Rising from the economically challenged docklands area of Salford, England, The Lowry is a œ105-million ($168-million US) arts center that opened last April as part of a plan to bring new life to the formerly flourishing quays around the Manchester Ship Canal. The area had fallen on hard times early in the 20th century, when the industrial focus shifted to nearby Manchester, taking employment opportunities away from the town and leading to depressed conditions.
Today, things are looking brighter for Salford, which is easily reached via a new rapid light rail system that runs from the center of Manchester. Economic development in the area has been stimulated by the realization of a new master plan by British architects James Stirling and Michael Wilford. Their vision for waterfront prosperity includes a mixed-use plan with high-tech industries sitting side by side with a variety of retail, restaurants, and sports facilities, as well as a cinema complex, and of course, the picturesque appeal of the canals and their footbridges. Plus, the Manchester United soccer field is not too far away.
At the center of this development is The Lowry, a combined-use building originally conceived as an opera house that now features two theatres, art galleries, offices, and public spaces. The Lowry also houses a collection of over 300 paintings by Salford's native son, British painter L.S. Lowry, for whom the center was named. According to David Staples of Theatre Project Consultants, which served as the theatre consultant on the project, the words "opera house" were deemed too elitist for a project of this nature, and it came to be called simply The Lowry.
Designed by UK architect Michael Wilford and Partners, the futuristic-looking glass and metallic shell of the building has such distinctive architectural elements as a tall silo-like tower and a large circular wing with huge windowpanes. Inside, bright colors (notably yellow and orange) add zest to lobbies, restaurants, and even the theatres themselves, whose color schemes are as out of the ordinary as the building itself.
The Lyric Theatre, or main stage, is purple, with three levels of seating in a wide horseshoe shape, allowing for intimacy in a space with a maximum seating capacity of 1,730 (which is its configuration without the orchestra pit; with the pit at its largest, the capacity is reduced to 1,595 seats). The seats are divided into stalls (740 seats), first tier (414 seats), and second tier (576 seats), with corporate boxes at the back of the mezzanine or first tier. The seats were custom designed by Poltrona Fau Seating in Italy. Theatre Projects used computer animation to confirm the good sightlines and show the client what they would actually see from each seat.
The orchestra pit uses Gala Spiralifts that were installed by Telestage, based in Thetford, England. The company also manufactured and installed the stage machinery, fire curtains, acoustic doors, draperies, and rigging, which has 79 single-purchase 500kg counterweight sets (77 cross-stage and two up- and downstage).
The stage measures 29m wide by 17.5m deep (approximately 96' by 58'), with a 14m-wide (approximately 46'-wide) proscenium opening that measures 11.2m (37') high, and the height to the grid is 23m (76'). "There is also a fully-flown adjustable proscenium to close down the opening," says Jerry Godden, who served as Theatre Projects' project manager for The Lowry, and who was onsite earlier this summer to offer a guided tour of the facility. He also notes the existence of cable troughs around the stage deck to facilitate the installation of equipment. Gear is brought in through the loading dock, which opens directly into a backstage storage area.
The interior of the theatre is quite modern looking. Purple perforated metal panels hide the speakers from view along the sides of the stage, while a sliding metal door opens to reveal the sound booth at the back of the stalls-level seats. A lighting booth and a stage manager booth flank the sound booth.
The followspot booth is on the upper level, and serves as a position for 12 ETC Irideon AR5 automated fixtures that provide color-changing washes on the metal mesh ceiling. Fluorescent fixtures above the ceiling serve as worklights.
"The concept for the Lyric Theatre is to have a massive infrastructure for sound and lighting that you can hang anything on," explains Godden. "This is basically a touring house, and some companies, such as Opera North [which in addition to partner company Birmingham Royal Ballet will perform regularly at The Lowry], bring their own dimmers and patch them right in." To meet this kind of demand, the Lyric has a lot of big power supplies located around the stage.
"The stage floor is semi-sprung," says Godden, noting that a fully sprung floor is not practical in a touring house, but that there are thick neoprene pads that create a custom dance floor designed by Theatre Projects by trial and error over the years. The stage is also trapped with a massive trap room underneath.
The lighting system in the theatre was specified by Theatre Projects' Andy Hayles and supplied and installed by Northern Light in the UK, with Nigel Love as project manager. The system is run by a Strand GeniusPro 550 console with 1,050 channels and Strand's Networker and Tracker software. A Strand 510i console provides backup. The Strand EC90 reporting dimmers (504 x 3kW) and 54 x 6kW) are located in a dimmer room stage left.
There is a building-wide DMX and ethernet distribution system as well as direct communication to the smaller Quays Theatre. Touring consoles can be plugged into any ethernet node in the facility, with all communication data lines terminating in a central patchbay. The DMX ports and plug-in points were provided by Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd in the UK, and indicate the presence of DMX. This means that when a DMX console is plugged in, LED lights confirm the DMX. Four Strand SN103 nodes allow for input or output of four streams of DMX. Two additional SN103 nodes drive DMX to the dimmers.
The large fixture inventory in the Lyric includes many items from Strand: ten 2.5kW Alto fresnels and PCs, forty 1.2kW Cantata fresnels, twenty 1.2kW Cantata PCs, multiples of Alto 11/26 and 14.32 Profiles, 10/26 and 14/32 2.5kW Toccata Profiles, and 11/26 and 18/32 1.2kW Cantata Profiles. There are also 10 Thomas four-cell groundrows and flood battens, and two Robert Juliat Aramis followspots.
Acoustics in the room, designed by Sandy Brown Associates, are controlled via motor-controlled curtains hung above the ceiling and along the rear wall of the top tier. The sound reinforcement system includes a Soundcraft K3 40-input console, which is located in the sound booth (additional positions in front of the control room and in a sound "cockpit" in the center of the stalls are also available for the console if desired). Audio tieline loops run throughout, with multipin sockets at each corner of the stage, in the orchestra pit, the sound booth, and the remote mixing locations. Loudspeaker lines run throughout as well. The sound system was also installed by Northern Light.
The array of loudspeakers in the Lyric includes six Meyer Sound UPA-1Cs at the proscenium sides, two Meyer Sound USW-1 for sub bass, 20 Meyer Sound UPM-1s for front fill, stall side fills, and second tier delay, four Meyer Sound UPA-1Cs for the center cluster, and eight Tannoy T12s for foldback/effects. Amplifiers are by Lab Gruppen. Only the speakers in the center cluster are visible, as they are hung in front of the proscenium arch; the others are tucked behind perforated panels. Throughout the theatre are disks that cover fixing points where additional speakers can be added as needed.
Additional equipment includes one BSS FCS-960 two-channel equalizer and one BSS FCS-926 two-channel programmable parametric equalizer, as well as two digital effects units: one Yamaha SPX990 and one Lexicon PCM81. Compressors and noise gate are also by BSS, with two Denon DN-1050 mini-disk players, one Denon DA40 DAT recorder, one Denon 630 CD player, and one Tascam 122 cassette recorder for playback. These units are housed in two rolling racks.
Microphones include: eight Shure Beta 58s, four Shure Beta 57s, two Shure Beta 87s, six Sennheiser MKH40s, two Sennheiser MKH60s, two Sennheiser MKH70s, four Crown PCC160s, and two AKG 414B-ULS units. A four-channel Clear-Com system serves as a local intercom, with 25 single-channel beltpacks and headsets, plus an RF base station with six radio beltpacks and headsets. A two-channel Sennheiser infrared listening system has also been installed, as well as video tielines to the stage, backstage, control rooms, and lobby areas.
"The key to the Lyric is that it has to work for all kinds of productions," says Godden. "And in spite of its large size, it feels intimate. The wraparound balconies are like papering the walls with people."
The smaller Quays Theatre is extremely striking in appearance, clad in five different shades of red. The seats, walls, metal panels, and house curtain are all red. The seats are also by Poltrona Fau Seating, although they are a slightly different style than the Lyric's.
Designed by Theatre Projects' Iain Mackintosh, this is a "courtyard" theatre, or completely flexible space, which can be used with the stage (which is made of English oak) in various configurations - end, thrust, promenade, or in the round. There is no fixed proscenium; an adjustable proscenium can be formed using sliding side panels and a flown header panel.
The seating varies from 397 to 466, depending on the configuration of the stage. Five Gala Spiralifts move staging platforms (finished to look like the stage), which are used with motorized seating wagons to reconfigure the theatre. With the stage in the "end" position, one lift can be lowered to create an orchestra pit for 10 to 20 musicians.
Balcony rails can be used to hand equipment all around the room as the shape changes, and a technical gallery runs under an open ceiling, adding to the ultimate flexibility of the space. There is no flytower, just a simple counterweight rigging system with 39 single-purchase 350kg counterweight sets (35 run cross-stage and two up- and downstage in the "end" position). There are also two sets that can be moved to any position in the room. A suspension grid extends into the auditorium.
The lighting system in the Quays Theatre is driven from a Strand 530i console and 212 LD90 dimmers, with Strand SN103R rackmounted network nodes, developed specially for Northern Light. The Strand fixtures include six 2.5kW Alto fresnels, twenty 1.2kW Cantata fresnels, and ten 1.2kW Cantata PCs, with 38 mixed-aperture Cantata 1.2kW Profiles and twenty 575W Freedom Profiles. Other fixtures include Thomas groundrows and flood battens, and two Selecon Performer long-throw followspots. The theatre also has a DMX and ethernet distribution system.
The audio system, specified by Richard Borkum of Theatre Projects, uses a Soundcraft K3 24-input console, and a system of demountable Tannoy loudspeakers (eight T12s, two T40s, and six i8s for foldback and effects), with Lab Gruppen amplifiers, BSS equalizers, a Lexicon PCM81 digital effects unit, two Denon DN-1050 mini-disk player/recorders, one Denon DA40 DAT recorder, one Denon 630 CD player, and one Tascam 122 cassette recorder (all housed in one rolling rack). Microphones include: four Shure Beta 58s, four Shure Beta 57s, two Sennheiser MKH40s, and Sennheiser 1801 and 1803 (two each) radio microphones. This space also has a Clear-Com intercom system, audio and video tielines, and loudspeaker tielines. There is one multi-use control booth for sound, lighting, and followspots at the back of the room.
Hopes are that The Lowry and the entire Salford Quays project will be an impetus for urban revitalization. "The most remarkable part is the very powerful architecture. You can't not notice it," says Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects' US office. "The combination of two theatres that work well and eye-catching architecture should help regenerate the area. The Lowry certainly makes a bold statement."