Q&A Spotlight: Suspending Disbelief, Creating Art

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Interview with Bruce Herrmann, AIA, Director, Wilson Butler Architects, Boston, Massachusetts
Discussing the Richmond CenterStage Project, Richmond, VA

Your Performance Partners: What is your philosophy for orchestra shells?
Herrmann: If orchestra shells are really done well, then the room and shell integrate together: you feel like you’re in the same room with the orchestra. As an audience member looking through the proscenium portal, it can feel like you’re separated, like you’re watching a movie or on the outside looking in. But with a really great shell, you feel like, ‘Oh, we’re all in the same room.’ That’s part of what we tried to do at the Carpenter Theatre.

Your Performance Partners: What are some the Carpenter’s unique architectural aspects?
Herrmann: The interior side walls resemble building faces, complete with balconies, statues and inset niches glowing blue from the simulated “twilight” lighting behind them. The domed ceiling overhead is painted dark blue and features twinkling stars.

All these elements are intended to enhance the temporary suspension of disbelief and help one imagine you are in a plaza under the evening sky. “There’s an orchestra performing tonight and something must be going on in the Duke’s palace.” In this make-believe environment, I can forget my troubles and everything going on in the rest of the world.

If we’ve done our job right, that show really began outside at the sidewalk. From the moment the audience walked in, they’ve been prepped for having a good time and hopefully there’s a smile on everyone’s face. They are waiting to be captivated. The perception of what you hear is affected by the mood you’re in at the time. Then the performance is the best thing – the icing on the cake – the reason the audience is there.

Your Performance Partners: How is the outdoor environment recreated indoors?
Herrmann: The original theatre featured cloud projectors to cast moving shadows across the ceiling. New cloud projectors were installed to continue that fantasy, and the cloud motif is also carried into the custom acoustical reflectors suspended from the ceiling in front of the proscenium. They were designed to look like real clouds, complete with irregular shapes, bulges and lumps.

The 48 original incandescent-light stars in the ceiling were upgraded to fiber-optics, providing more variety in sizes and a better twinkle. More stars were added to help fill empty areas while maintaining the random, natural look.

Your Performance Partners: What is the orchestra shell’s decoration?
EverGreene Architectural Arts did the creative painting of shell — and entire theatre interior — they have one foot in real world and one foot in artistic world. The vibrant color scheme and ornamental painting is an extension of the architecture in the seating area of the auditorium.

We found the original architectural drawings from 1926 – around a dozen in all. Coincidentally, the plaster company was owned by the original architect, who specified his own work as well. On the other hand, our work took 350 drawings.

Your Performance Partners: Why did you get Wenger involved?
Herrmann: The Diva shell was a product we knew well and it fit all the right criteria, including portability and affordability. We understood what the orchestra needed and we required the flexibility of moving the shell on and off stage because we are a multi-use facility. We also needed to be able to park the towers and nest them.

Having worked with Wenger on other unusual shells over the past ten years, we knew they could do something different in the design once they understood our goals. That was a big factor in our decision – ensuring we could get something memorable.

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