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The New City Performance Hall Gears Up
by Jerome Weeks 3 Aug 2012

The brand-new halll: Opening concerts are announced, we get a first look, have some initial thoughts.

CTA TBD

The Dallas City Performance Hall in the Arts District will open September 13th through 16th with a roster of free public events. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this report.

  • KERA radio report:
  • Expanded online report:

The four days of events will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony, open-house tours, a panel discussion with the designers and two opening-night concerts on Friday, the 14th. The first features singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe. The second will start at 10 p.m. and is called Triple Play. Its three sponsors, the Dallas Observer, the Kessler Theatre and our own KXT, will present Seryn, the West Dallas gospel-funk group, the Relatives, and a reunion of the alternative rock band Pleasant Grove.

Today, Friday, members of the media were given a tour of the  hall by Maria Munoz-Blanco, head of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which manages the hall, and Jack Hagler, partner with the theater-design consultants, Schuler Shook. The $40 million, city-bought-and-paid-for, Performance Hall may seem like the ‘poor sister’ of the Arts District — compared with the $354 million, double-facility, AT&T Performing Arts Center down the street. Or even just the $55 million, Nancy Hamon Wing on Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School, directly across Flora Street.

On the other hand, the facility was paid for by two city bond issues, so unlike the PAC, it’s not still trying to raise some $30 million to pay off its design-and-building costs.

What’s more, Munoz-Blanco stressed that although the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-designed building was “low-cost” and “very functional,” it also features sophisticated lighting and audio systems, including an LED light curtain, motorized acoustical banners (to dampen the hall’s reverberation, when needed) and tall, retractable, on-stage acoustical reflector panels (for orchestra performances).

Three materials predominate throughout the building — black-painted steel, pale concrete and white oak — lending it both crispness and warmth. With the use of plentiful natural light, the overall impression is spare, open and clean but not aggressively so (although the lobby — like the Winspear’s — feels vast and empty. Someone needs to commission a sculpture or a chandelier). Hagler spoke about the SOM designers’ ‘theater-as-machine’ thinking, which led them to leave the lighting grids and catwalks bare and visible to the audience. But they didn’t take this to the extreme that the Koolhaas-and-Prince-Ramos-designed Wyly does, with its ‘theater-as-aggressive-metal-engine’ ideology, which still irks some Dallas theatergoers. (A hard building to warm to, but I’ve come to appreciate it precisely because it’s so willfully and ingeniously uncompromising.)

Characteristic of this stark-but-with-a-smidgen-of-warmth approach are the hall’s interior walls of poured concrete. They’ve been given a ‘rough plank’ texture. The poured concrete was shaped by the wood molds that held it as it was setting, so at a distance, the walls look like the stacked, geological strata of a natural limestone outcropping (somewhat like the exterior of the new Perot Museum). Up close, however, the wood grain of the two-by-fours that were used to hold the concrete becomes apparent, lending it more detail. The surface effect, Hagler said, was both an aesthetic and acoustic choice (below).

What the new City Performance Hall doesn’t have, of course, is a spectacular or highly distinctive exterior. This is a SOM building; the firm is better known for corporate offices. The hall’s  boxy, cement-block shape, with its sloping, wave-like roof, is what makes the hall seem most ‘low-cost’ and ‘functional’ — in comparison to its high-living, eye-catching Arts District cousins. Even its color is non-descript, compared to the Winspear’s signature red or the Wyly’s aluminum cylinders.

What the new hall does have that they don’t is a direct, open relationship with Flora Street — the first for an Arts District facility since Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center. True, both the Wyly and the Winspear formally face the street, but the Winspear’s entrance is set back so far it’s easy enough not to recognize it beneath the solar canopy, past the pond and the mini-park. For its part, the Wyly’s is something of a reality TV obstacle course with zigzagging plant beds disguising the bunker-like, buried entrance, fronted by a steep slope that women in high heels frequently curse.

But then, we’re truly meant to enter both buildings — just like the Meyerson — from the underground parking garage, having arrived here safely by car from the suburbs. In contrast, there’s no mistaking the street-level, glass-wall front of the City Performance Hall (it quite clearly has turned its butt towards Ross Avenue). Although you may certainly arrive at the hall from the Silver parking lot, just like your suburban neighbors who’ve come to see the Dallas Theater Center or the Dallas Opera, unlike them, you actually have to set foot outdoors, on Flora. And once you’re inside looking out at Flora, the hall’s glass wall beautifully frames Booker T, across the street, giving the Arts District’s one piece of ‘old architecture’ a bit of a showcase. The two buildings also seem natural complements, facing each other  — with arts students simply crossing Flora to see or hear a performance at the hall.

The 750-seat auditorium was designed to be multi-functional, so it can serve the small to mid-sized cultural organizations that couldn’t normally fill the Winspear Opera House or the Wyly Theatre. We’re talking dance troupes, movie screenings, music chamber groups and lecture series. Until now, they’ve had to tailor their offerings to fit into the older, smaller, less technically advanced Bath House Cultural Center, SMU’s Caruth Auditorium, the various suburban facilities or even churches and ballrooms.

To suit the differing groups, the City Performance Hall even has roll-out, wooden panels on either side of the proscenium.  They can be used to shrink the broad width of the stage from 50 feet, suitable for music concerts, to 37 feet, which is more amenable to some theater productions. (In stage terms, these are “tormentors” or “side maskings” — venerable devices that supposedly gained their name because they prevented audience members from glimpsing backstage to see what was going on.) Frankly, though, the hall still looks as though it’ll be better for music recitals than theater performances.

Munoz-Blanco: “We wanted for this building to be very flexible. It’s a beautiful building. The aesthetics in their simplicity are elegant.  And we know that that’s going to let the groups be the wow.”

There was a public outcry last year when several  arts leaders questioned whether, at 750 seats, the new hall was too big for its clients, the smaller groups. After all, not even the Dallas Theater Center can consistently fill the 600-seat Wyly. A fledgling group failing to fill a house can look even more struggling than it is. Would you prefer to sell out the Bath House, even turn away a few people, or look like a failure with half the new hall empty?

To this, Munoz-Blanco had two replies: First, the hall is flexible. The entire auditorium doesn’t have to be used. With the balcony closed, there are only 550 seats to fill. And the main hall isn’t the only staging area. The spacious lobby can be used for performances or lectures, not just opening-night cocktail parties.

Second, the City Performance Hall was developed out of lengthy consultations with local arts groups — meaning, this hall’s size and style were what was wanted most and first by the groups. The hall is officially Phase I because Phase II — if it ever gets built — is the next-door building that’s supposed to contain two small, flexible theaters, an art gallery and rehearsal space. If you wish, you can see the general dimensions of Phase II laid out in the grass next to the City Performance Hall. The various beds of grass and stone outline the wished-for theaters-to-be.

Good luck with that, by the way. I don’t think Dallas citizens will be willing to have the city invest in the Arts District — at any amount — for more than a decade, at least. The fact that funding for the AT&T Performing Arts Center has been almost entirely private money (with a comparatively small city investment) hasn’t really sunk in with people who dismiss the entire endeavor as a glitzy burden, a giant bauble solely for snobbish, wealthy art lovers.

The City Performance Hall may be the “people’s theater” insofar as it’s dedicated to the smaller groups that generally don’t have the benefit of executive boards filled with millionaire patrons. It also looks like a bargain — certainly in the way that plain, strong materials have been used to an understated, elegant effect.

But it’s in the Arts District, next door to the AT&T Performing Arts Center, so no matter how humble it may be in cost or clientele, it’s likely to be tarred with the same paintbrush. And there’s also the question of the fees charged to use the hall — whether the smaller groups can afford them. Perhaps not such a bargain for them.

In any event, this performance facility may be what we have for the foreseeable future — when it comes to filling the need that area’s arts groups have for a handsome, flexible, medium-sized performance hall. But there’s a third reason that Munoz-Blanco didn’t put forward in defense of this building’s dimensions: All these facilities are built for the future. It’s a very Dallas response to dismiss anything that doesn’t win instant acclaim and draw turn-away crowds or suit us right now. But in ten years’ time, many of the small to mid-sized groups may well have grown to fill it. Or even outgrown it. And new groups, yet unborn, will be trying it on for size.

As Hagler noted, the new hall is certainly welcome, but it also represents a challenge —  to the groups that use it. Just as the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center had to do when they moved into the Winspear and the Wyly, groups using the City Performance Hall will have to “step up their game.” That means in budgets, in collaborations, talent, professionalism and, of course, the sheer quality of what they offer on stage.

The hall looks good. Can they look as good — in it?

Grand Opening Schedule

  • Thursday, September 13

11 am – Ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by tour
6 pm – Panel discussion with the design team
Evening – Hall to remain open for public tours

  • Friday, September 14

Noon – Live broadcast of WRR’s  ‘At Work with Amy’
7 pm – Opening concert with Sarah Jaffe (ticketed)
10 pm – Triple Play, with Seryn, the Relatives and Pleasant Grove

  • Saturday, September 15

10 am-6 pm – Community Open House, free to the public (acts and events to be announced)
Evening – Dallas Jazz Collective concert (ticketed)

  • Sunday, September 16

Noon-6 pm – Community Open House, free to the public (acts and events to be announced)

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  • Good to see you this morning @ the media tour. We are thrilled with the building and can’t wait to see our artists and arts groups fill the stage with their great work. Thanks for bringing up the third reason for the hall — the future. We fully expect our cultural sector to grow, much like our region’s population grows. New organizations will emerge, existing organizations will mature, and some existing organizations may decide to close-up shop or shift gears — that’s all part of the life cycle of a maturing cultural sector. We will find multiple ways of maximizing the use of the building now, but also recognize that it will also be the home of a next generation of arts organizations.

  • Good to see you this morning @ the media tour. We are thrilled with the building and can’t wait to see our artists and arts groups fill the stage with their great work. Thanks for bringing up the third reason for the hall — the future. We fully expect our cultural sector to grow, much like our region’s population grows. New organizations will emerge, existing organizations will mature, and some existing organizations may decide to close-up shop or shift gears — that’s all part of the life cycle of a maturing cultural sector. We will find multiple ways of maximizing the use of the building now, but also recognize that it will also be the home of a next generation of arts organizations.

  • Anonymous

    I hate to bring this up, but that vast concrete wall on the Routh side almost screams “tag me.”

    • Anonymous

      Good point. Hadn’t thought of it and should have — my daughter graduated in visual arts from Booker T only a couple years ago.

  • topham

    I hate to bring this up, but that vast concrete wall on the Routh side almost screams “tag me.”

    • JeromeWeeks

      Good point. Hadn’t thought of it and should have — my daughter graduated in visual arts from Booker T only a couple years ago.