The Playgoer: Photo of the Day

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Photo of the Day

photo: Iwan Baan

The Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, TX. Brand new home of the Dallas Theater Center.

NYT architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussof gives an assessment (and full slideshow!) of this and the new nearby opera house as well:

Situated a short walk from the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Wyly Theater’s tall, blocky form is wrapped in a skin of vertical aluminum rods, with only a few windows cut through to suggest the life inside. The architects placed the stage at ground level with windows on three sides so that when the blackout curtains are raised, passers-by can catch glimpses of it.

To get to their seats, audience members will first descend along a vast outdoor ramp, 167 feet at its widest point, down to the lobby, which is one level below ground. The lobby is a generic concrete space — a social mixing chamber designed to build anticipation for the main event above. From there, narrow staircases set in the lobby’s back corners lead up to the theater.

This sequence — down into the earth and back up again — is an effective architectural trick, an inversion of the neo-Classical grand staircase. The idea is to create a sense of slight disorientation, of leaving the outside world behind, and in doing so preparing the mind for the more intimate experience of the performance. Emerging from one of the dark little staircases, you feel the full force of the theater’s height, and of the unfolding experience — the sense of mystery, anxiety and then sudden release — you’ve just been through.

But it is the theater hall itself and the machinery that supports it that are the main event. The proscenium wall, like the scenery, can be raised and lowered electronically. Stage floors can drop away and reappear. Several tiers of balconies can be mechanically rearranged in any number of configurations, surrounding the stage on three sides one night, drawing together in a more traditional arrangement the next.

The purpose of all this engineering is not just to facilitate quick set changes; it also allows the director to manipulate and fine-tune the relationship between actors and audience. If the machinery is used as intended, patrons will find that the emotional distance between them and the actors will change in unexpected ways with each performance.

The design feels like a cheeky take on the idea of the megalomaniac star architect. “You want a monumental, ‘iconic’ building?” it seems to ask. “Well, here’s a big, generic-looking box whose interior changes every time you think you have a fix on it.” And as if in response to the notion of the architect as control freak, it leaves the manipulation of interior spaces, and of the people who inhabit them, to the building’s tenants.

What a nice playground for new A.D. Kevin Moriarty.

(Of course, Ouroussoff never mentions Dallas Theater Center in his review. I suppose these "tenants" remain a mystery to him. Or does the idea of a permanent resident nonprofit theater company still mystify even the most cultured of our journalists?)

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