- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

The past five years have witnessed a boom in architectural improvements for Washington’s theater companies. The Round House, Studio, Signature, Olney, Woolly Mammoth and Gala Hispanic theaters all have new homes. Arena Stage has raised 83 percent of the $125 million necessary to build its Mead Center, which will break ground sometime over the next 12 months.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company outshines most of this group with its newly completed Sidney Harman Hall in the District’s Penn Quarter. This new venue at 610 F St. NW raises the bar for local theater design in a contemporary setting both elegant and adaptable. It is a vast improvement over the dowdy Lansburgh Theatre, which will continue to serve as the company’s second stage around the corner on Seventh St. NW.

Designed by Toronto architect Jack Diamond, the new theater is a sophisticated pairing of opposites: a transparent glass lobby and a dark cherry-clad auditorium, both reflective of a crisply modern sensibility. The stage, seating and acoustics can be changed to present dramatic, dance and musical performances in addition to Shakespeare plays, reflecting the company’s recently expanded mission. At its maximum configuration, the flexible theater seats 776, almost double the capacity of the Lansburgh.

Unfortunately, Harman Hall, like several other theaters around town, doesn’t get to shine entirely on its own. It occupies the first 5½ floors of an 11-story headquarters for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. Curiously, this building, designed by the District’s SmithGroup, is not covered in bricks but limestone, glass and metal.

Within its plaid-patterned cladding, the theater’s presence is literally made clear. A 44-foot-high by 90-foot-wide bay of low-iron structural glass projects eight feet from the facade to expose and connect the venue to the street. Its transparency offers a welcome breather from all the solid masonry buildings in the neighborhood.

Like a giant aquarium, the see-through marquee allows views right through the lobby to the plastered wall of the auditorium. Its openness achieves Artistic Director Michael Kahn’s goal of “a theater that was not stuffy or forbidding.”

At the same time, the theater facade complements the architecture of its host. During the day, it appears to be the corporate stepchild of the office building. Only at night, when the entrance canopy twinkles and the lobby glows, does the mood of its tailored box brighten.

Inside the lobby, floors of golden Jerusalem limestone and the Popsicle-orange wall of the auditorium keep all the glass and metal from appearing too cold. Steel staircases on either side of the glass bay lead to the upper lobby levels, where hefty, aluminum-clad columns slice through the space to support the office floors above. These upper platforms, where theatergoers will congregate during intermission, are separated from the glass facade and rear auditorium wall by vertical slots of space. This remove accentuates a sense of expansiveness by allowing the full 50-foot height of the lobby to be perceived from any level.

Standing on the upper floors behind the big glass bay, you can see a lot more than just the Verizon Center across the street. Visible through the projecting corners are views up and down F Street to Union Station and the Treasury building. Here, the Shakespearean “all the world’s a stage” effect will be evident when theatergoers fill all of the levels in full view of pedestrians on the street.

While the lobby is light and open, the auditorium is somber and intimate. Its heavy concrete box is designed as an independent structure, separated from the lobby and office tower by a 3-inch gap. Rubber pads further isolate the structure to prevent the transmission of noise and vibrations. Within the auditorium ceiling, deep, reinforced concrete beams support the upper office floors to ensure more acoustic separation and sightlines uninterrupted by columns. Heating and cooling ducts, also padded with rubber, supply air through floor vents under gray-upholstered seats.

Within the hall, Mr. Diamond collaborated with Chicago acoustician Rick Talaske and New York theater consultant Fisher Dachs Associates to devise a flexible design that feels substantial, not flimsy. Much of its beauty comes from the African cherry, called makore, applied to the walls and colonnade around the stage. “I wanted a dark, rich wood that would disappear when the play goes on,” Mr. Kahn notes.

Though detailed in a spare, modern way, the textured wood conveys associations with traditional architecture, including the half-timbering of Elizabethan buildings from Shakespeare’s day, and the finish isn’t only decorative. Behind the cherry slats on the walls are two layered velour curtains that can be adjusted to change the acoustics of the room. When raised, they allow the sound to hit the concrete walls behind the fabric to create a more reverberant, live effect for concerts and musical events. When lowered, they absorb noise to reduce the reverberations during spoken dramatic performances.

The front of the auditorium is also movable. It reflects the type of flexible design popular today as companies like the Shakespeare Theatre expand the variety of their productions to increase ticket sales. What’s different in Harman Hall is the substitution of easy-to-move parts for complicated mechanisms.

“Too many flexible theaters are done with complex, expensive technology that requires technical people to change it,” Mr. Diamond says. “Why not use stagecraft to do it?”

Nearest the stage, two blocks of 50 seats are mounted on flatbeds with wheels so that they can be pushed to the front, sides or back of the hall. Next month, during the company’s inaugural productions of “Tamburlaine” and “Edward II,” written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, the 100 seats will be moved to the front of the auditorium.

During February and March, they will stay in that position while a proscenium arch is dropped from the ceiling like scenery for the staging of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” When not in use, the arch is stored in a fly space that extends upward behind two floors of offices at the rear of the building.

For other productions, the movable seating will be placed at right angles to the auditorium to create what is known as a thrust stage. This configuration will be used for Shakespeare’s Roman plays, starting in April. The colonnade at the back of the stage will remain in place for those plays, though it too can be removed.

Mr. Kahn says he hasn’t figured out how the arena configuration will be used, when the blocks of seats are moved to the back of the stage to face the rest of the audience. He also is still uncertain about the theater’s potential flexibility.

“We haven’t had enough actors onstage yet to know how successful it will be,” he admits. “Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ll have figured out how to use the house.”

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