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Ushering in a new era

Maria Smith | Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A new era of opportunity for the arts is about to open at the University of Notre Dame.Almost anyone who has heard of Notre Dame knows that the school is famous for its athletics and its academics. But when it comes to music, theatre and film, Notre Dame has been far from one of the first schools to come to mind.One of the main problems holding back Notre Dame’s development with the fine arts programs has always been lack of facilities. Washington Hall, the University’s main performance venue, was built in 1881. While the building is suitable for some types of performances, it lacks the technology students will find in the real world of performance. The building also lacks the versatility for many kinds of musical performances.When former University President Father Edward Malloy took office, this was one of the problems he decided to tackle. Finding the funding and making the plans for a new performing arts center wasn’t easy. But after 21 years of work, the Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts is about to officially open. “”If you look at the legacy of Notre Dame in the world and compare, it has matched up in academics and athletics, and I doubt there a university anywhere that has done as good a job addressing issues of social justice as Notre Dame. But in that comparison you would always find the University wanting with respect to arts facilities and arts activity on campus,” said John Haynes, executive director of the PAC. “I think that [Father] Monk [Malloy] saw that, and saw that it was one of the things that stood in the way of international greatness as a university.”

The missionA new building won’t catapult the school to fame overnight. But with the construction of the PAC, students have a chance for education in the arts that they have never had before.Of course the PAC is not only intended for the students and faculty of Notre Dame. For the most part the PAC will host performers from out of town, but will also provide a new venue for local groups like the South Bend Symphony and the Southhold Dance Theatre. Just as the football stadium is one of the strongest links between the Notre Dame and South Bend, the PAC is intended as a sort of meet and greet area for the local community and the University. “In some ways it’s our bridge to the broader South Bend community and beyond,” Malloy said. “We hope that people from the broader area would feel eager and welcome to attend the various performances that will take place there.”Unlike public and commercial performing arts centers, however, the PAC was designed primarily as an educational facility. Smaller performing spaces than commercial theatres were chosen partly to accommodate student performers. Larger control rooms were built to allow groups of students to observe the use of equipment, and the equipment and technical spaces are also easier to use.”When it comes to colleges and universities, we pay very careful attention to the fact that this is a theatre with a mission. The mission is to educate,” said Brian Hall, director of design for Theatre Project Consultants, the consulting firm for the PAC. “A lot of the people using their spaces are not professional actors or professional musicians. We try to make the spaces even more intimate.”The spaces may be smaller than in a commercial theatre, but this does not mean they are inferior. Visually and acoustically, the PAC is the equal of most professional theatres.”We try to make the look of the space extremely professional, so students get an idea what real performances are all about,” Hall said.By now most people know about the opening ceremonies for the PAC this weekend, including an open house from 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. on Friday and an inaugural performance by Wynton Marsalis on Sunday. Most people know that the building is an improvement over Washington Hall. Most people also know that instead of one main performing space, the PAC contains five. What most people don’t know is exactly how big an improvement the center is, and what this will mean for students and audiences. Each space is specially designed to fit its own role in the future of Notre Dame fine arts.

The exteriorWhen Hardy, Holzman and Pfeiffer Associates began working on the PAC, they faced the challenge of resolving two very different styles of architecture. The PAC needed to fit in with the newer architectural style of buildings like DeBartolo Hall and the Mendoza College of Business that surround it. The University also wanted the building to tie in with the Gothic style that characterizes older parts of the campus such as Main Building and the Basilica.”The board’s interest was in going back to the Gothic, to be a conduit between those two architectural languages,” said William Murray, principal architect for the project.The distinctively sharp 60-degree angles and striped slate of the roof were chosen to reflect Gothic style, but the architects chose cleaner lines to reflect the building’s modern neighbors. Unlike the Eck Center, another modern building built in Gothic style, the PAC lacks heavy ornamentation.Doors on both sides of the building, facing onto the quad and towards Angela Road, signify the University’s intention for the PAC to be a bridge between communities.

The LeightonThe 900-seat Judd and Mary Lou Leighton Concert Hall, located to the right when entering the building from the campus side, is the largest and most versatile of the spaces in the building. This is the room that will host the Wynton Marsalis, the New York Philharmonic, the Notre Dame Glee Club and countless other famous performers.The most striking visual aspects of the concert hall upon walking in the door include the stenciled banners hanging from the ceiling and the canopy of plastic reflectors hanging over the stage.The banners are partly intended to match the Gothic design of the outside of the building. But the most important thing about a concert hall is how the music sounds, and like most aspect of the space, the aesthetic aspects have a distinct affect on the music.One of the most important things to consider in designing a concert hall is what kind of music is going to be performed. Not every room is well suited to make every kind of music sound its best.”On the one hand you have to do the Messiah with a big choir and the orchestra, the next day a Beethoven program, and the next day some actors doing a little bit of Shakespeare,” said principal acoustician Ron McKay of McKay Conant Brook Inc. “These have very different acoustic requirements.”In order to host the widest possible variety of acts, the room itself is tunable. The banners, made of heavy-duty double layered velour, are lowered to absorb vibrations for performances that need a less reverberant room. Velour-covered fiberglass panels over the ceiling and the walls of the upper level can be raised and lowered for the same purpose.The plastic reflectors over the stage can also be raised or lowered from stage level for cleaning to 37 feet over the stage for large orchestral performances.”[During testing] we had every kind of act imaginable, and with the combination of moving the two things, you could change the acoustics of the room so it would work for everything,” McKay said. “You name it, we had it in there and made it work.”

The ReyesThe Chris and Anne Reyes Organ and Choral Recital Hall, home of an organ handcrafted for the room out of Douglas fir, is perhaps the most unique space in the PAC.Notre Dame has always had a strong sacred music, and hopes to use the hall as part of a proposed program offering a master’s degree in sacred music through the departments of music and theology.”[W]hat we’re attempting to do is to build quality programs in sacred music at the graduate and undergraduate levels. We think that this is a natural fit for a Catholic university,” said Craig Cramer, professor of music specializing in organ. “[T]he Reyes hall for organ and choral music will provide a magnificent addition to our offerings.”The organ, pew-style seating and three levels of galleries give the room the feel of Gothic church, but the galleries have a more utilitarian purpose.The Reyes, like the Leighton, is designed to have tunable acoustics. Heavy curtains in the third acoustic gallery can be drawn to reduce the reverberation of the room. With the curtains pulled back a single hand clap can sound for up to four seconds, but with the curtains drawn the reverberation is reduced to half.The second gallery will hold choirs, string ensembles or other musicians for various performances.

The DecioWhen the idea of a new performing arts center was first conceived, the main purpose was to provide an adequate venue for dramatic performances that came to town. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the construction of the PAC is that the 350-seat Patricia George Decio Mainstage Theatre is actually smaller than the 571-seat Washington Hall. While the Decio is not as large as its predecessor, it is undeniably better designed and equipped for its purpose. The stage is equipped with an adjustable proscenium that can be moved by one person and allows anywhere from a 36 to 46-foot stage front. The orchestra pit lift can be lowered into the basement or raised to stage level. The backstage also has a 16 by 30-foot trapped floors, 36 line sets and a grid run at 67 feet.”It’s what a backstage should be, and what it rarely is,” said Sarah Prince, director of technical services for the PAC.The smaller size of the theatre limits the audience for dramatic performances, but the smaller size and design also allow even soft noises from the stage to carry throughout the audience.”[The drama theatre] is tight acoustically, so someone being educated in voice can reach the audience easily,” Hall said.

The BrowningThe Michael Browning Family Cinema has been the first of the spaces in the building to meet with wide commercial success. Several screenings of the documentaries that have come to the theatre have already sold out, and administrators have already begun to consider ways to add screenings and facilitate the popularity of the films.Students who have attended the initial screenings can already testify to the quality of viewing in the only THX certified cinema in the state of Indiana. “There was a strong interest from Film, Television and Theatre to have that [rating],” Murray said.The angle of the screen, quality of projection and clarity of images in THX rated cinemas is carefully regulated to avoid any viewing distortion. The rating also requires strict acoustic neutrality and sound isolation.”We ran the audio system in the studio up to 115 decibels, and outside in the corridor you could barely pick up the bass coming through,” Murray said. “The whole cinema is built like a free standing box.”

The PhilbinAt first sight, the Regis Philbin Studio Theatre might not look like the best place for a dramatic performance. The room can be completely cleared of seating, scenery, stage and light setups.The Philbin Studio Theatre is also known as a black box theatre. The completely flexible space has equal walls and equal catwalks over the entire ceiling. The stage can be set up anywhere in the room with any kind of seating arrangement and light design. “You don’t find a lot of these theatres out there,” Murray said.The 100-seat Philbin is the smallest space in the PAC, but also provides one of the most unique opportunities. The chance to experiment with lighting and stage design is unlike anything students have been able to do before.”Washington Hall doesn’t have an orchestra pit or real catwalks, the things any student will find in the real world,” Murray said. “This can teach students all these things.”

The futureThe capacity of the PAC as an educational building is not limited to the five performing spaces. The building contains 177 rooms, including 14 film editing studios, a costume shop, scenery shop, practice rooms, offices and classrooms for the FTT department and a recording studio set up to record performances in all the performing areas.The facility itself is undoubtedly a new point of pride for the University, but as always, the most important thing is the opportunity the PAC will provide to the students and community.The schedule for the building’s inaugural season includes the New York Philharmonic, The Chieftains, Natalie McMaster and many other nation and world famous acts.”There’s no one in the community besides Notre Dame, now that we have the building, to present artists of this caliber in the community,” Haynes said. “With regularity you will see things you used to have to drive to Chicago to see.”If the PAC continues to have as prestigious a schedule of artists in coming years as it does for its first, the building will indeed be able to change the face not only of arts education but also of arts appreciation both at Notre Dame and in the surrounding areas.”What’s important at the facility is what happens inside,” Malloy said. “I think it’s a wonderful attractive building, but the reason we put it up is because of the wonderful things that are going to happen inside these spaces.”