- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

Flexibility is foremost on the minds of Wolf Trap workers this winter as they replace the Filene Center stage with a newer, stronger model that still meets the demands of its various uses.
The renovation effort is part of a three-pronged project expected to be completed by late March, in time for the 2002 season. The other work involves installing a new rehearsal-hall stage and improving the rigging system, which controls the counterweights that maintain the stage's precious balance.
The Filene Center's stage is the second-largest theatrical stage in North America, more than 6,800 square feet. It is smaller only than the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, according to Wolf Trap officials.
Ann McPherson McKee, Wolf Trap's senior vice president for performing arts and education, says the changes will be subtle.
"Acts coming in will hardly know we've done anything," Ms. McKee says. The national park's staff will continue to host the usual number of acts, no matter the complexity of their performances, thanks to the revamped stage.
The renovations $800,000 for materials and labor, $100,000 for engineering costs will retain the floor's resilience and trap capability while improving the load it can bear. Traps are areas where set pieces and performers can be lowered from the stage and lifted back up.
The new floor, to be made of Douglas fir like the old one, will support a minimum of 150 pounds per square inch, for massive scenery pieces and other show accouterments. It currently supports 70 pounds per square inch. The new 2-inch-thick Douglas fir stage will be suspended atop flexible isolation pads, rubberized materials that cushion the impact made by every dancer's feet.
Douglas fir lumber milled in Oregon will be shipped to the Vienna park to complete the new stage. Larry Sullivan, contracting director with American Harlequin, a Moorestown, N.J., company that manufactures dance floors, says Douglas fir stages are rare and notes that there is one at the Cinderella stage at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
"It's a little less prone to warping than pine would be," Mr. Sullivan says of Douglas fir. That stability makes the wood amenable to outdoor venues.

The search for a stronger stage began with a benign request from Penn & Teller in 1993. The madcap mavens of magic asked Wolf Trap officials if the Filene Center stage could withstand having a forklift driven over it for a proposed routine.
Even a small forklift can weigh as much as 7,000 pounds. In a best-case scenario, the weight bearing down on the forklift's wheels would have damaged the fibers of the wood, says John Gray, chief of the division of performing arts.
The bit never happened, but it gave Wolf Trap officials pause.
"The floor was designed to do a different number of things which conflicted with each other," Mr. Gray says. The floor needed to be resilient, to supply a softer surface to greet the dancing feet of the various troupes traipsing across the stage. It also had to have traps across its surface to bring performers and scenery above and below the stage level.
The result? "A somewhat lower ability to bear heavy loads," Mr. Gray says.
Park workers added steel support beams underneath the stage to strengthen its substructure to immediately improve the stage. It was not until a few weeks ago that further work could be started.
Workers will spend the next few weeks strengthening the supports under the stage with Parallam, a manufactured wood without knots or other weaknesses found in nature, and with joints made of steel cylinders, not wood.

Part of the need for a stronger stage stems from increasingly complex touring productions.
"It used to be that the opera, symphony and dances were the most taxing things we'd do," Ms. McKee says. "We'd look forward to the pop shows as a breather."
These days, music acts such as Mary J. Blige tour with immense video screens that strain the load-bearing potential of every stage.
Having a stage replete with trap potential makes building a sturdy stage a challenge.
"The whole point is to have the infinite flexibility," Ms. McKee says.
That flexibility often comes at the cost of stage strength. With four electric lifts below stage to help raise and lower sets and performers through the stage traps, there is no room for the beams, lighting fixtures and other assemblies that can lend support to the stage from below.
Wolf Trap, jointly operated by the National Park Service and the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, hosts more than 90 performances annually, from late May to September.
Some shows, such as operas, require heavy set pieces. Others feature dancers, making a resilient stage a necessity. Less forgiving surfaces lead to shin splints, knee injuries and other medical woes for dancers. Dance companies routinely check the stage surfaces of the venues they visit before performing.
A thicker stage will be more harmful to dancers over time, says Mr. Sullivan of American Harlequin, no matter its strength.
"The thickness will hurt you more than anything. The real trick is to get it as thin as possible and still be able to hold a baby grand piano," he says.
David Lansky, production manager with the American Ballet Theater in New York City, says venues such as Wolf Trap must serve many needs.
"With multipurpose theaters, you have to have trappable stages," he says.
The Filene Center's Douglas fir surface allows companies to lag, or insert, scenery and lighting towers into the floors with machine-threaded bolts.
The wood will mostly heal quickly after the bolts are removed.
"Those soft fibers work themselves back together," Mr. Gray says. A harder wood might splinter and not rebound as effectively.
The stage will be sanded and painted black when finished.

The remaining portions of the Wolf Trap work will improve the structures around the main stage. The old Filene Center stage is being moved a few yards back to serve as the adjoining rehearsal hall's stage. The transfer not only reuses existing wood, but gives the rehearsal hall its first resilient surface.
The two stages are separated by a scene dock area and soundproof doors, which allow for rehearsals and performances to go on simultaneously without affecting each other.
The final phase of the renovations will reinforce the steel support structures within the 13-story stage tower and take stress off the fly system, which controls the 250,000 pounds of counterweights.
"All this weight is pulling against the entire steel structure overhead," Mr. Gray says. "This will be strengthened."
That will be done, in part, by fastening the two existing load galleries that control the weight to the rest of the building.
The galleries will be lowered as well, to allow better access by workers.
Amid the bundled up workers rushing to make the necessary changes sits a wealth of theatrical items, from an enormous black-and-white photograph of Victor Borge to a golden arch entranceway facade from an opera long since performed.
One new item will be found backstage this season: a massive two-person snorkel lift with articulated arms and a basket where workers can stand.
The 8,800-pound device can transport someone up and around the backstage space 40 feet in the air, even in the middle of a show in case a wire or light needs instant attention.
The old Filene Center stage would not have been able to support the lift.
Complications aside, Mr. Gray says the nature of the Filene Center demands as adjustable a stage as possible.
"It's an outdoor theater. When the weather's right, you want to book every possible production you can," he says.

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