning architectural firm, Moore Ruble Yudell (which worked with local architect Ayers/Saint/Gross), was chosen on the basis of a particularly canny concept — that of an “academic village.” Says Theatre Projects chairman Richard Pilbrow, “[Principal architect] Buzz Yudell and I were brainstorming, and we came up with this idea of creating a village of spaces, almost like an Italian hill town, with the central plaza winding up, and the theatres off it, like little houses.”

Yudell explains, “We found the program as developed over the previous years to be fascinating and quite unusual; not only was there a rich array of performance and rehearsal spaces and technical support, but the addition of the full academic departments and the performing arts library. That's something we really wanted to optimize.” Doing so, he continues, meant encouraging cross-disciplinary interaction while establishing a distinct identity for each department, as well as reaching out to the community. “Trying to reconcile all those issues became very important to the way the geometry of the building developed.”

The design clustered each department around its own courtyard, giving academic spaces functional connection to the appropriate performance venues, which then open out onto a common lobby. Therefore, says Wagner, “There's a real sense of connection among the various events presented in the building. You walk out of one theatre at intermission, and most likely you're going to walk into a group of people waiting for another performance. That creates a lot of energy.”

In addition to TPC and Moore Ruble Yudell, a third major player on the project was acoustical consultant R. Lawrence Kirkegaard & Associates, under the supervision of senior consultant Ed McCue. The most sophisticated acoustic treatment was reserved for the School of Music's concert hall — at 1,100 seats, the largest venue in the complex — but all of the spaces are acoustically isolated from each other, as well as from all of the shops and support areas. Tying everything together, on the other hand, is not only the center's architectural plan, but an ethernet backbone using Strand Shownet software, and building-wide tielines and communications designed into the sound system by Paul Garrity. An independent contractor when the project began, Garrity joined TPC competitor Auerbach + Associates, Inc. as a consultant mid-stream.

This technological sophistication came at a cost, and despite the center's seemingly astronomical $130-million price tag — money that came from state, Prince George's County, and private sources — there were constant budgetary challenges, says TPC senior consultant Eugene Leitermann. “The two things we hung onto through the whole process were program area and equipment. Essentially, we let go of finishes. The lobby and performance areas are very nice, but you move into back-of-house and academic areas, and it's an attractive building, but it's not expensive in terms of what's on the wall. In several of the rooms, the design was reworked, so that Buzz Yudell was able to hold onto what was important to him, but we were using standard product instead of custom woodwork or whatever.”

There is not much sign of such sacrifice in the Kay Theatre. This proscenium house, which is intended for both professional and student theatre productions, as well as opera, is finished off in deep rust colors and sculpted wood, for what Yudell refers to as an “embracing” feel. “When the lights come on, it still feels warm, not like you just walked into the sunlight,” the architect says. But what's really special about the room is the shape, which relies on a series of curves to both bring the audience up close to the stage and give the space an integrated form.

All photos: John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

“We determined to make it as intimate as you possibly can with 650 seats,” says Pilbrow. “It's very much inspired by the classic Broadway model, with little step-down boxes that are uniquely characteristic of the old Broadway theatres.” As Wagner says, “the house is strikingly shallow,” with a dozen horseshoe-shaped rows in the front orchestra, four of which can be removed when the hydraulic orchestra pit is raised. Behind the front section is a raised parterre of seating. “That does two things,” Pilbrow says. “It improves the rear orchestra by lifting it up a bit, and makes the front part of the orchestra feel more confined and cozy. So if you have only 200 people in there, it feels more intimate than a flat floor on a single slope.”

The steeply raked balcony is over the parterre section, but is deeply curved to meet the second of three levels of side boxes, and get every seat as close as possible to the proscenium. “When you stand on the apron and look out into the house, it feels like you can reach out and touch every seat,” says Wagner. The effect is reinforced acoustically, with the theatre's curved, slotted side panels providing reflection so that every whisper is audible. To tune the room for an opera, a musical, or a straight play production, the Kay also has adjustable acoustical panels, though not of the high-tech computerized variety found in the concert hall.

The wraparound shape of the Kay isn't just about function; Yudell says it's about architectural harmony. The curving rows of seats are echoed in sequences of curves not only on the side walls, but also on the ceiling, where a progression of lighting rails steps back from the stage. Above the proscenium, slotted wood pieces help mask loudspeakers, and contribute to the form of the whole. “The first curve that floats up at the top of the proscenium is similar to the curves in the ceiling,” says Yudell. “This sequence of large curves and smaller curves layers the space. It's harmonious and whole, but syncopated.”

The intimate quality of the Kay belies the size of its 99'-wide by 39'-deep stage, and its state-of-the art technology. (There are also elements not found in most Broadway theatres: a control room at the back of the first level and followspot room in the balcony, and reading desks for student use during opera productions.) The curtains and other soft goods are supplied by Rose Brand, and the J. R. Clancy rigging system includes 72 linesets. “There are two motorized electrics, and everything else is a free batten,” says Leitermann. “It's single-purchase counterweight rigging, straightforward and very functional. It's a full complement, by which I mean every rigging set that fits is there. One of the things on the table at various points was, could you start with less rigging and fill it out over time? We were able to hold onto that: ‘That's programmatic; they need that to function.’” Clancy also worked on the orchestra pit.

“The technical capabilities in that theatre are pretty enormous,” says Wagner. “I don't think we could put the Bolshoi Ballet in there, but there aren't many things that wouldn't fit.” Says Leitermann, “The university did a very good job of sorting out its needs,” and one of the primary needs was the flexibility to accommodate both large- and small-scale productions in the space. Offerings in the Kay's 2001-02 season range from a Department of Theatre production of The Music Man and a Maryland Opera Studio presentation of The Marriage of Figaro to visiting productions by the Parsons Dance Company and dir0ector Anne Bogart. “The mission of this building is to create a new national model for the collaboration between academic production and professional presenting,” Wagner says. “And when professional artists come in, there are workshops with students and ancillary events that connect with the academic units.”

The center's technological sophistication serves both professional and teaching requirements. According to Wagner, there are, for example, “various levels of lighting consoles as you go across the range of six venues. We have computer consoles in all the halls, but we also have some with sub masters that student can put their hands on, and move a slider, rather than just punching a keyboard.” The lighting system in the Kay is a marriage of Strand dimmers and 550i control console with mostly ETC fixtures. “The dimming and control is part of the construction contract,” Leitermann explains. “The fixtures were actually purchased by the university outside of the construction contract. It's when the 750W Source Fours were coming out, so we said, ‘This is the feature we really want.’” The Kay has several hundred of them, along with various Altman units, L&E Mini Strips, Lycian followspots, and Morpheus M faders.

“The center staff had a strong brand preference,” the consultant continues. “They were thinking they were going to die if they didn't get ETC. On the design team, all we could say was, it's public money, and we think you're going to be happy no matter what product you have. I think ETC was unhappy not to get the dimming and Strand was unhappy not to get the fixture package, but I think the users essentially have what they want in terms of spotlights, and a product that's working very well for them in terms of dimming.

“I'll be honest,” says Wagner, whose background is in lighting design. “I was skeptical about Strand. It was mostly because I, as a designer, had lately used more ETC consoles. But my mind has basically been changed. The Strand consoles and the entire ethernet system have performed beyond my expectations.”

The idea of installing an ethernet backbone developed over the course of the center's four-year construction period. “The ethernet technology was evolving at the same time the building design was,” says Strand regional sales manager Van Rommel. But, says Leitermann, “We really couldn't say, oh look, the world is changing underneath our feet, we really need ethernet; the project was too budget-challenged. So Strand negotiated a change with the electrical contractor, SPL.” “There were some economic benefits,” says Rommel. “It comes down to the cost of ethernet wiring versus the costs of discrete RS-485 wiring, discrete coaxial wiring, and so on. You're able to transmit all those different types of signals over an ethernet network.” A benefit to Strand was that it allowed the company to show off its Shownet system in a major early installation, one of the first on the East Coast.

All of which would be for naught, of course, if the system didn't perform. But, says Clarice Smith electrics services manager Kyle Kweder, “The ethernet system allows bidirectional communication between everything on the lighting network. This allows us to reconfigure the lighting system on a show-by-show basis, placing the lighting console where it's most convenient for the operator, letting the designer set up where it's easiest, and giving the master electrician maximum flexibility in controlling the equipment. It also allows us to have multiple consoles working simultaneously, and it allows for expansion; we could add a central file server that would allow designers and technicians to make modifications from any console in the building or from their desktop PC anywhere in the world.” The ethernet is also connected to the center's lighting lab.

While not as technologically innovative, the theatre's sound component is defined by Leitermann as a “solid, basic reinforcement and effects system,” and it was also designed to be as flexible as possible. Garrity, who worked with Auerbach consultant Dan Mei on the latter part of the project, says of the development process, “We basically went through their needs in terms of sound effects, playback, and musical reinforcement, discussed the kind of faculty, crew, and students they were likely to have running it. At that point, we didn't even know if it would remain a strictly student operation, or partly for external use. I think it was too much of a building, really, not to do it that way. We tried to design systems that would allow for future expansion, and yet would be as easy to teach and use as we could possibly manage. We also tried to assert as much consistency in the mixing consoles as we could from one hall to the next.”

At the same time, he says, “You really have to pick and choose among everything that's out there, and decide what's the best mixing console, best speaker, whatever. We don't have any strong ties to one manufacturer's product.” In the Kay, the equipment list includes a Yamaha 48 × 8 mixing console, Tascam and Denon recorders, Yamaha multi-effect processors, dbx modular signal processor, BSS 2 × 8 digital processor, Crown power amplifiers, and arrays of EAW loudspeakers. There is a central cluster of speakers above the proscenium, and a secondary cluster “that helps feed sound to the balcony more directly,” says Garrity.

Budgetary limitations deferred the installation of side left and right speaker clusters, though the wiring is in place. “Our attitude is, when you start to have money problems, you always get the power and wiring infrastructure in correctly,” he continues. “We made sure there are loudspeaker receptacles, panels, and jacks all over the place: anywhere you want to stick a speaker, you can stick a speaker. Then we provided a complement of portable equipment to go with what was installed permanently, and made sure there were cable passes and sufficient power, so if you did bring in a lot of outside equipment, there would be ways to integrate it.”

Centerwide communications and paging requirements are routed through a Clear-Com Matrix 3 head-end feeding a Peavey MediaMatrix system, which provides for ease of signal reassignment. Tielines back to the center's recording room also accommodate infrared listening systems for the hearing-impaired and video feeds from every venue. “With six spaces in this huge building, you think about getting from one end of the building to the other with tielines, and there were some real challenges,” says Leitermann. “First for Mona Electric, which put in the conduit system for the sound, and then SPL, which had to vet the entire system and make it work.” Garrity says, “The main rack room got smaller — stuff happens — and SPL really did an amazing job of coping with everything that was thrown at them. I don't think we've ever had a checkout that was as clean as this one.”

In addition to the Kay and the concert hall, the center's other presenting spaces are the 200-seat Robert and Arlene Kogod Theatre, which Leitermann calls the department workhorse, presenting faculty and student-directed productions; the 100-seat laboratory theatre, which is also used for receptions; the 300-seat Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Recital Hall; and a 180-seat dance theatre. Thirty classrooms, 50 rehearsal rooms, 100 faculty offices, prop, costume, scene, electric, and sound shops, a lighting lab, a CAD lab, a recording studio, and the 60,000-volume performing arts library are also housed behind the doors of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Says Wagner, “The shops are located in the central core of the building, so that they can access the performance venues in the most convenient way. They're grouped in and amongst dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms, which double as classrooms during the day. We also have rehearsal rooms with a footprint close to the footprint of the stage house, so you can approximate what the students are going to experience onstage.”

In all, says Wagner, the center achieved its goal — “that the academic mission should drive the architecture.” There were a couple of sobering last-minute hitches prior to the last fall's opening, however: one, of course, was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then, three days before the September 28 unveiling, a tornado touched down on the University of Maryland campus and killed two people; apart from a few blown-out windows, the center was unscathed. Richard Pilbrow describes opening night, when attendees could choose among performances in all the venues. “There was a student performance of Beethoven's Ninth. And I have to tell you, it was one of the most moving experiences of my lifetime. During the last movement, the choir were singing their hearts out, and there were tears coming down people's faces.”

Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland

Project Credits

Design architect
Moore Ruble Yudell
Principal-in-charge:
Buzz Yudell

Architect of record
Ayers/Saint/Gross
Managing principal:
Richard Ayers
Design principal:
Adam Gross

Theatre design consultant
Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc.
Project managers:
Gene Leitermann, Robert Long
Director of design:
Brian Hall
Design associate:
Cyril Almey
Rigging specialist:
Michael Nishball
Principal-in-charge:
Richard Pilbrow

Acoustical consultant
R. Lawrence Kirkegaard & Associates
Project manager:
Ed McCue

Sound system designer
Auerbach + Associates, Inc.
Project managers:
Paul Garrity, Dan Mei

Dimming and control
Strand Lighting

Lighting equipment
Electronic Theatre Controls

General contractors
Turner Construction Company, MTI Construction Services

Theatre equipment contractor
J.R. Clancy

Sound system contractor
SPL

Electrical contractor
Mona Electric

Curtain, soft goods
Rose Brand

Soft goods rigging and installation
Kinetic Artistry

Auditorium seating
Domore DO3