The renovation of Georgia's official state theatre combines the new with the old

A historic landmark with antecedents stretching back to Edwin Booth, theSpringer Opera House was built in 1871 in Columbus, GA, and stands as the state's official theatre. After quite a checkered existence, the theatre was renovated over a two–year period, from 1997 through 1999. The goal was to restore the public areas and auditorium to the way they were in 1901, yet add totally modern stage equipment and technical systems.

Located one-and-a-half hours (100 miles) from Atlanta, the town of Columbus (population 200,000) sits along the Chattahoochee River in an area that was one of the few industrial centers in the South before the Civil War. The Springer, which includes a hotel in the same building, was originally built as a road house for classical and popular theatre, music, dance, and vaudeville, and served as a cultural center in a thriving manufacturing town where iron foundries made cannons during the war [CIVIL?]. Its prosperity as a major antebellum textile producer helped fuel the early success of the theatre, which, by 1896, had recorded over four million admissions.

"This theatre is typical of opera houses built in Victorian times in small towns USA," says Lawrence L. Graham ASTC, a senior consultant with CDAI Integrated Technical Systems, the Atlanta-based firm that served as theatre consultants for the Springer renovation. Its public rooms are steeped in history, from a full-length portrait of Edwin Booth as Hamlet to Joseph Jefferson's carved table that is part of the theatre's collection of late 19th-century antiques.

Yet the Springer almost didn't survive to see the dawn of the 21st century. "It became a movie theatre, then was closed, and slated for destruction in the mid-20th century," says Graham, who describes it as "a gorgeous theatre built of red brick and heavy timber. Much of the architectural detail was still there, even after several remodelings and facelifts."

The goal of the recent renovation was to restore the theatre to its Edwardian [IS IT EDWARDIAN OR VICTORIAN?] condition. At the same time the old hotel, which had long been empty, was reconfigured as apartments for visiting artists, as well as additional public spaces for the theatre, and offices for the Springer Theatre Company, a professional regional theatre that produces 10 plays and musicals per season under the direction of Paul R. Pierce. The Springer also has a professional actors' training academy with more than 500 students and a regional touring company that performs in some 60 Southern cities every year.

The company was a driving force behind the renovation, which benefited from several large private donations. Once the theatre was "saved," the firm of Hecht, Burdeshaw, Johnson, Kidd, and Clark Architects of Columbus, GA (Ed Burdeshaw, project architect) began the initial planning for the project. "They took out lots of extraneous junk, removed previous 'improvements,' and peeled away the paint and wallpaper layer by layer," explains Graham, whose directive was to install state-of-the-art technical systems without destroying the original fabric of the building.

The new 750–seat theatre (the orchestra seats 463 including box seats, with 234 seats in the balcony) has warm, honey-colored seats and walls with gold and sage-green trim. The gold brocade front curtain has a scalloped valance in green velour with gold fringe, and can be flown in, drawn up, or operated as an opera drape. This curtain is part of a soft goods package by J.R Clancy of Rochester, NY which includes a black concert drapery set, hard teaser and tormentors, and the proscenium drapery. Behind the main drape is a fancy, 19th-century-style custom-painted act curtain commissioned by the Springer.

The original stage was still in place, and the historic barn-shaped gambrel roof over the flytower created one of the more interesting challenges in the renovation. "It was interesting to get the new rigging into place," says Graham. "We could not change the exterior of the building at all, and the flytower is just tall enough to fly things past the proscenium arch by one foot."

The original system had two fly floors and a wooden grid. This has all been replaced with 42 single-purchase counterweight sets manufactured and installed by J.R. Clancy. The head blocks sit 6' below the level of the grid with a counterweight pit in the trap room to allow enough travel for the system. The cables follow the sloping roof to a transition block at grid level, where it becomes a standard upright system. To accomodate other interferences, the lines had to be muled at an angle, and the cables had to avoid all of the wooden trusses that hold up the roof. The lock rail sits in the stage-left wing.

"In addition," notes Graham, "the soft brick of the building would not support the weight of a modern rigging system." To solve this problem, a new steel grid was erected by hand inside the building and made to fit within the existing beams. It was installed in sections and rests on girders placed at the front and back edges of the stage to avoid stress on the brick tower. The girders are supported on columns that go down into the trap room and rest on a new foundation, as the architects could not put any holes in the existing structure.

Another major challenge was the desire to insert an orchestra pit for up to 35 musicians. "They had a small vaudeville-style pit for five musicians," notes Graham. "It was very shallow and had a curtain in front of it that caused acoustic anomalies." The new, larger pit is recessed under the stage with a solid orchestra rail to help acoustically. This is dressed with a curtain, so the look is still the same. Reflective acoustic elements were built into the walls of the pit so that the orchestra can hear itself playing.

According to Graham, "The difficulty with the pit lift was that it had to be set lower than the footings of the proscenium arch, yet the theatre is near the river's edge and built on silt." They worked with the Montreal-based firm Gala to cantilever the ends of the lift 4' from the footings so that no excavation was necessary. The new pit is designed for a Gala Spiralift when the budget allows its purchase; until the Spiralift is installed, they are using a Versalite adjustable pit cover system designed and custom-manufactured by the Wenger Corporation in Owatonna, MN. This system can be installed by a crew of two in about two hours and may be legged to stand at stage level, house level, or pit level.

From the sound point of view, this renovation was also problematic. "There is a radio transmitter a block away and there had been some interference in the past," Graham says. "We tackled this from two points of view." The first was to install a new system with dedicated clean power; the second was to ensure that all grounding was done properly.

There are two sound systems in place: a performance system with manual control; and an automatic system. In performance mode, microphone signals are sent from the stage to a manual DDA QI mixer with 32 inputs and eight mix busses, located in the sound booth. At the mixer, the level of the mic signals are adjusted, and the signals are routed through any processing required.

The signals are then mixed together and sent to one of three main loudspeaker systems: a left and right speaker system with Bose Panaray 502As with controllers for reproducing or reinforcing music, and a center Frazier Cat 69 speaker for reproducing or reinforcing voice. The center speaker cluster is concealed in a square opening in the ceiling, with grilles covered in fabric that matches the ceiling.

Smaller speaker arrays with JBL Control 25s were placed under each of the two balconies to fill in the acoustic "shadow" created by the overhang of the balcony. Bose Acoustic Wave Cannons with controllers were added as bass speakers to provide low-end response, or accentuating bass response in the music. These are actually coupled to the underside of the stage in the orchestra pit to help extend their response. "The result," explains Graham, "is a smooth, even sound from the stage all the way to the back of the house."

The automatic system is basically an adaptation of the performance system, except that the microphone signals from the stage go to an automatic IRP 4040, four–input, one–output automatic gating mixer. This automatically gates (turns off) microphones when not in use, and controls levels. The mix of these inputs is sent to the center speaker system only.

All signal paths in the performance and automatic systems are routed through patchbays to allow easy reconfiguring by the user. A Sabine Real Q system provides equalization between the output of the mixer and Crown ComTech amplifiers to shape the sound for the acoustical characteristics of the room. Sabine SDA 102 digital delay units are used to delay the sound sent to the under-balcony speakers so the sound appears to come from the stage, not the speakers.

Loudspeakers are also installed in a position 24' above the stage on the back wall for atmospheric or "distant" effects, using the volume of the flytower as a reverb chamber. There are also additional speaker jacks in various remote locations. Additional audio gear includes a Lexicon PCM-80 effects processor, which adds reverb or other special effects as needed, while DBX-160XT compressors are in place to help compress the dynamic range of vocals.

Wireless microphones are from the Shure UHF-series (U4 receiver, U1 Transmitter, WL85 lavalier microphone). Playback equipment includes a Denon CD650F CD player which can cue and play individual tracks, and a Marantz PMD500 cassette deck that serves as an additional audio source.

There is also a Telecast fiber-optic link system for transmitting all of the signals between the stage manager's position and the control booth, as the proscenium wall consists of 34" masonry and no one wanted to disturb it for wiring. The crew uses a Telex intercom system for communications during shows.

The control booth is located in the second balcony, which has a very steep rake and is no longer used for seating. "The fire marshall didn't approve its use for audience seating," explains Graham. Instead, the space is used for soundproof lighting and sound booths that sit behind sliding glass windows. There is also an open position for a mixing desk and four followspot positions.

The new lighting system includes new 45° angle positions added in ceiling slots, as well as 30° angle positions on the second balcony rail. Light booms can be used in the boxes on either side of the stage, where they are concealed from audience view. The performance lighting system has three racks of 96 ETC Sensor dimmers and an Expression III console. Outlets are located as follows: three stage electric battens; 8 three-circuit drop boxes; floor pockets in the wings and across the back of the stage; boom positions between the boxes and the proscenium arch, and pockets on each box level.

The lighting rig includes approximately100 new ellipsoidal Altman 360Qs for over-stage use and 50 Altman 1,000W instruments for front-of-house. "We decided to keep most of our original stock of instruments, which included older Altman model 6 x 9s and 6 x 12s, due to the fact that they were in very good working order," explains Jason Loar, production manager at the Springer, who has also ordered two previously-owned High End Systems Intellabeams® to add automated luminaires to the inventory.

"It is my plan for this next season to purchase a number of color scrollers for the main-stage as well as our second space, Foley Hall," notes Loar. All of the lighting instruments and equipment (cable, plugs, etc.) were purchased from RSL Theatrical, a six-year-old company in Columbus that supplies most of the Springer's rented specials throughout the season. The rig is rehung and refocused for each show.

"We hire outside designers for most of our shows in both the main stage and second space shows," says Loar, who will serve as in-house designer for almost half of their shows this season. "I'm actually both a sound and lighting designer for some of our shows. For this upcoming season, Alan Greenough (our technical director) and I will work together on the larger shows of the season as designer and co-designer respectively. For the smaller non-musical main stage shows and all of our second space shows, I will act as both sound and lighting designer. Bill Rich of RSL Theatrical is our main lighting designer for the out-sourced shows."

Loar notes that the new theatre took some getting used to. "After the renovation, we had our fair share of problems and challenges in the beginning. This is understandable, seeing how we went from almost having nothing in the way of sound to having some of the most advanced equipment the Springer has seen—or heard," he admits. "But I think we have tackled those problems, and are making the best use of this gear. At least the audience is pleased."

The Springer renovation has brought a 19th-century theatre up to 21st-century standards, both on- and offstage. "There are beautiful public spaces and lobbies in the theatre and the hotel," says Graham. "Now that the Springer Opera House has been renovated, it is more a part of the social fabric of the city than it was before."