After 25 years, arts center staff strive to make sure it lasts a century

mdunham@adn.comJanuary 24, 2014 

On June 5, singer Tony Bennett wrapped up the second of two concerts in Anchorage, accepted the standing ovation from a capacity crowd, smiled, waved and strolled off into the wings. As the audience shuffled out of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts -- widely, if somewhat incorrectly, known as "the PAC" -- staff went to work dismantling the massive banks of switches, breakers and wiring that had controlled the stage lights for Bennett and every other artist who'd performed on the Atwood Concert Hall stage since the facility opened in 1988.

It was the start of a $2 million project that would rebuild the "dimmer room," replacing analog equipment with digital devices and shrinking the footprint to half of what it had been. Crews worked around the clock pulling out the old, hauling in the new and unscrambling miles of old wiring but, by the end of summer, the job was done.

The new system allows house lights as well as theatrical lights to be controlled from the same panels. It brings the center into the 21st century by making it computer-friendly in ways that would have seemed like science fiction 25 years ago.

"I can be in the audience with a laptop or iPhone and run everything," said Mark Florez, a technician who has been with the center since it opened and currently has the title of production manager for the Discovery Theatre.

From such devices he can also do some troubleshooting, though upgrading the dimmer room should mean that there's a lot less trouble to shoot. "It's nice to be able to sleep at night without wondering if you're going to get a call about some emergency," Florez said.

 

Out of sight

Now in its 25th season of hosting concerts, plays, musicals and other spectaculars in its three main halls, the PAC has undergone regular renovation and repair over the years, most famously a $5 million roofing job needed to fix leaks in 2005. No one likes seeing a play with water dripping over their heads.

Likewise, no one wants to hear a concert accompanied by the hum of fans or other equipment. Everyone expects bathrooms to work. The seats mustn't wiggle and the air should be neither too hot nor too cold, nor should it smell funny. The house lights should go down when the stage lights go up. Set changes, curtain action and such should go so smoothly that you don't notice them. What patrons are paying for is to notice nothing, in fact, except the musician, actor, dancer or singer they've paid to see -- in as much comfort as can be reasonably expected.

To make that happen requires an efficiently operating infrastructure that few ever see. The ACPA occupies a city block, stands 200 feet tall and extends more than two storeys under the ground. Perhaps two-thirds of its space -- backstage, mechanical, storage, dressing rooms -- is out of view from the public areas.

"It's a very complicated and interesting building," said ACPA President Nancy Harbour as she took a reporter on a behind-the-scenes tour this month.

 

Overhead street signs

With Florez and John Strebe, the physical plant director for the building, Harbour hiked up the stairs to the space above Atwood Hall. Here one can see the diamond-patterned ceiling of the hall from the top side, criss-crossed by a baffling system of supports, steps and catwalks. Lights hang in hidden coves, all with a bull's-eye view of the stage. When the hall first opened, operators were often confused about how to get to their stations. To designate the catwalks, Florez put up construction paper "street signs" that still remain in place to guide crews with visiting shows, who often bring their own lighting.

"My little signs are 25 years old," he noted.

The topmost point inside the building is the follow-spot room at the back of the hall. Here, two 5,000-watt vented xenon lamps, similar to the lamps of movie theater projectors, can follow a performer on the stage far below.

At the very bottom of the building, below the basements, are the return air vents, man-sized tunnels that circulate the air from the theaters above. They're insulated to baffle sound and, from an acoustic standpoint, may be the "deadest" place in the building. Size is important for minimizing the sound of moving air, Harbour said.

The tunnels also carry wire conduits throughout the facility, making them easy to access. Drains and periodic sump pumps remove the inevitable moisture that forms in the building.

In between are assorted spaces like the music room, used by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra to store its piano, percussion, podium and bottled water for the players. Harbour seemed particularly proud of the recently upgraded mechanical room with new furnaces and a generator to power emergency lights.

"These are so much smaller than the old ones," she said of the new boilers. "We had these big, huge iron monsters that looked like they were always leaking, even though they weren't."

"They were," both Florez and Strebe rejoined simultaneously.

 

Ghost hall

Perhaps ACPA's most impressive secret is the Mary Hale Rehearsal Hall, a grand cavern under street level conceived as a practice space or even an additional performance hall. Before it could be completed, it was taken over by storage needs. Vacant windows -- ghosts of the original plan -- designed as light booths now look out on stacks of rugs, chairs, tables, assorted lamps and other equipment.

Hale was a major player on the performing arts scene in Anchorage for many years around the time of statehood. She helped start Anchorage Opera and the Anchorage Concert Chorus. She talked famed conductor Robert Shaw into performing in Alaska. She was a good performer, determined organizer and -- above all -- a dedicated trouper who made sure the show went on regardless of the difficulties.

Some of her old friends might decry the rehearsal hall named for her being used for something other than its original purpose, Harbour acknowledged. "But this is one of the most important places in the building. If we didn't have it, we'd have to rent a warehouse. I think Mary would understand."

Visiting companies are regularly astonished to learn that the building has built-in storage, she said. It's a rare, if not unheard of, luxury in the big markets of the Lower 48.

 

Projecting the sound

Most ACPA upgrades are invisible, but one development coming our way this year will be in plain view: a new custom-made acoustic shell for Atwood Concert Hall.

Atwood was designed as a multi-use space, to be shared by theatrical and musical performers. But different shows have different needs. Theater needs towering headroom above the proscenium arch for sets and special effects; lighting and curtains typically require a space between the stage and the auditorium. Music, particularly acoustic music, benefits from a "one-room" structure, in which the stage and auditorium are essentially the same continuous piece of architecture; Davis Concert Hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is the state's most notable example.

To overcome the sound-draining overhead space in Atwood, a series of connected panels is used to project the music into the auditorium. But the shell now in use was originally designed for the smaller Discovery Theatre. It leaves a large gap and, as a result, the sound in the center of the hall can get muffled.

After a drive to raise $1.7 million, a new shell will be installed this summer. The structure, with a white mountain ash veneer, will cover the performers and largely fill the gap between stage and listener. The design will reflect the diamond pattern of the main ceiling. If it works as advertised, musicians on stage will have an easier time hearing themselves and fellow players, and audiences, particularly on the orchestra level, will have a much-enhanced listening experience.

The new shell will be tested over the summer with free performances, Harbour said, and officially debut with the opening of the Anchorage Symphony season next fall. To mark the occasion, she said, the symphony hopes to bring in an "iconic" guest artist whose name has yet to be made public.

 

Replace, Rebuild, repeat

Commenting on what improvements will be made in the next 25 years, Harbour was succinct. "We'll repeat everything. The fascinating part is thinking about the kind of technology they'll have by then."

Keeping up with technology is a constant issue for a plant as big and convoluted as ACPA. So is basic maintenance. Upholstery and carpet wears out. Strebe said the freight elevator needs to be upgraded and, in the next 5-10 years, the HVAC and fire systems will need to be replaced.

Fire safety is a huge endeavor. There are new standards for fire retardant for "soft goods" like curtains. Old smoke detectors on wooden doors sound false alarms almost every month and need to be replaced. The building's original smoke detectors were installed in a way that makes them impossible to check. They still hang in their dysfunctional locations long after a more practical system was installed.

There are things that must be done and things that get done "when we have the money," Harbour said. The money comes from a mix of charges to presenters, private donations, public funds (including the recent legislative grant of money to repair Project '80s structures) and a reserve fund drawn from the center's profits.

"One of my main concerns is how to keep this building a hundred-year building," Harbour concluded. "After 25 years, it's something we still have to think about every day."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

 

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