Rickie Pratt: Opera House project needs to be done right

December 15, 2012

Opera House project needs to be done right

It greatly concerns me that so many within our community want to see the renovation project for the Opera House proceed at breakneck speed without full consideration of the consequences.

Have there been delays with the project? The answer is definitely yes. However, this is where we are in the process. Can we look back and say things should have taken a turn in a different direction? And the answer would be yes. But we are where we are.

As a card-carrying member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local #126 of Fort Worth, TX since 1980, I have worked backstage for all types of live-theatre productions: dance recitals, concerts, ballets, opera and live theatre. As a stagehand, I have worked as a carpenter: building sets with scenery, hanging backdrops, threading pipe and loading stage weights for the fly rail. As a rigger, I have crawled onto steel I-beams to hang chain motors for overhead lighting and sound trusses. As an electrician, I have run power for concerts, television remote hookup buses, hung light fixtures, operated the lighting console and ran follow-spots. As a sound technician, I have run the sound console for many live performances and concerts.

When I tell someone I know Theatre, it’s not to boost my ego as so many have stated. I am giving my opinion based upon years of experience. I am not asking for compensation for my experience, only consideration that I have over 30 years of background in the field.

SURVIVAL

My concerns over the current drawings and design are based upon this experience. Having been involved in the Opera House when it first got started in Granbury just happens to be another positive experience in understanding what our local venue needs to survive.

A live stage venue should have versatility. It should be a place where there are no limits on the types of programs which can occur there. It should be a place where live theatre musicals and stage plays can occur, as well as concerts, magic acts, comedy acts, motivational speakers, movie screenings. In order to do these various types of entertainment, the workings of a theatre must be considered.

Having a mere shell of a building with seats in it doesn’t make a theatre. Having a two-story empty space on the back of the building doesn’t make a theatre. Having a stage poured out of concrete doesn’t make a theatre. Having a lobby with no box office doesn’t make it a theatre. If all we are concerned with in the end is the speed with which the project gets started, we are not looking far enough down the road.

NOT A PROFIT CENTER

A theatre venue is not a profit center and shouldn’t be designed to be. It should however be a venue that allows for a production company the opportunity to survive. If we build a shell of a building, no production company can manage to survive; the building must have the backstage support system required for any type of production to carry out normal operations. It must have lighting, sound, stage rigging and drapery for its technical operations. It must have dressing rooms and rehearsal space along with a scene shop and costume area. In addition, there must be storage space. If a production company fails because of the design details, we have failed this community. Merchants want live entertainment taking place again at the Opera House and don’t want to see a venue have more and more taxpayer dollars poured into the project.

In a design concept which I brought to the table, I mentioned an orchestra pit, which was interpreted by others as a money pit. Well if one had looked at the drawing, they would have seen it was a basement with an extension in front of the proscenium wall, which if the stage apron were removed from above, the area could also serve as a place for an orchestra to operate from (an orchestra pit). A basement under a wooden stage floor allows storage of equipment and allows a theatre company to perform the magic that is a part of the experience of live theatre to take place. For instance, perhaps the show calls for someone to appear out of a cloud of smoke, coming from below the stage this can happen. Or scenery needs to magically move, with devices mounted below the stage floor, this can occur.

Another consideration is not creating a venue that has too many seats. We have already seen that in the past if there are 300 plus seats available and only 100 sell then the venue looks empty. Patrons then make an assumption that the show is not good and talk about how many empty seats which discourage others from considering attending future performances.

SEATING CAPACITY

With seating capacity limited to around 250, 100 attendees don’t look so bad. Also it is better for a venue to have a demand for tickets than trying to fill the house with free tickets. More runs of the same production can create a buzz in the community which translates to more ticket sales.

Have you ever found yourself trying to get into a crowded restaurant? Well the same is true for a live venue, making it difficult to get the tickets can actually benefit a production company run of a performance. Ever see the signs, “This show held over by popular demand”?

In the beginning, there was much talk of making the venue ADA accessible, and any design must meet current standards and not be based upon standards from the 1990s. The building is a gutted out shell at this point and through engineering core samples conducted earlier, it has been noted that bedrock is some 9 feet below the surface.

With this in mind, the excavation of dirt from behind the existing south wall of the Opera House building could be accomplished, thus allowing for the stage and backstage structure to remain 1 foot above current parking lot grade.

In my design concept, the rows of seats towards the stage are below grade.

We used to see this concept in movie houses, which allows the person in front to not block the screen. The tapering of the seating also allows the overall grade of the backstage structure to remain at grade or close to grade and not rise 3 feet above the back parking lot as is depicted in the current plan. All this helps with meeting ADA accessibility.

ON THE FLY

We heard from the construction firm, that they are assembling a team that can address these details “on the fly,” meaning a fast track for the project. Working with design engineers requires some amount of time, if one wants to be safe about the scope of the build. There are things which the construction firm can get started on, but all this is contingent upon a set of building plans, which give a clear direction for the project and that is what is lacking.

There is a workshop scheduled for Monday, Dec. 17 at 10 a.m. in City Hall at which time there will be discussion and direction given to the construction firm.

I want to encourage concerned citizens to attend, in order to better understand what lies before us.

Think twice, do this once because there won’t be a second shot at doing it right.

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