Located at the University of California San Diego, the new Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre is part of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center Performing Arts, the newest member of a vibrant arts complex on the college campus, which now has a total of six performance venues, including The Mandell Weiss Theatre and the Weiss Forum Theatre. The Potiker Theatre opened in February 2005 with La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Private Fittings, a French farce, directed by La Jolla artistic director Des McAnuff, and with sets designed by Neil Patel (a UCSD alumni) and lighting by Howell Binkley.
In addition to the Potiker Theatre, the Jacobs Center includes the Play Development Center, Seuss One and Seuss Two Rehearsal Rooms, sound and design studios, shop support space, a storage warehouse, The Charmaine and Maury Kaplan Administrative offices for the La Jolla Playhouse, a restaurant (currently slated for completion in summer 2005), and Gregory Peck Park (also for summer 2005). The La Jolla Playhouse performs in any or all of these theatres throughout the season, sharing the spaces with the UCSD department of theatre and dance.
"We share the same production staff," says Chris Parry, lighting designer and head of the design program at UCSD. "This gives our design students access to the same professional-level staff that the La Jolla Playhouse has. This is a professional training program and we try to give the students the same experience they would have in a regional theatre."
Of the black box genre, the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre was designed as a joint venture between Fisher Sehgal Yanez Architects and RoTo Architects. The theatre consultant was Matt Dirk Fischer, an associate at John Sergio Fisher & Associates in San Francisco. Typical of a black box, the Potiker features a flexible seating system that can be configured in multiple ways, to accommodate productions by both the La Jolla Playhouse and the UCSD students, yet it is large for a black box and holds audiences of up to 450 people.
Measuring 70’ x 80’ 8" to its perimeter walls, the Potiker is larger than a typical black box, and also has a large trapped area of 18’ x 20’ (with 4’ x 6’ panels) that is uncommon in a theatre of this sort. A tension grid sits 24’ above the floor, with 34’ to the bottom of roof trusses, and 40’ to the roof deck. There are a total of 120 seating risers manufactured by Stage Right Corporation, with portable seating by Wenger Corporation. "The risers are manually moved on casters," explains Fischer. "You can roll large sections and lock them in place by disengaging the casters so that the columns of the risers sit directly on the floor."
The Potiker also features a tension grid with removable modules: the total grid size of 40’ 4" x 64’ 4" represents an assembly of 40 modules, 18 of which are removable for a maximum 24’ x 48’ opening. "This is perhaps the only black box with removable modules in a tension grid," says Fischer. "Flexibility was paramount and the grid provides highly flexible lighting positions across a majority of the black box to complement lighting positions on the perimeter rail and catwalk." Fischer wanted to provide lighting positions that were low enough to get the proper angles. "But low positions limit the fly space," he explains. The 8’-square removable sections of the grid can be taken out as needed to solve that problem.
Stagecraft Industries manufactured and installed this custom-designed grid system, designed in conjunction with Fischer. "Only the 8’-wide perimeter of the grid is fixed," he adds. "The removable sections were originally designed to pivot up but we nixed that to have them completely removed. "The modules and suspension structure can be raised up by chain hoists above the grid, and dropped into the trap room in the center of the space for storage."
There are five chain hoist trolley beams running the full length of the room on the underside of the roof trusses. The grid is hung from the ceiling and care was taken to make sure the fixed peri-meter was strong enough. "The perimeter framework is beefier than the typical modules of a tension grid," explains Fischer. The mesh for the grid is 1/8" aircraft cable woven on 2" centers.
A gallery runs around three-sides of black box, and is located 13’ above the main floor with vertically adjustable/removable rails, and can be used for audience and/or performance area. Independently removable outrigger pipes at the edge of the gallery provide additional lighting positions. The control booth sits above the gallery. The lighting system includes an ETC Obsession® console, four ETC Sensor® dimmer racks, and two ETC Unison® dimmer racks for house and lobby lighting. The fixtures include 280 ETC 750W Source Four® ellipsoidals (a mix of 10, 19, 26, and 36 degree) and PARs, plus 40 City Theatrical 6" top hats, 24 2kW Strand 8" Fresnels with barndoors, 12 1000W L&E three-cell broad cyc units, and 12 1000W L&E ground cyc units. The electrical engineer for the project was Syska Hennessy Group, and the lighting was installed by LVH Entertainment Systems. The lighting supervisor for the theatre is Mike Doyle, and the lighting was installed by LVH Entertainment Systems.
The acoustical/AV consultant for the project was McKay Conant Brook, with consultants Kyle M. Ridenour on the AV side and Robert Schmidt for acoustics, with the audio gear supplied by Jeff Grogg of GroggWorks. "They wanted a flexible theatre that could accommodate anything you can think of now or anything anyone will think of in the future," says Schmidt. "We designed the acoustics primarily for speech intelligibility, but were concerned about having enough reflection for the human voice. They can add acoustic reflectors from the ceiling in the future, which I think is a good idea."
Acoustic treatment does include a 2" layer of sound absorptive material on all wall surfaces above the gallery level. "It was decided not to use this on the lower walls as they would be covered by the tiered seating," explains Schmidt. "We settled on a NC25 background noise criteria, yet there were some big challenges." One of these is the fact that there are large air conditioning units with fans attached to the outside wall of the theatre. "We were concerned about noise and vibration from these," says Schmidt. The sound was reduced by the use of custom-designed plenums with 4" of sound absorbent fiberglass behind metal scrims. These helped increase low-frequency attenuation.
Another acoustic challenge is the fact that an outdoor scene shop is right outside of the black box. "They could be building scenery using saws, pneumatic tools, or drills," notes Schmidt. This problem was solved by a double set of noise-isolating doors, with an acoustically rated roll-up door assembly on the outside and a folding air-wall on the inside.
While not many college design programs have access to so many theatres, the proof is in the pudding. With UCSD graduates like Neil Patel coming back to design for the La Jolla Playhouse, the department is on the right track, with a new space like the Potiker adding excitement to the mix.