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Behind the scenes: Designing an exceptional theater experience

In just over a month, the Great Lakes Center for the Arts will announce our 2018 Premiere Summer Season programming! What can guests expect of the experience inside the state-of-the-art, 500-seat theater, along with outstanding performing artists? An exceptional theater immersion, due to considerable acoustic engineering design decisions.

David Greenberg, President of Creative Acoustics, detailed some of the specifics that will set the Great Lakes Center for the Arts’ theater experience apart. Based in Connecticut, Creative Acoustics is working with Fischer Dachs Associates, the Center’s New York-based theater design firm. Following are a few of the behind-the-scenes acoustic design elements shared by Mr. Greenberg:
Thunderstorms or heavy rain on performance night? Guests will not notice inside the theater.

“The underside of the roof deck is exposed to the theater as part of the design,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The roof detail, which is a layering of various materials including the waterproofing and insulation that one expects, also includes several inches of concrete. This extraordinary measure was included to isolate the theater from heavy rain impact noise. We take seriously the desire of performers and their audiences to be free of extraneous noise and distraction.”

(The concrete on the theater roof is 5 inches thick; over the stage roof is 6.5 inches.)

Safety first, along with ingenuity. In order to help protect the theater in case of fire, large portions of the stage roof must open to allow smoke to be released outside.

“If we used standard smoke hatches with a single hatch between the stage and the driving rain, all the effort spent on the concrete roof would have been for naught. Instead, we carefully specify a dual-acting smoke hatch with leaves opening both up and down, with a large layer of air between them. Those two layers of hatches match the acoustical protection of the concrete roof detail,” Mr. Greenberg said.

So quiet, it’s cool. Large air handling equipment is being congregated on the south side, under the visible metal roof that passers-by may currently notice from U.S. 31. The huge units process large volumes of air at slow speeds, to prevent noise interference within the theater.

“The air conditioning system serving the house and stage present the biggest challenge on most projects, because they often conspire to make plenty of noise in a large facility,” Mr. Greenberg noted. “With the cooperation of the entire design team, the control of noise and vibration has been taken very seriously. We’ve dampened the vibration from mechanical and electrical equipment, reduced the speed of air through the ducts, silenced duct-borne noise from the air handlers and controlled turbulence from dozens of system components.”

Surround no-sound: The building-around-a-building design approach of the 39,500-square-foot Center presents another method for keeping noise out of the theater. The theater itself is one separate building, and the additional Center spaces (lobby, dressing rooms, restrooms, Community Engagement Room, mechanicals) are in a separate structure surrounding the theater box.

“The theater and stage are surrounded by an acoustic isolation joint that protects it from the surrounding structure supporting the mechanical and electrical equipment. This is a principal method of reducing the possibility that vibration noise finds its way into the theater or stage,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Furthermore, virtually nothing crosses that joint without a flexible connection, so the two sides of the building remain free from one another.”

Other highlights worth noting? “Yes! The room acoustic design philosophy. There were many factors along the way design-wise that led us to a different paradigm from the norm, and one that seemed to fit the program like a glove,” Mr. Greenberg added. “It is complex and interesting, and could take a newsletter of its own.” 

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