Volume 16 • Issue 2
Southwestern @ Georgetown
Envisioned cross section of the remodeled Alma Thomas Theater.
Southwestern @ Georgetown
New rigging systems will allow for greater production creativity.
Southwestern @ Georgetown
New east entrance will give visitors a glimpse inside theatre productions.
Southwestern @ Georgetown
Planned west entrance will let in new light.

The Fine Arts Building Renovation Project

— Bob Mathis, Assoc. Vice President for Facilities and Campus Services

Phantom noises from the ductwork, muffled voices from beyond, vaporous music seeping through walls and errant flashes of light can create breathtaking effects in great theatrical productions. But they are distracting when unintentionally interjected at crucial moments of a musical, play, recital or concert. And the effect is less than brilliant when the phantom noises come from the air conditioning fans; the music one hears is actually an orchestra rehearsing in another hall; the voices from beyond are those of patrons in the hallway; and the errant flash of light is from an aging fixture. These are but a few of the challenges facing anyone staging a performance or other event in Southwestern’s Alma Thomas Theater (ATT). Fortunately, significant improvements are in the works. The University and the Sarofim School of Fine Arts have begun the long process of renovating the ATT to address the aesthetic issues just mentioned and to provide structural enhancements that will ensure the theater meets the needs of Southwestern’s thriving fine arts programs. The renovation focuses on three major goals: improving the educational experience, enhancing the audience experience and eliminating environmental interference.

The educational experience of Southwestern University students, in particular students within the music and theatre curriculums, has been the primary focus of those involved in the renovation design process (faculty, staff, architects and consultants). Input from all stakeholders was important, so a special effort was made to include students along with faculty and staff in the programming and planning sessions. The resulting design reflects this input and clearly demonstrates the commitment to the educational experience.

The redesign process itself has been an educational experience for many of those involved, faculty as well as students. They have had to learn the language used by the different groups involved behind the scenes of every theatre production. They learned of the rigging, counter weights, loading gallery and line sets that make up the hidden system for holding the lights, curtains, scenery and acoustic shell clouds. They came to understand the value of follow spots, dimming racks and lighting controls to lighting designers.

Integrating new lighting and rigging systems as well as creating new storage space and a design studio became the principal objectives of the theatre and music departments. As part of the renovation, the current rigging, lighting and sound systems in ATT will be overhauled and replaced with state of the art, more reliable components. ATT will also get a new control booth to manage the updated production technology. This nerve center will be at the rear of the theater and provide those working in it with an unobstructed view of the stage. Most importantly, this new booth will be large enough to meet its educational needs as a working classroom for students.

The new Theater Design Studio on the second floor will significantly improve educational opportunities available to the design students of Southwestern. Those studying set, lighting and costume design will now have their own space in which to explore the more technical sides of their art. The studio and updated theater systems allow for greater flexibility in design and provide students with new tools to develop creative productions. Further, students get hands-on experience with modern lighting, audio and rigging systems.

A considerable portion of the renovation project addresses the needs of the Sarofim music students and faculty. Well-designed practice, rehearsal and performance spaces were the principal objectives defined by their input to the design process. Toward these ends, the architects and consultants have focused on acoustics and sound transmission, providing first-class acoustics within each space and preventing sound transmission between spaces. The renovated rehearsal hall, which features sound attenuation and separate instrument storage areas, will provide an outstanding venue for orchestra and ensemble practices.

Additionally, new practice rooms with soundproof walls and doors will offer superior acoustics and greater scheduling flexibility. Lastly, a new sound shell for the theater will enhance the acoustics for both vocal and instrumental performances, and soundproofing will be added to mute sound transfer from the hallways.

The renovation design program allows for the Sarofim School’s expansion of existing programs as well—especially in the way of collaborative programs between theatre and music. The orchestra pit element of the design, for example, offers students in music and theatre the opportunity to collaborate on full operas, musicals and dance concerts.

Changes to the front of house at ATT entail the creation of a more inviting, spacious and dynamic area for socializing at intermissions and post-performance events. Natural, architectural and specialty lighting will flood the space, enhance the architectural lines and accent student art displays. While providing a public venue for art displays, enhancements also will allow use of the foyer as a critique space for all departments within the Sarofim School of Fine Arts.

The new west entrance will include a welcoming blend of light and glass for guests arriving at ATT from the Cullen Academic Mall. The east entrance, highlighted by glass and stone, will give visitors a glimpse into the inner workings of theatre productions. A grand stairway, new elevators and a central box office provide visitors with easy access to venues and information on events. New lounges have been designed to accommodate the hospitality and social functions necessary for a fine performance venue.

Replacement or upgrade of all major building systems rounds out the renovation process and will not only assure the comfort of patrons of the ATT, but also will increase the longevity of valuable equipment. The heating and air conditioning system will be replaced, electrical will be upgraded from transformer to lights and ADA-compliant elevators will provide access to all renovated areas. Temperature- and humidity-controlled storage rooms for pianos will help maintain instruments in the best playing condition. Major utility work will be done outside the building to make the infrastructure improvements required to support the new and renovated spaces.

The renovation is scheduled to begin this summer. Space for offices, rehearsal areas and storage will be maintained in Joe S. Mundy Hall while renovations are underway. The first, perhaps most critical, phase is relocating the myriad utilities east of the theater to accommodate the expansion and make connections to the new building systems. This phase will take the entire summer, during which time the building will be closed. The next phase will include demolition within the renovated areas, renovation of existing spaces and construction of the new additions. Contractors will be busy pouring concrete, setting steel, building walls and installing mechanical equipment. Then, finish contractors will paint walls, install tile and set cabinetry as specialty contractors set up the theater lighting, sound and rigging systems. The final phases of this exciting undertaking should come to a close in January 2007.

Once the renovations are complete, the only phantom noises, muffled voices or vaporous music heard in ATT will be intentional elements of the performances.

Faculty Feedback

Lois Ferrari, Associate Professor of Music and Conductor, SU Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

“Generally speaking, new and improved facilities have a way of attracting new and improved students. They also have a way of encouraging the practice of new and improved habits by existing students. There will also be more time to practice. Since soundproofing will negate interference with activities in Alma Thomas Theater, students will be able to rehearse and practice in a large, acoustically superior space during peak evening hours. The only change I foresee in my teaching technique would be the perma-smile, that may attach itself to my face.”

Kiyoshi Tamagawa, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music

“The planned acoustical and other improvements would be of great benefit to the program. The poor condition of practice rooms has been a continuing concern for both students and faculty. Students tell me they try not to practice in adjacent rooms because ‘they might as well be in the same room.’ The lack of good climate control is not only detrimental to student comfort but also to preservation of the instruments.”

Paul J. Gaffney, Professor of Theatre, Dean of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts

“My main objective with the new rehearsal hall is that it do two things: (1) give more room so the large ensembles can do a better job of rehearsing in less-cramped quarters, and (2) permit the use of more than one space in the building simultaneously. Currently, for example, we can’t rehearse one group in the rehearsal hall and have a performance in the Alma Thomas Theater. The sound leakage is just too great. A major part of the renovation is to address the sound issue, and our building will thus become much more usable to a larger number of students at any given time—it will be vastly improved as a teaching, as well as a performing, facility.

“We planned the new Alma Thomas Theater Lobby to serve as a place for the informal display of student art, discussions and critique sessions during the day, and as an informal gathering place for faculty and students to meet and discuss their work. All in all, it will make that part of the building more hospitable to the many co-curricular activities that our students and faculty carry out beyond the formal confines of the classroom, studio and rehearsal hall.”

Desi Roybal, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Resident Scenic Designer

“The new Design Studio will have a massive impact. Theatre Design students will all use the same studio. This will require organization and planning since no single student will have a designated studio space. The wonderful trade-off is more interaction between students in the areas of scenery, costume and lighting. The resident designers teach and practice collaboration on all productions, so this seems a great way to start. It is, after all, the talented, creative students using the Design Studio who will determine how this space will affect our theatre productions.”