Theatre consultant Kevin Curry remembers catching the theatre bug as a student, lighting productions in his high school’s "gymnatorium," basically a stage at the end of a gym. Years later, after Curry turned his love for theatre into a career, he landed back at his alma mater—Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, VA—in that very same gymnatorium collaborating with architect Roger Bass, acoustician Neil Thompson Shade, and Tom Kennedy of Barbizon Lighting on the design-build of a brand-new 783–seat multi-use theatre.
One of the most impressive high school venues in northern Virginia, the $6–million state-of-the-art Whaley Auditorium was almost an afterthought at conception, an idea that grew out of an earlier project to convert the parochial high school from all-boys to co-ed. "At the time we did the co-ed conversion, the administration decided to build new classes as well as a new auditorium," explains Bass of McLean, VA–based Bass Architects Chartered. "We incorporated the auditorium into the planning of the new classrooms, but pretty soon the new auditorium became the dominant feature, not just an auditorium, but a band wing with offices and rehearsal spaces."
The reason for the added investment was Bishop Ireton’s award-winning music program, led by musical director Garwood Whaley (who the auditorium was named after). The good old gymnatorium had served the school since 1964, but all agreed it was no longer adequate, acoustically and otherwise, to house the popular music program and its growing audiences.
The auditorium project quickly morphed into a concert hall project, and by the time Curry was brought onboard in 1996, the space was to be adapted for theatrical productions as well. Curry, now the school’s technical director, supervised the rigging, lighting, and sound installation and met the challenge the rest of the design team faced: accommodate the multi-use needs of the school within parameters set by zoning restrictions and very sensitive neighbors.
"It took several years of negotiations with the city and the neighbors to get approval for the project at all, and the height of the building was an issue," explains Bass, who says the site’s hillside topography became both a blessing and a curse. "The hill allowed us to have good sightlines for seating because we followed the slope of the hill in the design. But there was also a slope going up toward the neighbors on the other side of the auditorium and they were very vocal about keeping the building height low there."
As a result, the original stage design, which incorporated a 48'–high, four–story flytower, was abandoned and the height was trimmed to 38’ with a 28’–high proscenium arch, a 48’–wide proscenium, and 37’–deep stage from apron to back wall. "The space limitations left us with a 10’ fly space," says Curry. "So I designed a 12' grand valance with a 10' black teaser behind so we can bring that down and create a straight one-to-one fly space."
When it came time to spec and supply a lighting system that could both accommodate concert and theatrical performances, Curry enlisted fellow Bishop Ireton alum and former technical director Tom Kennedy of Barbizon Lighting in Alexandria. Sizing up the existing equipment was a nostalgic step back in time for Curry and Kennedy. "I was painfully familiar with the old system," Kennedy laughs.
"It was ancient equipment, 20 or 30 years old," adds Curry. "I didn’t use any of it in the new space. We actually loan that equipment out to the elementary schools and it's useful if we need a spare light."
But it isn’t often that the new facility is in need of a spare light, as Curry and Kennedy are quick to point out. "It’s one of the few systems I’ve been involved in that has as many fixtures as I want," says Kennedy. "There are 244 fixtures and 288 dimmers for a stage that’s 48’ wide by 28’ deep. That’s a nice density."
The $500,000 state-of-the-art lighting and rigging system includes: 52 ETC Source Fours, 36 ETC Source Four PARs, 40 Altman 8" fresnels, 10 Altman Zooms, and two Martin Trackspots. The lighting controller is one of the first ETC Insight 3s, which has distributed DMX, networking capabilities (although it’s not networked at this time) and remote-focus capabilities in the house and in two front-of-house catwalks (which happen to be dedicated to Curry). There is also series of double-purchase counterweight systems for rigging.
For placement, Curry designed a standard hanging plot with a nod to Stanley McCandless’ classic five–point lighting scheme. "There are five acting areas across, four deep with five–point lighting to each acting area, and then there are a number of specials," he explains. "I tell my students, ‘Don’t move the general acting lights, move your specials around.’ So for 85% of the functions, they don’t have to go up and refocus lights."
Curry was also very aware he needed to tailor the professional lighting system to non-professional users. To this end, he incorporated five presets into the house system, run by an ETC Unison controller, to make it operator-friendly for anyone using the auditorium. "With five buttons, they can set five different lighting looks in the theatre," says Curry. "Any teacher coming in can push a button and get flat lights for an assembly. If they’re doing a concert rehearsal, they can push another button and the bandshell lights will come on. If they’re doing custodial work, another set of worklights come on and that way we don’t burn out the theatre lights."
Sound of Music
To optimize the acoustics of the auditorium, Bass brought in frequent collaborator Neil Thompson Shade of Falls Church, VA–based Acoustical Design Collaborative Ltd. Washington Professional Systems (WPS) out of Wheaton, MD, was the sound system contractor. Dave Leister was WPS’ project manager.
Like Curry and Kennedy, Shade’s mission was to create an acoustical design that would not only showcase the high level of musicianship at the school, but could be converted for drama and school activities.
A main component of the concert hall design is a Wenger Diva acoustical shell that is adjustable to accommodate different size musicals groups and can be flown out for theatrical productions. Shade says the school administration insisted on a stage shell, an unusual request at the high school level. "In my experience, a lot of schools don’t initially plan for a stage shell and it’s almost never budgeted for," he explains. "It’s very important for sound quality, especially if the school has a music program, to plan for a stage shell with overhead ceiling reflecting panels." It wasn’t too difficult for Shade to improve upon the old gym setup, which was acoustically challenged to say the least due to limited reverberation and very high sound levels. Shade’s master plan in the new auditorium was to have appropriate reverberation time (1.8 seconds) and strong lateral, or side wall, reflections which were enhanced by the trapezium shape of the space. "The stage is some what of a fan shape and it reaches a wide point in the middle of the room and then returns back in toward the centerline," Shade says. "The shape of the room helps promote good strong lateral or side wall reflections particularly toward the back of the room."
Side walls are composed of custom-made 3/4" maple veneer plywood panels, three high and five across, that have been braced randomly to minimize excess low-frequency absorption. The panels were stepped and double-angled, down from the ceiling towards the floor and then in towards the centerline of the room, to enhance the strength of the lateral side wall reflections.
To help promote early reflections at the ceiling plane, Shade incorporated 10 reflecting clouds across approximately 40% of the ceiling. At the back wall of the auditorium, there are QRD (quadratic residue diffusing) panels manufactured by RPG Diffusor Products.
Although an orchestra pit was not part of the original design, Curry consulted with the architect to design removable center seating in the first three rows. "We have an orchestra pit when we need it; if we don’t, that’s 60 more seats we have in the space," he says.
The Renkus-Heinz CE125T speaker system is set up as a split central cluster with one stack directly above the proscenium line along the center of the room that covers the front half of the audience and another located mid-house that covers the rest of the seating. The system has a Peavey IDL1000 signal delay line and QSC CX6 and CX4T power amplifiers. Assistive listening is accomplished through a Williams WIR IR system.
The mic package includes: four Shure MX202 hanging microphones above the stage for reinforcement of choral and drama performances, Shure BETA87 handheld mics, and Crown PCC160 boundary layer mics. The intercom system is a Telex US2000 series with an EV CH230 production intercom microphone.
In an effort to save money, some existing sound equipment was also put to use, including Shure SM58s and 57s, which Curry is in the process of replacing with new models. The original Mackie 12 mixing console has been loaned out to the athletic department and was replaced by a Mackie 24-8.
In addition to the auditorium, Shade engineered sound for a musical rehearsal suite for the band and choir and several practice rooms. "The major issue was getting adequate ceiling height in the rehearsal rooms and stay within the exterior height ordinance required by the city," he says. "In the band room, there are a series of sound absorptive and sound-diffusive panels on all of the wall surfaces and ceiling surfaces."
Now in its third year, the Whaley Auditorium serves not only the high school’s ambitious music and theatrical presentations (including recent productions of Sound of Music and Star Mites,), but has generated revenue for the school renting to local performance groups. In fact, many Washington, DC–area Army, Navy, and Marine service bands have used Bishop Ireton’s auditorium as their primary recording venue. "We’re not a road house, but we do rent the auditorium and whenever anybody rents the facility, they do so in conjunction with the technical director and two students," says Curry. "It’s an education process for the students, and they gain work experience they normally wouldn’t in high school."
Curry and Kennedy are reminded that the old days of putting on a show in the gymnatorium are long gone. "We even found a couple of students who’ve gone on to college-level theatre who come back and say we may have done them a disservice," Kennedy laughs. "The college theatres they’re working in don’t size up to Bishop Ireton."
photos: Alan Karchmer