New theater and dance center previewed on hard-hat tour

Residents of the Greylock Quad have lived with the chaotic noise of construction for several months, but this weekend they had a chance to take a closer look at the source of the clamor. Last Saturday, the College opened the site of the new ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance complex to three tours, allowing students, faculty and visiting alumni the opportunity to explore the frame of the unfinished building for the first time.

William Rawn, of the William Rawn Associates architectural firm of Boston, presented the first plans and models for the 93,000 square foot addition to the Adams Memorial Theater (AMT) last spring. April marked the advent of construction for the estimated $50 million project, which is scheduled to be completed in March, 2005.

According to Eric Beattie, director of Facilities Planning and Construction, the Center’s steel frame is expected to be completed by December of this year, while the structure which will greet students returning to campus next fall will look “essentially like a finished building.”

Beattie emphasized the need for construction plans of the enormous structure to go as close to schedule as possible, since the workers must prepare for harsh weather during the upcoming winter months. One concern is that low temperatures could freeze the mortar and impede the building process. During the Winter, workers will lay tarp over the frame to prevent damage.

Cosmo Catalano, lecturer in theater and production manager, led the first tour and pointed out the groundwork for the various spaces in the new building. With a 550-person seating area, a two-row section for an orchestra and audience seats wrapped around the semi-circular main stage, the main theater is what Rawn described as “an abstraction of a great Shakespearean theater.”

Catalano pointed out that the size of the room will not diminish the experience for the audience, as the architects have tried to keep a reasonable distance between the stage and those people seated in the last row.

“We’re trying to keep the space manageable for young voices,” he said.

Those on the tour were invited to examine a model of one of the thickly-layered limestone and sheet rock walls which, as Catalano explained, will make acoustics in the new theater better than those in Chapin Hall. One of the main problems in designing theaters and auditoriums is keeping the sound from one performance within that space, without the noise permeating other rooms. “The last thing you want is a lot of rumble in the background,” Catalano said.

According to Catalano, “very thick walls” composed of multiple layers of sheet rock and several sets of double doors will ensure that the sound from the main theater will not carry over to the AMT or the studio theater, also located in the new Center.

This practical design will permit multiple groups to use the theater at the same time and “allows us to put the schedules [of performances] much closer together,” Catalano said.

Catalano also called attention to the space where the directing studio and costume shop will sit. The architects anticipate that most of the attendees will arrive from the parking garage-side of the new theater. Near the rear of the building on the second floor, the architects have planned for a large performance studio for dance rehearsals and small performances.

The Center will also include a design studio with a media lab where students can put together multimedia projects as well as a number of classrooms and faculty offices.

The plans not only call for the creation of the new ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, but also lay out a renovation of the current AMT, which will begin in Sept. 2004 and should be completed in 2005. The AMT, which currently seats almost 500 people, will be reduced to a 250-seat stage and a lobby and will be used by the theater department and as a second stage for performances in the Williamstown Theater Festival.

The designers also hope that a capella groups will be able to use this space instead of holding concerts in the smaller Currier Ballroom and Brooks-Rogers auditorium.

A curved walkway will connect the new Center and the renovated AMT, surrounded by ample grassy spaces for audiences during intermission. A sizeable main lobby and lounge area will make the theater experience even more comfortable for guests.

Even with the completion of this massive addition to the theater department’s resources, Catalano does not expect the department to expand significantly. But these plans could change if many groups want to use the theater and if the productions require extra staff.

As Catalano noted, construction is “a big, complicated project.” But in planning for the new building, the architects have carefully balanced function and design and have tried to take into account the needs of the theater department, student groups and performers in the Williamstown Theater Festival.

According to the firm, “the architectural character will project a unified vision of the theater and dance programs while responding to changes in topography, incorporating campus pathways and emulating the understated elegance and simplicity of surrounding buildings.”