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  • Adam Shalleck

Balanced Versatility

The year was 2012, smack in the middle of the next surge in San Francisco change (as in the Gold Rush of the 1840s and those that ensued, we’re getting good at this). We were in the development of a playhouse for San Francisco’s major regional theatre company: American Conservatory Theatre. It’s now under construction and will be a second playhouse to their beautiful Geary Theatre in Union Square. They have a thriving MFA program that needs a performance space, their work in general will expand to include smaller, edgier performances both to extend their offering and to attract a new and younger audience, and if there’s time they can generate some revenue in rentals. This need coincides with a long awaited redevelopment of San Francisco’s “Mid-Market” area – a section of the central boulevard that fell into blight from its historical place as a grand city boulevard when the BART system trenched its way through in the ‘70s. The City has offered incentives for the booming tech industry to locate there and goose the area back into shape. So the selection of the address by ACT was no accident.

They bought an old cinema – The Strand – which was boarded up by condemnation as an attractive nuisance in the ‘80s. As I look at the old Strand’s long, tubular form, it was assuredly a lousy cinema. It did have a subsequent life as probably a pretty decent porn house, and once shut down it evolved into what the local community reports was a pretty good crack house. We’re now making it a great playhouse, so it happens that a cultural building can in fact improve over time.

Early in design, Carey Perloff, the longtime Artistic Director of ACT, was blogging of her plans to aggressively reach out to the new, hip neighbors through both programming and buzz. I took this into my sphere and wondered what I could do from a bricks and mortar standpoint to help that along. What came to mind in the auditorium was to really think about audience configuration style.

Certainly tradition over the past few hundred years has been to orient our audience toward the performance while at the same time allowing them to enjoy their gathering as a group. For pure efficiency’s sake – maximizing the amount of people one can fit in a given space – we place people in rows, but we curve the rows and wrap them around the sides of the space, to encourage the infectiousness of audience response. A certain formality comes with organizing the space in rows, and there remains a vital place for that.

But there are other forms of gathering in which formality is not what we’re after. My thinking is that, if we are to reach out to a different audience or to provide the theatre directors with some flexibility in the posture (read: state) of their audience, might we afford the theatre a way to sit that is less formal and allow a group of friends or family to remain connected throughout the performance? In education spaces of late, it’s been learned that small groups are quite effective, at once empowering the individual, the small group, and the big group. So I wanted to infuse the audience chamber, 300 seats in all with a small balcony, with the flexibility to change over between a traditional layout of rows to wider tiers with groups of 2 and 4 around small tables, where you can place your (silenced!) gadget or the drink we have sold you – oh yes, some revenue in compensation for the less efficient seat count in “cabaret” mode. Executive Director Ellen Richard and Carey were both quite interested in the concept.

The issue of flexibility is one that has plagued us since the boom of modern theatres began after WWII. Rearranging seating looks easy on paper, and we can engineer and spend small fortunes on mechanical gadgetry to solve any problem, but in recent decades we have seen that, in practice, such moves are more cumbersome physically or otherwise than can be handled operationally. My simple idea was to go from 3 foot tiered rows to 6 foot tiered rows. In our quiver is very expensive machinery to do this quickly, but I knew not to propose that here. Also in our quiver are cheap, portable platforms, which save money but are terribly time consuming to operate. In either case, it’s the lifting that causes the problem. So, to restate the problem: shift two adjacent platforms in elevation, quickly, without expensive machinery. It turns out that two adjacent platforms weigh the same. I simply configured an armature in which the two adjacent platforms counter balance each other, effectively negating any lifting. A couple of people move one down and one up, each halfway. The armature is part see-saw and part parallelogram, using no high tech or electro-mechanical elements that are difficult to manufacture or maintain: it’s just tube frames, pivots and rollers and telescoping tube to keep the adjacent platforms from drifting apart. It only takes unlatching a catch and a slight change in weight to manipulate each pair back and forth. Chair selection would be based on either posture, with the cabaret modebeing supported with small tables and railings for the edges.

I’m calling this thing VersaRow, and I see other applications: changing music choir risers from eighteen inch standing risers to three foot seated risers, or three foot choir risers to six foot instrumentalist risers. Such a system could provide flexibility in wheelchair positions in a theatre or sports facility.

VersaRow. What would you do with it?

Post script: We ultimately didn’t have the time to develop the concept within ACT’s design schedule, but we worked out a scheme with the architect, SOM, to make the changeovers to the seating possible with a very small amount of platforming that need never leave the room for storage.

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