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State of the Arts: Building an Audience, Buildings as Instruments

by Anne Bothwell 12 Nov 2010 3:24 PM

Highlights from last night’s discussion with the Dallas Opera’s Graeme Jenkins and Theater Projects’ John Coyne: how to make the Arts District livelier, what the DO didn’t get that European companies do, building a Dallas Theater Center set on the fly.


Like most arts leaders, Graeme Jenkins, music director for the Dallas Opera, wants to build a bigger audience for the arts. And last night at State of the Arts, he tossed out several ideas on his wish list:

  • An annual arts festival in the Dallas Arts District, along with greater collaboration among the groups housed there.
  • Marketing to young professionals, targeting not just interest groups – most arts institutions have a young professionals group – but also neighborhoods, like Uptown.
  • More retail, food options, street life in the Arts District.
  • Broadcasting short performances from arts groups on Victory Park video screens — after games at the American Airlines Center.
  • Getting the Convention and Visitors Bureaus in the area to work together to promote the, ahem, metroplex as an arts destination.

Those last two are intriguing. It is not likely a coincidence that arts leaders locally are thinking especially hard about sports these days, and coming up with ideas like Jenkins’. Hellooo Super Bowl. And hello Bill Lively. The man behind the Performing Arts Center’s fund-raising effort is, of course, now leading the Super Bowl Host Committee. Is there something to be learned about the multi-city collaboration he’s orchestrating to make the big game possible that can be applied to the arts? It will be interesting to watch this play out.  (I secretly hope they will also invent a new word for metroplex while they’re at it.)

It’ll also be fun to see whether this conversation spills into the next State of the Arts talk, in January, which brings together an artist, the stadium designer and a curator to discuss the contemporary art commissioned at Cowboys Stadium, and how it  got there.

Full disclosure:  Art&Seek is presenting State of the Arts in partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art. And KERA’s Jeff Whittington has been hosting the discussions.  Regardless, it is fascinating to throw a couple of artists into a room and see what comes up, how many threads can be followed, ideas sparked.

For example, I never thought about “practicing” a building, in the way an actor rehearses lines or a musician repeats scales. But that was one place where Jenkins and John Coyne , US Director of Design for Theatre Projects Consultants, found common ground last night.

“Theaters, opera halls, they’re an instrument, you have to learn how to play them,” says Coyne, who worked on the Wyly Theatre for seven years.  He also designs theater sets, most recently the Dallas Theater Center’s set for Henry IV (below).

Not surprisingly, both men are extremely pleased with their new toys.

Jenkins, music director for the Dallas Opera, says the company is just at the beginning of learning to adjust to the tremendous and microscopically precise acoustics in the year-old Winspear Opera House: “There’s enormous tweaking to be done.” This is normal, he said.  But doing that tweaking on the fly is a particularly American phenomenon. In Europe, where arts are state-subsidized, the expensive adjustment period is partly built into the process. His example: The Copenhagen Opera House, where the orchestra had six months of rehearsal to adjust and tweak and play with their new toy. In Dallas, “we had three hours.”

There’s also lots of technology to master. Everything about the house is designed to project sound back to the audience. The orchestra and the performers can’t hear each other the way they’re used to. And fixes, such as monitors that the orchestra will experiment with this weekend, or screens that project Jenkins’ time-keeping from the pit up to the performers, either have to be calibrated to reflect real time, OR delays need to be instinctively factored in by the performers. The new monitors, for example, must be set to .3 seconds behind what’s actually happening on stage. “Don’t ask me why,” Jenkins says, mostly joking, just a tinge of concern. “It may be a complete disaster tomorrow night.”

Coyne speaks of the Wyly as as an extension of the DTC’s former Arts District Theater – flimsy, yes,  yet so infinitely flexible. While Jenkins is planning performances in some cases five years in advance, to meet the schedules of opera singers in demand, theater can be more on the fly:  Coyne and company  built the Henry IV set without full knowledge of where key scenes would be performed or even whether they would be performed. And the next time he designs a set for Henry IV, it will have an entirely different look and feel than the one we just saw at the Wyly. In director Kevin Moriarty’s production, there was no furniture, no set changes, little to distinguish between battle field, tavern scene or death bed. Just a “physical, sculptural response to the piece.”