Theater and Dance plans unveiled

The College unveiled plans for the massive new Theater and Dance performing arts complex on April 4. The performing arts complex, which is slated for completion in 2005, is the first of the College’s three forthcoming construction projects. Construction of the facility will be followed by groundbreaking for the new Baxter student center and the substantial renovations to the Stetson-Sawyer library complex.

The 93,000 square foot addition to the current Adams Memorial Theater (AMT) includes a 550-seat main stage, a 200-seat experimental studio theater and a performance space for the dance company, along with a renovation of the existing AMT into a 250-seat second stage. The entire project is currently being estimated to cost $50 million. William Rawn, of the William Rawn Associates architectural firm of Boston, presented plans and models to student groups, administration and townspeople.

Despite the building’s substantial size – when completed, the complex will cover an area comparable to that of the Freshman Quad – Rawn designed the building with a clear intention to “respond to the tradition of campus” and follow “the responsibility to work within the fabric. . .of [the College].” A study of the campus, particularly the prominent buildings along Route 2, showed a pattern of long, narrow facades, described by Rawn as “civic buildings marching down the street.” The performing-arts complex is designed to follow this trend, with a thinner side facing Main Street in order to avoid overwhelming Main Street’s landscape.

However, while adapting to the town’s building traditions, Rawn also sought to create a building that was “proud to be contemporary.” The AMT’s neoclassical facade will be replaced with a simplified front, opening to a glass lobby accented with wood to “dapple the light.” Other exterior walls will be made of cream-colored limestone and a brick matching the material of the existing AMT. The original AMT lobby will be connected to the new facility so the lobby winds around the building in a curving path. The curving lines of the lobby, along with a set of ramps hugging the side break the symmetry of the complex. These curves contradict and allude to a theater’s traditional rectilinear shape and balance the boxy nature of the over-stage areas.

Maintaining existing paths for pedestrian movement between the Greylock quad and the part of campus east of Park St. was another focus when integrating the proposed complex into the overarching campus plan. Responding to concerns that the center will isolate the Greylock quad, Rawn described efforts to maintain student migration patterns and keep all areas of the campus accessible. The complex’s plans include incorporation of a path leading directly to the south door of Baxter, a lobby designed for shortcuts from Greylock to Route 2 and a back pathway to the new parking garage, which was also designed by Rawn Associates. By facilitating movement through the building and around it, Rawn explained that the center will “support and celebrate movement,” much like how “performance spaces [should] celebrate the act of community.”

Bringing students of other disciplines through the building on a daily basis is one attempt at community building catalyzed by the theater-dance center’s design. The interspersion of the theater and dance spaces, and the two groups’ shared lobby mark additional effort to unify various parts of the College. Large windows and sliding doors also work to keep the building and the actions inside visible and accessible to the rest of the campus.

Interior spaces are designed for flexibility, as the theater department, Dance Company and the Williamstown Theater Festival will use the stages. President Schapiro also described hopes to bring in touring companies, and possibly serve as a “winter home” for the New York City Ballet. Additionally, the new main theater will house lectures, debates and movies.

The main theater, which will seat 550 people, has two balconies and a top level for catwalks. Rawn described the space as “an abstraction of a great Shakespearean theater,” as the audience surrounds the stage in a semi-circular shape on multiple levels. Designed to appeal to summer theater-goers as well as students, the theater will evoke a sense of “casual elegance” with aspects such as wood detailing. Interchangeable floors will allow the stage to be used by both theater and dance groups. The old AMT Mainstage, which will be reduced to a 250-seat stage and a lobby, will also be used by the theater department and will serve as a second stage for the theater festival.

Particularly innovative is the studio theater, described as an update on the traditional black box theater. Rawn calls the design “a cutting edge concept in theater,” and his assistant exclaimed that he “[doesn’t] know of any other theater like it.” Much like a black box theater, the space is flexible and designed for experimental productions. However, aspects such as a rear brick wall make the space far from neutral. Elements such as moveable towers and portable seating areas also maximize flexibility and make the space suitable for performances with different needs and audience sizes. The studio theater will replace the AMT black box theater, as integrating the previous downstage into the plans became too expensive.

The rear of the building holds a major dance rehearsal space the same size as the new performance stage and the Dance Company’s current performance space in the Lasell gymnasium. Though the area will typically be used for practice, it could also hold small audiences of up to 40 people. Perched atop of a “ceremonial staircase,” the studio has full windows looking out the back of the building.

A major lobby in the center of the building will serve as a hub for the various professors and students using the complex and was designed to be “the heart of the life of the theater department.” Located at the most well-trafficked part of the complex, the lobby is lined with a row of faculty offices. Students will also cut through the lobby when traveling from the Greylock Quad to Route 2.

Other features of the complex include acting and directing studios, dressing rooms, a full set shop, and a rear loading dock.

Rawn Associates, established in 1983, has done extensive work in the performing arts and education sectors. One of the firm’s first high profile projects was the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts. The firm has also worked on residence halls and student centers at Trinity College, Babson College, Northeastern University and the University of Pennsylvania.