The Kenneth King Academic and Performing Arts Center in Denver is home to three masters. The center, which opened last November with multiple performance spaces ranging from a 550-seat concert hall to a courtyard theatre with 350 seats and three black-box production studios, is a multipurpose home for the performing arts programs for a troika of end users: the Community College of Denver, the Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the University of Colorado in Denver, all of which share a single campus, the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The Denver-based team of AR7 HooverDesmond Architects designed the exteriors, with Semple Brown Design, also in Denver, responsible for the performance spaces. Theatre consultants Ben Boltin and Curtis Kasefang of Public Assembly Consultants (with offices in New York and North Carolina) were involved in this project from the early planning stages and in fact have an ongoing relationship with Semple Brown (other projects they have done together include Mesa State College and Broomfield Community Theatre, both in Colorado). Boulder, CO-based acoustician Robert Mahoney was also part of the team.

Located across the street from the Denver Performing Arts Complex, this downtown Denver campus serves a student body of more than 34,000, in various degree programs ranging from associate to graduate. When the campus was developed in the 1970s, planners thought that the colleges could rent the performance spaces when needed, but the obvious obstacles of high rental costs, union rules, scheduling conflicts, and lack of rehearsal rooms made this impractical.

Peter Lucking, lead designer for Semple Brown, reports that this idea was reconsidered once the various departments got together and drew up a program. With three groups sharing one space, it was determined that scene shops, rehearsal rooms, and support spaces needed to be added to the basic outline for one theatre, one concert hall, and one black box. Ultimately, a performing arts component was added to a new classroom building, whose brown brick exteriors echo the Bauhaus style of the campus.

“There are only a few glimpses from outside to indicate that this is a performing arts facility,” says Lucking. One of these is a system of blue lights that are turned on when the building is in performance mode. The glow can be seen from outside the building. “The design process gave us the opportunity to talk with the end users and design their home so that they better understand what they are getting when they move in.”

The result is a neat package of small, extremely flexible spaces that meets the needs of the three schools (there was no need to create large venues for the community at large, especially with the Denver Performing Arts Center right across the road). The largest space is a 550-seat concert hall, followed by a 350-seat courtyard theatre (the Eugenia Rawls Theatre), a 200-seat recital hall, three 125-seat production studios (one for each college), a 150-seat dance/music studio, and a 50-seat electronic music studio. Even the lobby is equipped for performances, with rigging points to hang scenery, disconnects for rolling racks, and surrounding lighting positions to make it a dynamic space.

The performance spaces all open onto Main Street and were designed to expose hidden backstage aspects of the theatre. “This provides peeks into the shops, the paint frame, and rehearsal studios,” says Lucking. “The audience can see all this, as well as set models for future shows.” The Main Street concept also helps educate the audience, including students from other departments, about what goes on in the building. “One of the important conceptual ideas and design intents was to break down the boundaries between backstage and the audience. All kinds of things pull you in visually,” says Kasefang, who specified sound, video, communications, ethernet, and lighting, while Boltin specified rigging, platforms, machinery, and draperies.

“We wanted to do something new and fresh, yet timeless,” says Bryan Schmidt of Semple Brown, who worked on the interior design of the concert hall. “This is the first concert hall I designed, so there was a tremendous learning curve, but at least I didn't have any preconceived ideas about what we couldn't do. I had no model already in my mind.”

With his mind open to the design challenge, Schmidt went back to the classic notion of a concert hall and discovered the traditional U-shaped shoebox. “We tweaked the shoebox idea to reflect the needs of the student body,” explains Schmidt, who realized that the labor pool would be the students themselves, and that certain decisions should therefore be low-tech.

The Concert Hall

The single-volume (no proscenium arch), 550-seat room is designed for everything from a full symphony orchestra with choir to solo guitar, light opera, or modern dance. Since the room had to respond to a variety of activities, the acoustics became an important element.

Mahoney worked with Schmidt to create a room with variable acoustics that could be changed according to the type of event on the schedule. Schmidt incorporated what he calls “the big gesture of folded panels” along the side walls of the room. “These cream-colored panels became the driving force for the design,” he says, adding that the acoustic panels also pull the eye forward as they curve in and embrace the stage.

Made of gypsum board with a full painted plaster skin, the panels have angular shapes to help diffuse the sound in the hall and avoid parallel reflections across the space. There is also a series of acoustic draperies made of absorptive fabric and manufactured by Texas Scenic in San Antonio. This includes 11 curtain tracks, with 600' of track along the walls and ceiling, and 1,200' of operating line. The manually operated curtains were installed by SECOA, the stage equipment company based in Champlin, MN.

The acoustic curtains are hung along the side walls and back wall, as well as on the stage to help make the orchestra reflector less “bouncy” if need be. There are additional curtains hung from the ceiling above the acoustic reflectors that run parallel over the stage to create the ceiling; some of the panels act solely as acoustic reflectors, while others conceal lighting positions. The reflectors help control the reflection time in the room, while the acoustic draperies dampen the reverberation times. An additional acoustic panel is hung over the audience to hide followspot positions.

Catwalks strategically located above the reflectors provide flexible lighting opportunities. The side walls of the stage have self-masking doors that pivot to allow performers to enter without allowing the audience to see into the wings. The doors disappear into the wall surrounding the stage when not in use.

The color scheme of the room is simple, with the stage floor and walls a warm, golden maple. The cream panels on the wall create a visual accent, while the rest of the room is painted a deep purple, or eggplant. “The walls are designed to go away in performance mode, so that you see the folded panels and the golden glow of the stage,” notes Schmidt.

The stage itself provides a playing space of 1,000 sq. ft., not including the orchestra pit. This does not have a lift but rather a cover, which, when in place, adds an extra 300 sq. ft. to the stage space. Additional seating can be used at the back of the stage with risers for a chorus or audience starting at 12' above stage level. Platforms can be used for orchestra risers. The platforms and pit cover were supplied by Smart Stage of Cape Canaveral, FL; Royal Seating of Cameron, TX, provided the seating.

An additional six catwalks run across the width of the auditorium. These allow for manual refocusing of performance and house lighting instruments, and for access to some of the hand-operated acoustic curtains. The lighting control booth is located at the back of the mezzanine level. There is also a fully enclosed, acoustically isolated followspot booth in the center of the farthest catwalk from the stage, putting it at roughly a 45° angle to the performers; the booth can hold three followspots and is acoustically isolated from the rest of the room. “This was important because you want a steep angle to the soloists and conductor so you don't blind the musicians, who are right behind them,” says Kasefang.

The audio control booth is located at the back of the orchestra level, with a remote mixing position in the middle of the hall. Seats can be removed when this position is used, and conduit runs from the stage via troughs in the floor. The infrastructure for a sound system is in place, but purchase of the sound systems for the facility has been delayed pending additional funding.

The audio infrastructure is based around AMX Auto Patch routing switchers and ADC patchbays. The paging system has Crest, Crown, and Rane components. The intercom system is by Clear-Com. MCSI Media Consultants in Englewood, CO, will be the supplier. The eventual system, once complete, will be a left-center-right system with accommodations for effects speakers throughout.

The lighting equipment, specified by Public Assembly Consultants and supplied and installed by Barbizon Lighting in Denver, includes an ETC Express 24/48 console, three ETC SR48 dimmer racks, ETC opto-splitters, SSRC connector strips and drop boxes, Union Connector company switches, and ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PAR MCMs.

Worklights are controlled through GE TLC relay cabinets with DMX driver cards by Pathway Connectivity. “Most importantly, since this space was to have a theatrical performance component, facilities were provided to allow the easy accommodation of portable racks and trusses,” adds Kasefang.

For Schmidt, the biggest challenge in the design of this space was learning a new theatrical vocabulary and set of skills. But the learning paid off. “What is really rewarding,” he says, “is not the ego trip of seeing the space yourself, but hearing the person next to you say, ‘This is really amazing.’”

The Eugenia Rawls Theatre

Andrew Moss, of Semple Brown, worked on the design of the Eugenia Rawls Theatre. “This is a very flexible space,” he says. The shape of the room can be changed from in the round to proscenium, thrust, or almost any imaginable configuration using a combination of two fixed seating towers, two pivoting towers that weigh approximately 27,000lbs and move on air casters over removable platforms. Each of the towers has three levels of seating for a total of 350 seats, all of which are loose chairs. “The audience can move their chairs up and look over the rails,” Moss adds. There are removable rows of fixed seats that can be used on the floor, according to the stage configuration. Corporate Source of Denver, CO, supplied the seating.

This theatre is a big box with 50 custom-designed playing platforms provided by Smart Stage. The backside of the towers can create a lobby within the box, but outside the playing area if desired. The color scheme of the room is a dark blue-black on the masonry walls mixed with the natural cast concrete of the towers. “There are also a few drywall areas that are painted bright red,” notes Moss. “The room has a huge window with a blackout screen that's used during performances. When the window is open, you can see the red from across the street. It announces the theatre.”

The remaining masonry walls are designed with recessed 2" × 8" nailing blocks, which allow scenic elements to be put into place anywhere in the room. “The intent is that performances can take place virtually everywhere in the box,” says Moss. “The audience can even be inside the set.”

As Kasefang explains it, “The design goal was to have a flexible performance space with a real sense of place and a variety of architectural assets that could be incorporated in a production or left in the background according to the will of the end users.”

The floor in this space is fully trapped to a distance 12' below the stage. There is also a full flytower over the “stage” if used in proscenium configuration. SECOA installed a basic rigging package with 28 linesets on 12" centers. The company also supplied 123' of curtain track and 340' of operating line for moveable draperies.

“The biggest challenge in this space was the question of using a fire curtain or not,” notes Boltin. “In any case, a fire curtain would not have worked in a room like this.” After much discussion with local and state officials, including the fire marshal, the decision was made to use a deluge system over the entire theatre. The water comes directly from the building's water supply, with a pump and a backup generator. “There is a huge drain in the trap room in case the water is used,” says Boltin.

The Eugenia Rawls Theatre also has an ETC lighting system with an ETC Expression 3 console, four ETC SR48 dimmer racks, two remote-focus units, two universes of DMX with 25 outputs per universe, 26 ethernet ports, four ETC MDR prioritizers, 12 ETC MDD opto-splitters, and one ETC Express LPC 192. Power distribution is via SSRC connector strips and drop boxes, with a Union Connector company switch. Lighting fixtures include ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PAR MCMs.

Each of the colleges sharing the King Center has its own production studio, each of which has an ETC lighting system with Express consoles, two ETC SR48 dimmer racks, and Pathway Connectivity opto-splitters. Lighting instruments in the studios include Strand SL ellipsoidals, Strand 6" 1kW fresnelites, Strand Iris three-light cyc units, Altman PAR-64s, L&E Mircofill, and Wybron Forerunner scrollers, as well as six-circuit multi distribution.

The studios are basically 2,000-sq.-ft. black boxes with tension grids installed by SECOA. These cover the entire box with panels measuring 6'-8" square (approximately 50 panels per room). Rigging points above can be used to pull them out if an open space is desired or to replace them with multiples of the 3'-4" × 6'-8" stage platforms. “You could even put the audience up there if you wanted,” notes Boltin.

The panels are built of steel channel and are suspended by steel rods sheathed in steel pipe to allow connection of lighting fixtures and other elements. There is also a system of perimeter catwalks midway up the side walls, which are used for seating as well as additional sound or lighting positions. “The goal was to get as much 1½" pipe in there as possible,” says Boltin. The walls in these studios also have nail boards to facilitate creative scenic design.

All of the performance spaces are tied to a central music-recording studio. “They have an active electronic music and recording program and we wanted to give them the capacity to really stretch their boundaries,” says Kasefang.

Also common to all spaces is the stage manager's control system. “This system allows the stage manager to set the status of a space with mastering buttons: night, work, rehearsal, or show,” says Kasefang. This system controls worklights, show relay (audio and video), basic houselight presets, telephone ringers, and the routing of program to the intercom system, through state mastering or through individual controls.

“Another significant design challenge was how to integrate a modest number of dressing rooms with a generous number of performance spaces,” Kasefang explains. “We always like to have a paging/show relay system setup, so that when a stage manager pages, that page is carried to those who need to hear it but not to those who would find the information irrelevant.

“To respond to this challenge, we provided the technical director with the capacity to assign specific dressing rooms, blocks of dressing rooms, or even adjacent classrooms to a given performance space. Once that dressing room is assigned to a space, an indicator on the volume control displays which theatre is being monitored and paged from. The next challenge was to deal with corridors shared by multiple spaces. The solution was to have the paging system automatically route pages to each shared space based on which spaces were using its dressing rooms,” Kasefang continues. The system was created using AMX logic controllers and Autopatch routing switchers.

The stage manager's system was also designed to provide the user interface for architectural lighting control, so that worklights and houselights may be controlled through local switches, the stage manager's console, or the lighting console. “Using the room status information from the stage manager's system, the local switches change function,” says Kasefang.

“For instance, the local control at the rail in the theatre will turn the white lights on or off during night or work mode, but when the stage manager's system is in rehearsal or performance mode, the blue lights are controlled with this switch. We found that when we have a logic controller in the system, we can utilize a lighting playback controller with a simple MIDI or RS-232 interface to give a more sophisticated level of control with a more familiar user interface than the traditional architectural controllers offer.”

Boltin says, “The infrastructure is in the building so that they can continue to update systems and accommodate future advances in technology, and the spaces can all be networked on a temporary or permanent basis.”

From the design and technology point of view, the building meets the varied criteria of the triple-faceted user group. “There was a lot of interaction and this was a real team project,” says Schmidt, on behalf of the architects at Semple Brown. “Each space has its own identity, yet there is a common design thread throughout.”

King Center photo: ©2001 Andrew Kramer