Renovating Memphis' The Playhouse On The Square Meant Recreating Chicago's Steppenwolf
The Playhouse On The Square is in Memphis, but when the venue decided it needed a new theatre to accommodate the dramas, comedies, and musicals it stages, artistic director Jackie Nichols visited Chicago to talk to technicians and stage managers at Steppenwolf, a theatre he loves. He asked them what they would do differently if they had to build the theatre again. When they said they wouldn’t change a thing, he contacted John Morris of Morris Architects Planners, chief architect on the Steppenwolf project. Then Morris contacted Talaske, the audio and video consulting firm that had worked with him on it. Todd Hensley and Joshua Grossman, theatre planners with Schuler Shook, would complete the team.
And as soon as he had his dream team in place, Nichols picked up a paintbrush and a hammer and went to work.
But we are getting ahead of our story.
“Jackie Nichols wanted a two-thirds scale version of Steppenwolf in many respects, with perhaps a less brutalist aesthetic,” Grossman recalls. Nichols says he wanted the intimacy and design of Steppenwolf but with open lobbies and a lot of windows.
“One of the goals was to present a lively façade,” Morris says. “A lot of traffic passes it every day, so seeing into the lobby was important. The activity inside can be contagious…We wanted to telegraph that to the outside.” The new facility would feature a 350-seat Broadway-style proscenium theatre, in a size appropriate to the company, with sideboxes, a balcony, and tiered orchestra seating. It would be at once grand and intimate. An orchestra pit, elevators, traps, wing space for stage wagons, and a fly system were crucial, too. The building would also contain an art gallery, rehearsal room, scene shop, and an extensive lobby space and roof deck for public gatherings.
Public spaces would be included in this new building, with support spaces on the first three floors of a five-story office building that stood on the lot they purchased. “The office building was somewhat down at the heels,” Morris says. “It was a minimal building anyway, with 9' floor-to-floor heights, which makes the rooms 8'-high everywhere.” The building would suffice for offices, a costume shop, wardrobe storage, dressing rooms—anything that didn’t require height. They would allow the top two floors to be rented to other arts organizations at low cost.
The Playhouse had made its home in an old movie theatre Elvis used to rent for screening parties. It stood across the street from what would become the new venue and would continue to be used, mainly for youth theatre programming and smaller productions. “It has great historic meaning,” Morris reflects, adding that he wanted to create a sense of procession from one theatre to the other.
The lot was large enough for the new construction and easily accessible. The weather in Memphis was warm, even during the winter. Problems? Why should there be any? Except maybe the New Madrid fault line—the city of Memphis sits on it, and the building would have to be constructed to withstand earthquakes.
And except maybe FedEx, headquartered in Memphis and flying planes right over the theatre, starting late in the evening before some shows are over. There is also some commercial flight traffic over the theatre lot. The Talaske group would have to isolate the new building from noise.
Another challenge was to translate characteristics of Steppenwolf into a space with a different seat count for a somewhat different use. Steppenwolf doesn’t do musicals. Speech clarity is important to both theatres when doing non-musicals, but heavily amplified musicals require absorption. Could Talaske consultants provide both on a budget for just one of these requirements?
“Typically, a production at a regional theatre utilizes the audio system for sound effects with occasional voice reinforcement and music playback,” says Talaske audio consultant Aaron Downey. “Musicals and modern productions, however, often require the use of a large number of wireless microphones on actors and a reinforced pit orchestra. At the Playhouse, these types of shows are staged often. While the room is small enough and is acoustically designed to support unreinforced vocals and musicians very well, modern musicals often call for higher impact sound reinforcement.”
None of the solutions were impossible to find. What was a challenge was doing it all without going over budget. The bid came in at $10.5M for the new construction. With the help of Morgan Freeman, honorary chair of the capital campaign, the Playhouse on the Square had raised $8.5M. Nichols knew theatres were closing their doors because of unpaid debts, and he resolved to do the project without borrowing anything. But how? “You don’t take two million dollars out of the budget by changing the doorknob style,” he says. Could he cut costs without compromising the stage and production capacity?
To deal with the potential for an earthquake, the team had to design the structural system to include a massive steel frame. “The stage system has the most massive steel framing I’ve ever seen in a stage house of this size,” says Grossman. Morris says large gusset plates helped create a rigid structure.
The steel proved useful acoustically, as it helped diffuse the sound in the stage house. “We didn’t have to put as much absorption on the walls to control echoes when the stage is empty,” says Gregory Miller, Talaske acoustical consultant. A hefty roof slab protects the theatre from airplane noise. “There is no finished ceiling on the space. You see the underside of the roof structure. The roof itself has a floating double slab system with a rubber interlayer between the theatre and the exterior,” adds Miller. Those inside the new space have never heard a plane.
How could they make the room work for musicals as well as plays? Downey says that, to properly hear and mix a show, it’s important for a sound technician to spend time in the house when a lot of microphones are in use. “A mix position out in the audience is a common sight at music concerts,” he explains. “In regional theatres, the audio operator typically works within an enclosed or partially enclosed booth, with cabling infrastructure to allow for a temporary in-house mixing position for shows using more sound reinforcement. At the Playhouse, the exception is the rule, and a permanent mix position within the seating area was required.” The Talaske team worked closely with Morris to place this in-house booth in a location that provided a good listening environment, sightlines to the stage, and easy access in and out of the theatre.
“The key to accommodating both amplified and unamplified sound was controlling the bass,” says Miller, who distributed areas of thick absorption around the room, particularly at ceiling level to tighten the bass response. “We did that without variable acoustics because of budget,” he notes.
To save money, refined architectural finishes were limited to lobby spaces. A desired “green” roof that would have cost an extra quarter of a million dollars also went by the boards. Some sophisticated machinery had to go, but the stage has a trap room with sets of platforms to cover a counterweight rigging system that will serve the theatre well.
“We took out about 15' at the top of the fly house,” Nichols says. This means that, when repairs are necessary, crews have to access the space from a Genie lift, which isn’t as easy as walking around a grid, but the diminished space cuts air conditioning and heating costs over the years. “The theatre company has been around for 25 some years and never worked in a theatre with fly space,” Grossman says. “This is an enormous leap forward in terms of technical abilities.” For more savings, instead of building a new scene shop from scratch, they purchased a prefab building and linked it to the theatre via a crossover corridor.
Most dramatically, Nichols took the cost of renovating the office building out of the construction budget, allowing himself $400,000 to do the renovation with a good deal of donated materials and volunteer labor, largely his own. He started the theatre in 1963, when he was still in high school, and turned it into a professional theatre in 1975. “When you start like that, you learn how to fix the plumbing, how to build things, how to paint, how to talk to construction people,” he says.
For about two years, his volunteer team painted the outside of the building, planted gardens, did assorted carpentry projects like putting in dressing tables, improving the lighting, pulling up carpet and the glue that held it, staining the floor to look like reptilian skin, and more. And that brought construction costs down to $8.5M.
“There’s a lot of strip mall activity in the area, so we wanted to hold the corner to make an urban statement,” says Morris, who kept the entrance at the corner. Spectators pass the theatre from either side. “As you walk by the huge glass windows, you can look across the street and get a sense of where the company has been and where it is going.”
Davi Napoleon is a longtime contributor to Live Design, is also a theatre columnist for The Faster Times. Her book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, is the story of how the funding crisis in the arts destroyed a critically acclaimed theatre company, once in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.