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.
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.”