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Future-Proofing a Performing Arts Theater

Even if the Jerome Robbins Theater at New York's Baryshnikov Arts Center never decides to use it, the AV team that overhauled the venue laid the infrastructure to support current and future systems.

CHALLENGE: Build a theater's AV infrastructure for the future without holding up a gala grand opening.

SOLUTION: Lay down all the cabling required for analog and digital AV networking pre-opening and finish up the AV installation as opportunities allow.

The new Jerome Robbins Theater includes fiber, copper, and Ethernet AV cabling to handle both current and future needs.

The new Jerome Robbins Theater includes fiber, copper, and Ethernet AV cabling to handle both current and future needs.

Credit: Alexander Severin/RAZUMMEDIA

In the winter of 2010, the baryshnikov arts Center in New York City celebrated the grand opening of its Jerome Robbins Theater. Located on the third and fourth floors of the center (formerly know as the 37 Arts building), the small, proscenium-style theater has been outfitted for a range of artistic programming, from dance and theater to music and multimedia entertainment. It's also been integrated with AV technology that its designer calls an "infrastructure roadmap" for future performing arts buildings, with a digital audio network and Cat-6 and fiber-optic cabling, as well as all the analog AV systems that a theater might need today.

Now, renovating underutilized theater space (or as Time Out New York described it, a "sad, creepy, asymmetrical, concrete, orange-seated, poorly sightlined" space) on the upper floors of a Manhattan commercial building can be tricky enough. The fact that the theater had to open months before the final AV systems were to be installed meant the technology foundation had to be well thought-out.


Credit: Alexander Severin/RAZUMMEDIA

Jim Niesel, senior consultant for engineering and design firm Arup, says his guiding principle on the Robbins Theater project was to specify everything it should have today, while making it forward-compatible with what might come along in the future. Too often clients get blindsided by new technology, he says, which means greater cost down the road when they need to add the latest AV, lighting, and communications.

"By putting all the potential infrastructure that the client might need on fiber, Ethernet, and copper, and bringing it all through to patch panels where it might be needed, we've offered the client much greater flexibility," Niesel explains. "There will always be some onus on the client to upgrade in the future, but this concept will help."

Challenges are inherent to retrofit AV projects, and the Robbins Theater design was a perfect example, Niesel says. Taking up two floors in the building and with studios above it, the theater space itself was relatively smalljust 75 by 42 feet. There was a flat floor stage at one end of the space and a full complement of battens and drapery. Space was at a premium.

Structurally, the building that houses the Robbins Theater is concrete. Because of this, the AV team was working in an immovable box and everything had to be surface-mounted. The architect, WASA/Studio A, decided to run raceways for trunking through the space to facilitate running lines. All the lines entered stage left, with equipment located stage right. As a result of using of raceways, Niesel says installers faced additional challenges in maintaining adequate cable separation.

The project schedule was aggressive. There were only nine months from demolition to the scheduled grand opening in February. The small jobsite complicated efforts to do multiple things at once.


Credit: Alexander Severin/RAZUMMEDIA

"In a typical theater, we've got a lot more trades than we do on other jobs," Niesel says. "There are rigging guys and other theater-specific trades, in addition to electricians and all the others. Everyone was working in each others' armpits."

AV integrator AVI-SPL was awarded the contract late in the build-out process. Baryshnikov Arts Center officials didn't start talks with the integrator until October 2009. "The client was already freaked out about budget and time when they brought on AVI-SPL," Niesel says. When AVI-SPL explained that it couldn't finish the AV systems in time due to the unique construction circumstances, Niesel says the news actually soothed the client's nerves and convinced them that the completed installation would be of extremely high-quality.

To make the AV integration manageable and move the project forward, the general contractor split the contract and brought in another subcontractor to pull cable and terminate panels. That way all the infrastructure was finished and out of sight in time for the gala opening. Installing AV gear in racks and hanging speakers would wait until later.

"The biggest challenge for the poor integrator was that they were in the building during performances, so they had to work around the facility's schedule," Niesel explains. The team constantly managed the client's expectations. The theater appeared to have a fully functioning AV system, but until AVI-SPL finished the installation several months later, it didn't, really. (AVI-SPL declined to describe its work on the project because it did not have the client's permission.)

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