Theatrical Comfort - From the Bottom Up

Patrons who attended their first Swine Palace Production performance at the Reilly Theatre on Louisiana State Univerresity’s campus in February 2000 couldn’t wait to give the actors a standing ovation.

It was the only way they could find comfort. The seating was that bad.

Built as a public-private partnership between the university, the Swine Palace’s 501c3 board of directors and the state, the theater project rescued the campus’s oldest building from implosion. It was originally built as a livestock judging barn in 1926, so this 17,000-sq.-ft. structure offered unique masonry walls, a dirt floor and concrete risers sans seats. Luckily, officials assumed, the risers’ dimensions and depth already allowed for today’s code minimum clearance, even if designers installed proper theater seats rather than the current bleacher set-up.

Of course, in order to maintain the aesthetic principles of this project, Marvin “Buddy” Ragland, a partner with Robert M. Coleman and Partners Architects in New Orleans, paid attention to the details. Swine Palace Production officials insisted on keeping the dirt floor for effect, so Ragland selected acoustical seat fabrics and frame chassis in earth tones that matched the stage and the sailcloth window curtains. The goal: an agricultural, rural context of the building’s original heritage.

“We knew from the get-go it would be tight,” Ragland confesses. “I remember being in design and programming meetings where people talked about the new movie theaters with rocking chairs that spoil patrons, compared to some of the theaters on Broadway where they jam you in with a shoehorn. Then everybody would snap back to reality and say, ‘We’ll be somewhere in between. You know we do have a schedule and a budget -- and what we’re doing is within the code-approved limits.’”

The budget was intimidating: The project languished for two years with zero dollars in the till before a sponsor stepped forward with monies. Every dollar spent meant another dollar the 501c3 board had to beg for, then trot to the legislature to apply for a matching check. In the end, the nonprofit board raised $2.2 million, and the state kicked in $1.8 million, an incredibly prudent $4 million renovation total.

“Everything that wasn’t essential we cut,” Ragland assures. “The $60,000 to expand the seats represented a pretty hefty contribution to drum up, so we decided not to do that.”

So when the curtain went up on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on February 11, 2000, patrons packed the 500 chairs. Attendees noticed the sound system by Chicago-based Kirkegaarde & Associates, a system of more than 50 microphones, 60 speakers and a computer control to capture intimate vocal effects within the cathedrallike environment. They applauded Donald Holder, winner of a Tony award for his lighting design of The Lion King, who designed their lighting system.

Then they complained about the seats. Oh, it was tolerable for a six-foot-tall man sitting in a “teacher is watching” upright position -- Ragland actually had two inches between his knees and the seat in front of him. “But if I got lazy halfway through and started to squirm a bit, I was out of room. A bigger guy was out of room from the get-go. So we had legal but snug,” he describes. Because nonprofit groups must worry about keeping every patron a happy customer, the Swine Palace board held an emergency meeting to determine a remedy.

Ragland eventually extended the risers to expand the seat-to-seat dimensions to a more normal six inches -- double the current spacing. And because the arena only held six rows of seats in a long, linear theater-in-the-round presentation, he wasn’t looking at adding 15 feet or gutting the building. Nor did the revamp plan call for scrapping seats -- although the board did take the opportunity to remove three or four seats from each row on the ends to make more room for audience egress.

The tab, however, remained at the originally quoted $60,000 -- money officials found by scraping together the leftover change in various state budgets allocated to the project. The contractors completed the job in a three-week window between productions to avoid losing box office dollars.

Ragland took home two lessons from the switcheroo: Resist the temptation to go forward until you can clearly define everyone’s expectations, he says. Second, it’s amazing how far you can get when everyone is pulling on the same end of the rope.

“We really got a wonderful facility, all things considered,”Tick says. “We can make improvements as we go along. This story has a happy ending.”

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