Shake, Rattle, and Roll at the Texas Spirit Theatre

“It's a permanent museum show with many similarities to a theme park attraction, but we didn't have the built-in advantages of being in a theme park. The entire theatre had to be designed around the show.”
Ted Ferreira, City Design Group

The Texas Spirit Theatre at Bob Bullock's Texas State History Museum in Austin shows how themed entertainment design techniques and technologies can be applied to serve an educational mission, maintain precise curatorial accuracy, and still be entertaining. The 200-seat theatre is the highlight attraction of the new museum, an $80-million project that opened its doors April 21. Its main show is the 16-minute, multimedia Star of Destiny.

In this case, a special-effects venue was integrated with traditional theatre design. Designer and producer BRC Imagination Arts was responsible for both the show and the custom theatre, which is equipped to double as a dramatic theatre, 35mm cinema, and lecture hall.

“We combined a traditional fly system, theatrical sets, and classic scrim technology with modern A/V, lighting, and effects to create a show with a lot of dimensionality,” says BRC project manager Suzy Vanderbeek. Unfolding in triptych form in the three-stage, proscenium theatre, Star of Destiny provides an encapsulated history of Texas, hosted by Sam Houston and complete with lightning, storms, stars, grasshoppers, a rocket launch, the Alamo, the Civil War, the Battle of San Jacinto, the Galveston hurricane, gushing oil wells, and rattlesnakes.

The Texas Spirit Theatre is also designed to function as a storytelling theatre. Its library of cues and special effects can be easily programmed for a live actor to use. BRC has scripted several additional shows on Texas history topics, and the first will be added early next year. “Part of the fun was taking ancient theatre technology and adding state-of-the-art technical components,” says BRC show systems manager Mike Chisman. BRC chairman Bob Rogers calls it “the magic theatre.” His company is providing a similar theatre for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL.

The client's core project team included Rick Crawford, state preservation board executive director; Bonnie Campbell, project manager and museum executive officer, Lynn Denton, museum director; David Denney, director of public programming; and Robert Pirtle, staff project architect. “This was a really smart group. They knew they were doing something a bit different,” says Vanderbeek. “They worked closely with us on content and historical accuracy, making sure that fun didn't sacrifice history.”

The museum architect was E. Vernor Johnson. Additional vendors on the project include Electrosonic Systems, Inc., Scenario Design Inc./Architectural Details LP, Superior Backings, Life Formations, Show FX, Mee Fog Industries, Zinger Consultants, City Design Group, JR Clancy, and Laser Pacific.

BRC brought in people with solid media and theatre backgrounds to work on this project, including Yael Pardess as scenic designer and Charles Otte as creative director.

Rigging contractor JR Clancy supplied an assisted counterweight rigging system for the proscenium-style triptych theatre. “The real difference between this and a community theatre is that the main show is permanent,” says Clancy's Pete Szitavsky. The equipment is industrial-duty, suitable to run 30 shows a day, seven days a week. The rig has an efficient motor and a smaller winch, good for situations where you know the loads aren't going to change. And smaller components are important when a space is as crammed with gear as this one.” The gear includes 19 linesets, 10 of them motorized. Two were left free for other uses. There are nine deadhaul winches, three projection scrims, three Austrian curtains, and three fire curtains, all provided by JR Clancy.

A PLC controller also supplied by JR Clancy runs the scenery fly and receives serial commands from Electrosonic's proprietary ESCAN show control system, which is Windows NTSC-based and controls all devices, including video servers and the lighting system. “The challenge in automated applications is interlocking and keeping it safe,” remarks Szitavsky. “You need to know somebody's watching the load move.” Light beam sensors, door sensors, and E-stops form part of the safety system.

“It took almost two weeks just to program the fly itself. The timing of the show was so quick, JR Clancy reprogrammed some of its software to let multiple flies go at once,” says Bryan Hinckley, who as Electrosonic's project manager and site engineer did all the show programming. “Some things happen only 10 frames apart. It's an incredibly complex show,” he adds.

“Everything was a slave to SMPTE timecode,” says lighting designer Ted Ferreira of City Design Group. “There are almost 200 cues in the 16-minute show. You wouldn't even approach that figure in a regular theatrical production.”

The biggest challenge for Hinckley was reconciling irregular screen sizes and disparate projection systems — a combination of high-definition digital projectors including a Digital Projection 10sx DLP projector with a xenon lamp and four Sanyo PLC-XF10NZ LCD projectors with metal halide lamps. Initial plans called for NTSC on the side stages and 35mm film in the center, but the designers realized that significant strides would be made in digital projection in the several years that would ensue before installation, and wanted to benefit from those improvements and reduce operational costs. They finally settled on high definition on all three screens. The center screen is 35' wide and 16½' high. “All the material is encoded at 1080i so our source has 1,080 lines and 1,920 pixels per frame but the projector's top resolution is 1,280 × 1,024,” says Hinckley. “We needed to maximize the number of lines projected on the screen both for image quality and light output. We didn't want to create artifacts by downscaling the HD signal across the DMD chip, so instead of using the complete 1,920 × 1,080, LaserPacific created a custom mask using 1,280 pixels × 610 lines in post-production. This maximizes the projector's pixel structure and light output while taking into account the screen's wide aspect ratio. Light output was also a concern, since about 40% of light passes through the scrims and is not reflected back at the audience.”

The Christie 35mm projector was supplied by Electrosonic and the theatre also has a Kodak Ektragraphic III ATM slide projector.

City Design Group was contracted by BRC to design and install lighting, lighting control, and electrical systems and to provide lighting equipment. The latter task was subcontracted to Fourth Phase, except for the dimming systems, which were provided by the general contractor. Ferreira worked with his project manager and associate designer, Teresa Enroth. “A lot happens in that show,” says Ferreira. “Very tight spaces were the biggest single challenge. We had a lot of different positions to work off of; we took whatever spot was free. With the wraparound stage, the audience is virtually in the show. It's very, very integrated: there are things in the floor, in the walls, in the seats, in the ceiling. And the sightlines vary a lot, depending on where a person sits. BRC didn't want the audience to be able to see fixtures because it would give away the magic. And the show had to be good from every seat. Plus, you have a lot of drops and transitions.” He was pleased with what they accomplished amid all these physical and technical restrictions, and gives Pardess a lot of credit. “You can't see any lighting fixture from anywhere in the theatre,” he says. “Yael was extremely perceptive about masking the lighting as well as the speakers and other elements.”

Ferreira describes the lighting itself as “fairly conventional.” It includes ETC Sensor dimming racks and ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, an Edwin Jones Company EN DMX distro system, and blacklights from Wildfire for U/V lighting on drops (painted by Superior Backings). Cyc and groundrow fixtures were provided by L&E Lighting and Altman supplied MR-16 floods and framing projectors. EFX Plus 2 projectors from City Theatrical were used to create effects, including driving rain and clouds of grasshoppers. “Before the projected image disappears, you see moving grasshoppers on the scrims. It's very subtle,” Ferreira adds. Apollo provided custom dichroic gobos for other effects, such as an image of dawn rising behind the state capital with star-shaped clouds that dissolves into the Texas state flag. A Horizon control system from Rosco/ET handles the show lighting playback. Gel colors are from Special F/X Lighting in Utah. “Since this is a long-running museum show, we put in long-life lamps that will probably last three years or more, using semi-permanent color in very saturated colors. On the very hot fixtures, we used colored glass or dichroics.”

An important part of the magic is well hidden in the plush seats. Notes Chisman, “A big part of R&D was concealing the effects devices in the animated seats. Often, in a special-effects venue, you know something's up because there are these molded seats with vents.” The comfortable seats make it that much more of a surprise when an air bladder effect, simulating a rattlesnake in each seat, makes everyone jump in unison.

The theatre also had to be protected from the physical consequences of its own effects. A rain effect, using 12 custom-designed misters from Show FX, releases six cups of moisture into the air per show. “We Scotchgarded the seats and looked at how it affected HVAC,” says Chisman. “We found that the humidity levels in the room aren't affected by the system. Fifty-percent humidity is normal, and the air conditioning has a drying effect anyway.”

“Wherever possible, we avoided using smoke or anything with chemicals or oil that would damage the scrim,” says Stephen Doolittle of Scenario Design, which fabricated the cannon and other scenic elements for Texas Spirit. “We did have to use a minimal amount of real smoke in order to get the cannon to blow a smoke ring through the scrim.” The cannon itself was part of the dramatization of the Battle of San Jacinto. According to Charlie Anderson, Scenario's project manager, the weapon, fabricated of fiberglass and wood, is a meticulous reproduction of the real thing, slightly scaled down. References included a historic painting of the event, and input from numerous cannon restoration enthusiasts. The cannon smoke effect was plumbed into the barrel and down into the floor. Sixteen fog boxes from Mee Fog on the stage apron and in the sets simulate additional smoke for the battle, and also flowing surf during the Galveston hurricane.

“Materials were a challenge,” reports Anderson. “There was a lot of scrim work with three-dimensional sets behind the scrims. The client needed it to be as real as possible. There are real native shrubs and grasses in the sets, uncoated but dipped in fire retardant. Ruth Suser Designs preserved and supplied them, picked and cut to specific needs. They were selected with curatorial accuracy down to the species of oak-tree leaf in the San Jacinto region at the time.”

Getting the details of the unique Texas weather right was just as important. With the exception of the stylized, star-shaped clouds that appear over the state capitol in the finale, the clouds represented on the painted drops are faithful to the region and very specific. Transducers in the seats help create the thunderstorm rumble, along with the audio mix. Electrosonic provided a 32-channel audio system. An Akai DR-16pro supplies 16 channels of digital playback for the main show while a Dolby CP-45 film audio decoder, wired microphones, and wireless microphones allow for flexible audio sources. A Peavey MediaMatrix DSP audio processor digitally processes and distributes the audio to more than 75 loudspeakers and 197 seat transducers.

The nine-channel, surround-sound system includes 21 Crown amplifiers, five JBL loudspeakers, six PAS subwoofers, 12 Peavey surround-sound speakers, and seven Tannoy speakers. Main front speakers are positioned high along the front of the proscenium, supported by additional left-center-right speakers and point-source speakers onstage, as well as 47 zone speakers distributed underneath the seats. The final sound mix was done live, in-house.

According to Chisman, some unique elements were added to involve guests with disabilities. “The locations for guests in wheelchairs have transducers beneath a steel plate,” he says. “The first crack of thunder activates the transducers and the rumble passes up through the chair.” For the hearing-impaired, Rear Window LED captioning is provided, as well as two different audio tracks with hearing assist. For the sight-impaired, there is a descriptive channel that describes what's happening onstage, in between lines of dialogue.

“It's a permanent museum show with many similarities to a theme park attraction,” remarks Ferreira, “but we didn't have the built-in advantages of being in a theme park. The entire theatre had to be designed around the show, and the BRC team was as active in designing the facility as the show.”

“The physical aspects of the production were formidable and required a lot of coordination,” confirms Vanderbeek. “The final show depended on a very precise integration of many different elements — stage hardware, show systems, lighting, special effects, and theatrical components. But from a storytelling standpoint, the Texas Spirit Theatre was a relatively easy project — and fun. Texans are such personalities. There really is a Texas spirit — resourceful, independent. It doesn't take much to wake it up.”

Photo: courtesy BRC Imagination Arts