Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Architect Also Rises


By Beth Herman

For intrepid Bethesda, Md.-based architect Mark McInturff of McInturff Architects, the brass ring opportunity to create what the press, and later the awards gods, would consider a monument to an equally intrepid theatre company wasn't found in a box of Cracker Jacks. Nor was it left under his pillow, or handed to him on a platter of warm Toll House cookies. For McInturff,
who specializes in residential architecture, the opportunity to design a three-story, 35,000 s.f., 265-seat theatre replete with offices, production shops, a rehearsal hall, classroom space and two cafes in the Washington D.C.’s vibrant Penn Quarter wasn't a cakewalk, but it did come as a life-altering experience.

"We were up against some big firms,” McInturff recalled about his somewhat unanticipated quest to build a new home for Washington’s audacious Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, “and some theatre firms – people who’ve done a lot of that kind of work – people with a big name for it: New York firms – and us.” By chance, according to McInturff, in the early stages of development, a member of Woolly Mammoth’s search committee had heard about the architect’s award-winning home designs and had said, “Maybe he can do a theatre,” McInturff quipped, still a bit incredulous that he eventually won the job. When push came to shove and the committee was in the home stretch of a painstaking selection process, McInturff said, “I told them, ‘The bad news is I haven’t done this before, and the good news is I haven’t done this before. So it’s going to be tailored to you and not to the last client I did a theatre for.’”


Too Many Cooks


Located at 641 D Street NW, and part of a large, mixed-use development for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, wherein an arts component is government mandated, the theatre is a space within a building, or actually in the basement of the building, called the Jefferson at Penn Quarter - now the Lafayette condos. According to McInturff, at one point he and his team were, in fact, battling the developer in terms of the amount of parking space the latter needed for 421 condominiums and an array of shops, vs. using it for theatre space. “It really was about taking a piece of a building which was of almost no other use and making it work as a pretty significant cultural institution,” the architect stated.


Sited 100 feet into the block and under a courtyard, and though largely subterranean in nature, McInturff said there were three floors in all that needed to factor into the design, noting “…it was very hard to decipher their relationships. They didn’t stack up – the way they went together.” He also recalled attending a play at the theatre’s former home in an industrial building off 14th
Street, where the space felt very constricted and the lobby separated the dressing rooms from the theatre itself. “It was not a conventional relationship (of rooms),” he reflected, explaining that patrons could be purchasing tickets and the actors, occasionally even nude depending on Woolly Mammoth’s de rigeur programming, would have to cross through to the stage. “The whole thing of seeing an actor in a public way - and then going back and watching them in the show – I thought that was really kind of interesting to take what is normally backstage and bring it forward,” McInturff said, compiling his list of possible components for the new space.

Raw Ingredients

Inspired by Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz and his peers, whom McInturff calls “brilliant, dedicated, tenacious and respectful of everyone’s creative process,” and at his own expense at the outset of the project, the architect elected to take a small contingent from his firm, including architects Julia Heine and Stephen Lawlor, on a kind of fact-finding expedition to London’s theatre district. Emblematic of the Woolly Mammoth’s proclivity for risk-taking, McInturff said he was not afraid to take his own risks and reveal how little he knew about the soul of a theatre, and how much he wanted to learn.

Prevailing upon Shalwitz and a group from Woolly Mammoth to accompany his firm, McInturff asked the D.C. theatre contingent to show them “things that they really loved.” Accordingly, each afternoon was spent touring green rooms and back-of-the-house elements of a specific theatre, with a return to that theatre at night to observe the production itself from several different vantage points. “At intermission we’d switch seats,” McInturff explained, “so you could be in the mezzanine – you could be anywhere – and by the time you left at the end of the night, you understood the space entirely.” He also said that among the key ingredients produced by this kind of investigation was the intimacy ratio: audience to actors, which would inform his D.C. design. “The next day we did it again, and the next day we did it again,” he said of the firm’s multi-theatre experience. “It was very exciting. I was simply a sponge.”

Layers and Layers


Assimilating the Pennsyl-vania Avenue Development Corporation structure’s raw, coarse basement-type elements (exposed concrete; block walls; unrefined joints, to name just a few), along with the building’s aforementioned directionless tiers and the findings of the London junket, into McInturff Architects’ ultimate design, the results were what Shalwitz eventually termed the “transparent theatrical laboratory.” Loosely based on open-concept restaurant design where everything is visible, the theatre’s offices, classrooms, rehearsal spaces and more are exposed to the public, some behind glass panels, communicating that while its thespians are widely celebrated, the Woolly Mammoth machine is far greater than actors on a stage.

“All most people see when they go to a theatre is a small lobby, they see the show, and then they go home,” McInturff explained. “When you come to the Woolly, you understand that this is the result of tremendous amounts of effort by a lot of people working in the background, whether it’s the people in the office, or the box office, or in set design, or in rehearsal, or in classrooms – all leading up to what you are going to do, which is to see the event itself.” And the feeling of “the theatre within the theatre,” McInturff said, in respect to the courtyard model seen in London and reproduced in D.C., where the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, is manifested in a warm, wooden space within a concrete shell – like furniture dropped into a black box, he explained. The design is such that the audience connects and experiences real participation.


“This really was one of the great projects of my life,” McInturff reflected, speaking to Woolly Mammoth’s commitment and creativity and his own personal journey, and comparing the theatre’s design and execution to building another signature residence. “It felt like doing a big house – a family house,” he observed. “It was the same kind of emotional involvement I have with my residential clients. I would just call it a different kind of house.”

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful job by a great architect!

Anonymous said...

It really is a great theater. Kudos to the risk that Woolly Mammoth took to hire an architect that had no experience with Theaters. Sometimes it is good to reinvent the wheel. The boring Nationals stadium is testament to the opposite, tried and true approach.

Anonymous said...

Quick correction. JPI developed the Woolly Mammoth Theatre as part of a larger mixed-use project called Jefferson at Penn Quarter. Land for the development was purchased from the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

JJ said...

I'm confused about why this is posted now. Hasn't that theater been there for years?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding us about this contemporary gem.

Kurt Weiland said...

The Woolly. The best box seats in town for the worst-named theatre organization.

The lobby space of the Woolly Mammoth reminds me of the Kennedy Center, but a right-sized Kennedy Center.

I like the American imperial architectural period, particularly the performance spaces that express the energy and national confidence of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Think of the Kennedy Center in D.C. and Lincoln Center in N.Y.C. Are there any better public buildings that enclose performance space?

Yes.

Turn your attention to a smaller theatre, much smaller than the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center. The Woolly Mammoth at 7th and D Street, N.W., Penn Quarter.

This little place is a worthy effort by an unfortunately named theatre organization. Woolly Mammoth. That is an organization name that conveys no useful information about purpose or history. The name probably explains a bit about the organizers but let’s not dwell on that.

When the Wooly Mammoth went forward to build its new theatre, the space was large enough for only 265 seats. Hardly mammoth at all.

Language naturally sorts out these kinds of contradictions. The theatre is now usually called the Woolly.

McInturff Architects created this little performance venue for its client. The firm is best known for their urban dwellings. Neighborly, welcoming, privacy, intimacy, birthdays, anniversaries. These are the words that usually come to mind about the work of this small group of architects. Add “applause” to the list of words and you are describing the Woolly.

The context for any theater company in D.C. is complicated. The town has important theatres from all the major periods of American theatre construction. The Roaring Twenties: National Theatre, Warner Theatre, Lincoln Theatre. Imperial America: Kennedy Center. Think Jackie. Frank. Dino. Audrey. Boomer Late Century: Sidney Harman Hall, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage. Although the Woolly lobby reminds me of the Kennedy Center, the Woolly fits into this last period very nicely indeed.

The core export product of D.C. is theater. Mostly scripts from the political parties, Congress and the White House. All the enterprises of the town are nothing more than production companies acting out political stories wearing the masks of the theatrical muses, happy Thalia and saddened Melpomene.

For a small theatre company, there is a lot of competition in the presentation of Drama, Tragedy, Comedy. The McInturf architects address this by doing something the political actors never do. The architects open the theatre walls, making them windows on the working mechanisms of a theatrical company.

This visual trope is what the political machines never do. Their workings remain in the closed back rooms.

When you visit this theatre, think FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, and you’ll understand and appreciate what the architects have done.

WCRX-LP Editorial collective on Oct 15, 2010, 9:08:00 AM said...

The Woolly. The best box seats in town for the worst-named theatre organization.

The lobby space of the Woolly Mammoth reminds me of the Kennedy Center, but a right-sized Kennedy Center.

I like the American imperial architectural period, particularly the performance spaces that express the energy and national confidence of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Think of the Kennedy Center in D.C. and Lincoln Center in N.Y.C. Are there any better public buildings that enclose performance space?

Yes.

Turn your attention to a smaller theatre, much smaller than the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center. The Woolly Mammoth at 7th and D Street, N.W., Penn Quarter.

This little place is a worthy effort by an unfortunately named theatre organization. Woolly Mammoth. That is an organization name that conveys no useful information about purpose or history. The name probably explains a bit about the organizers but let’s not dwell on that.

When the Wooly Mammoth went forward to build its new theatre, the space was large enough for only 265 seats. Hardly mammoth at all.

Language naturally sorts out these kinds of contradictions. The theatre is now usually called the Woolly.

McInturff Architects created this little performance venue for its client. The firm is best known for their urban dwellings. Neighborly, welcoming, privacy, intimacy, birthdays, anniversaries. These are the words that usually come to mind about the work of this small group of architects. Add “applause” to the list of words and you are describing the Woolly.

The context for any theater company in D.C. is complicated. The town has important theatres from all the major periods of American theatre construction. The Roaring Twenties: National Theatre, Warner Theatre, Lincoln Theatre. Imperial America: Kennedy Center. Think Jackie. Frank. Dino. Audrey. Boomer Late Century: Sidney Harman Hall, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage. Although the Woolly lobby reminds me of the Kennedy Center, the Woolly fits into this last period very nicely indeed.

The core export product of D.C. is theater. Mostly scripts from the political parties, Congress and the White House. All the enterprises of the town are nothing more than production companies acting out political stories wearing the masks of the theatrical muses, happy Thalia and saddened Melpomene.

For a small theatre company, there is a lot of competition in the presentation of Drama, Tragedy, Comedy. The McInturf architects address this by doing something the political actors never do. The architects open the theatre walls, making them windows on the working mechanisms of a theatrical company.

This visual trope is what the political machines never do. Their workings remain in the closed back rooms.

When you visit this theatre, think FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, and you’ll understand and appreciate what the architects have done.

 

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