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Art&Seek on Think TV: The Marvels Inside the Wyly

by Jerome Weeks 21 Sep 2009 8:04 AM

They’ve been telling us the Wyly Theatre will be unlike any other theater ever built. But what does that mean? And why would anyone create such a thing? Follow our tour of the industrial insides of the Wyly with Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty and Theatre Projects Consultant project manager Benton Delinger — to learn how this remarkable facility will work. And why.


Think TV interview with artistic director Kevin Moriarty and project manager Benton Delinger — in a video report on the Wyly’s industrial insides:

On the internal skeleton of the Wyly:

On the secret in the Wyly’s basement:

Other striking features of the Wyly Theatre:

  • Expanded online essay on the technical and theatrical aspects of the Wyly:

In planning for its new home in the Wyly Theatre, the Dallas Theater Center was determined to continue its 25-year tradition of “flexible” theater. The Theater Center’s old Arts District Theater was flexible in the way it could be completely altered, its seating and staging configuration changed for each production.  It was a tin shed with a concrete floor, and everything inside it could be dismantled and scraped away and re-built differently for the next show. It was, in effect, like a movie studio.

It’s not a new idea for a theater, but it’s one that has proved inordinately expensive. The Theater Center couldn’t continue to afford the Hollywood-levels of electrician and carpenter manpower that were needed to make the configuration changes work. So the company did what many “flex” theaters are forced to do (unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened at the Water Tower Theater, for instance). Only a few, pre-set seating layouts are used. Sometimes even just a single primary layout is established and gets used with minor changes.

So much for all of the revolutionary freedom and innovation that a flex space is supposed to trigger.

But the approach that Wyly architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus take to designing a building is premised on the idea that standard, pre-digested ideas of “what works” have not kept up with either new technology or rigorous re-thinking. The two can sound arrogant in the way they blithely trash or overturn what people have learned from centuries of previous, painstaking experience (Prince-Ramus explains his thinking here). But once the functions of a building are systematically laid out — what exactly does it need to do? — solutions can present themselves, in this case, solutions from outside the theater tradition.

For the Wyly, it was the same seating technology already developed for sports arenas and entertainment venues like the American Airlines Center. These halls must repeatedly transform themselves from a hockey stadium one night to a rock and roll concert facility the next. So the Wyly is equipped with similar, movable blocks of seats on “wagons” (above) and elevators for bringing them up or for stowing them below.

One unique aspect of the Wyly, however, is the balcony arrangement (left). The Wyly has three, separate “balcony towers” — like giant, bookshelf units. One short one is on either side of the stage, one long one is across the back. To give some idea of the scale: The long one weighs 120 tons. And these three-level audience towers can be raised or lowered, moved forward or back, as needed. The cable-winch system on tracks that lifts and moves them is the same as that used for electronic scoreboards in basketball arenas (below).

In terms of its basic seating layout, the Wyly is essentially a “courtyard theater” — with seating on three sides in balconies around a thrust-like staging area. Before London’s Elizabethan theaters were built (the Theater, the Globe, the Rose, etc.), acting companies often performed in the courtyards of inns, and this handy layout influenced the eventual design of Shakespeare’s own Globe. They’re hard to beat for intimacy, the physical proximity between actor and playgoer.

But the Wyly is a courtyard theater whose walls and seats can fly up and disappear. They can be re-shaped into a more conventional proscenium house. Or a flat-floor, black box. Or a “stadium theater” (with seating blocks on opposing sides of a central stage). And a great deal of wireless technology will permit the theater staff to do all this with a lot less plugging and unplugging.

What led to this maximum, built-in flexibility is another, extremely practical reason. Faster turnaround, increased rental availability. The Theater Center is really only the major tenant at the Wyly — the theater will also be used by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the Anita Martinez Ballet Folkorico. And when they’re not using the space, the AT&T PAC will want to book the Wyly as much as possible. So the quick change-ups aren’t so much for the Theater Center’s benefit. You’re not likely to see any of the seating blocks or elevators move during a show. Instead, they move so the AT&T PAC can capitalize on the facility by filling up the rental calendar as fully and speedily as possible.

In short, the Wyly really is like a miniature, money-making, sports arena. Shakespeare will have to clear the decks; the hall’s been booked for a food industry show next week.

In the news media in particular and in our techno-manic world at large, it’s easy to become entranced by all the mechanical advances (look! the glass walls open!). In fact, echoing Le Corbusier’s famous description of a house as a “machine for living,” the Wyly has been called a “theater machine.” And as you can see from our videos above, we’re as easily fascinated by the never-before-seen gizmonics as any 12-year-old with an Xbox.

But in the THINK interview, both Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty and Benton Delinger, project manager for Theatre Projects Consultants, stress that the technology is here to serve the artists. If it works, it all should fall away and allow us to experience a performance more directly. Richard Pilbrow, founder of Theatre Projects, has said that this is the real trick with hiring “starchitects” for a major venue like the Wyly. You want them to produce something distinctive, something truly remarkable. Yet ultimately, a theater’s architecture is only a handmaiden to another art form — drama.

And that still hasn’t been tested at the Wyly. The Wyly’s auditorium — officially, the Potter Rose Performance Hall — is all glass and metal, wire and concrete. Another tradition that the Theater Center has continued from the Arts District Theater is its raw, industrial aesthetics. The Wyly advertises itself in every bolt and grid and poured-concrete pillar as high-tech and unsparing and forward-thinking. But whether the intimacy and human touch of the best theater — the very attributes the Wyly is supposed to encourage — will be adversely affected by all those steely surfaces and the hall’s acoustics (whatever they may be) remains uncertain. It would be a serious design failure if, as has happened at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, body mikes have to be used for an ordinary stage performance.

It would be a serious failure because that’s what all of this technology really is set up to do: Permit an actor simply to speak movingly to 600 people gathered around him. Whether that can happen won’t really be clear until Oct. 24 when the Dallas Theater Center opens its first season at the Wyly — when the actor playing Theseus steps onstage and speaks the first lines of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream.