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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

NYC Field Trip for Savannah's Cultural Art Center

This weekend we travelled to New York City to visit business friends and to see some great theaters—to see how they compare to the one we are designing for Savannah’s Cultural Arts Center. We wanted to learn what the leading performance market in the U.S. was doing; specifically, what trends might be emerging. Technology, seating, acoustics, and flexibility in staging were high on our list of things to benchmark, as well as how the complete experience for an audience was managed and accommodated. Two of the venues we toured and experienced in action were recommended to us by Kyle Smith from Theater Consultants Collaborative, our experts for the Cultural Arts Center design, and the third was one that my wife, Janice, researched.

Our first experience was at the New York City Center, in their midsize theater. Like our location in Savannah, it also had a much larger performance theater and hall just next door. We saw a play by John Patrick Shanley, a Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning writer, called Prodigal Son, about his own troubled teenage years. It was beautifully presented on an open stage in a room with about 370 seats; the score was by Paul Simon, and the acoustics good enough that the actors’ voices could be easily heard throughout the theater without much amplification. The recorded music was mixed so well we couldn’t tell the difference. This play could have been staged in our theater except for the rolling platform scenery, which slid horizontally on and offstage. Otherwise, Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theater will have as good or better lighting and acoustics. One last note: we arrived early, and the lobby area was small and otherwise unaccommodating. Elderly and mobility-challenged people were able to navigate, but with some difficulty.  Savannah patrons will be much better served!

The next theater we visited was 2econd Stage, an off-Broadway theater which also seated about 400 patrons. It was configured much more like our Cultural Arts Theater, but with a more steeply-sloped rake and a narrower width overall. A balcony on one side of the theater contained loose chairs, whereas our Savannah theater will offer seating on both sides.

As at the first venue, there were no ADA accommodations, and we saw several patrons struggle to access the theater and their seats. Again, there was open staging with rolling platforms for scenery, and this time much of the scenery was projected on the rear stage wall. Overall, the lighting was imaginative, and the acoustics were good enough to hear the actors without much amplification, though the scene projectors were noisy enough to be distracting. I should note here that the theater was on 8th Avenue near Times Square—a very busy street. There were large curtained windows looking onto the street, but there no street noise was audible in the theater.

The play, Smart People, was very well acted, and the well known actors, showing their talents with great timing and charisma. This play was really one long act with a fifteen-minute intermission. The lobby was tiny, and the restrooms too small to accommodate the full house that attended. Overall, other than the lack of large wings, our Cultural Arts Theater will be superior to this one in almost every way.

The third venue we visited was in the new Whitney Museum. The museum itself is a stunning piece of architecture, with wonderful, light-filled galleries that showcases the modern artwork. The sequence of spaces, extraordinarily thoughtful detailing, and sublime use of daylight make this a masterpiece for Renzo Piano and his workshop!

The Whitney Museum’s New Theater was set up for a movie presentation when we visited, so the spectacular views across the Hudson River were curtained off, but photos show its beauty in this mode. The theater space is long and narrow, with retractable seating, like our Cultural Arts Theater, though the quality of their actual seats is not as good as we propose for ours. The entire space had a sprung wood floor, and the finishes, though muted in color, seem to work. Looking at the schedule of events, this venue features concerts, plays, banquets, art installations, lectures, and movies. Although there was no stage, the retractable seating set up the orientation. Of the three venues we saw, this one (though smaller in seating capacity) seemed most like ours, with its excellent technology and very accommodating amenities. Although we couldn’t possibly expect to match their budget, this venue showed us how thoughtful and sublime design could enhance the whole experience.

The overall takeaway from this weekend visit to NYC was that mixed media and high-tech are necessary to meet the demands of contemporary music, dance, art, and theater presentations. The days of having a very large space with essentially only one stage configuration are very much in the past. We learned some specific lessons from this tour, but return to Savannah confident that Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theater will be an excellent venue for future events.


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