Liberty University’s New Tower Theater is an Architectural Work of Art

Issue: January 2011 by in Architecture, Engineering & Construction, Inside The Magazine

Contemporary, classy, warm and embracing are all words people are using to describe Liberty University’s new Tower Theater, according to Linda Nell Cooper, director of the Theatre Arts Department.

The project began in November of 2008 when Cooper met with Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., and did a walk-through of the pre-existing tower on the north side of Liberty’s campus. Cooper said she wanted the new theater to include a fly tower and the space Falwell proposed was perfect because of the tower’s expansive height.

“You need to have at least 85-feet in height from floor to ceiling to have a fly tower and it was exactly 85-feet from floor to ceiling, so it was already there,” Cooper said.

In March of 2009, Falwell made the official announcement for the construction of the new tower and the first design meeting was held in April. Cooper met with the project manager, Charles Spence, and discussed ideas for the style of theater as well as the logistics of seating and how large the stage would be.

The search for architects soon began and Cooper said when she saw the projects sent in from BCWH Architects, located in Richmond, Virginia, she knew they were the right ones for the job.

“They understood it wasn’t just an entertainment venue, it was for an academic discipline and that we would be using it as a classroom and not just as a theater,” Cooper said. “They understood the multiple use of it.”

Beginning in June of 2009, the design team met twice a week throughout the summer to discuss different architectural features. The theater was being built in a pre-existing space and this brought some challenges. Charles Piper, Head Architect from BCWH, said despite this, there were some major benefits to working with a pre-existing space.

“It was a challenge, but it was also helpful because the parameters for the theater were fixed; they were defined,” Piper said. “It kept us focused.”

Cooper said she felt it was important to bring the original space’s contemporary industrial form into the new design. She also brought in various design concepts that were inspired by the Guthrie Theater located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What really inspired her about the Guthrie Theater, Cooper said, is the fact that it is large but still feels very intimate for the audience. She also liked the theater’s versatility.

“It can easily be transformed from a proscenium stage into a thrust stage in a moment’s notice,” Cooper said. “When you only have one stage, it has to be able to be all things for all plays.”

She was also inspired by the curve design for acoustics, giving it, in her words, “a Shakespearian feel.”

“I didn’t want it to look like an auditorium. I wanted it definitely to feel like it had its own personality,” Cooper said.

In October 2009, construction began on the new theater. Two new technology features were constructed into the design, which included an automated computer-controlled rigging system and a number of computer remote theater lighting systems.

“They have several computer controlled lights which can move, tilt, turn, rotate, change colors and do all kinds of amazing things,” Piper said. “The equipment is expensive, but it is very versatile.”

Construction concluded just a few weeks prior to the first showing of “Hairspray” in the fall of 2010.

“Everyone has been surprised. It’s not the design they expected,” Cooper said. “It’s very different than any other design on campus.”

Many show-goers commented that they feel they are no longer inside a school environment, which is exactly the look and feel Cooper said they were going for.

“We want our audience to forget that they have exams to study for and things like that,” Cooper said.

On average, plays in the new Tower Theater have sold about 400 of the 640 seats available for each showing, but many shows such as “Hairspray” and “A Christmas Carol” have sold out completely.

Early on in the design process, Cooper said there was talk about putting in a second balcony, but she did not expect the high number of large audiences and it was cut out of the design. Cooper said with the number of sold out shows, she now wishes she could find a way to put more seating in.

“Maybe that was premature to cut it out, because I think we would have filled it,” Cooper said.

The theater department continues to make small adjustments with each showing throughout the theater, such as the recent addition of speakers under the balcony for better audio effects.

One of the biggest new features will make its premiere this semester as flying from the catwalks of the theater will be incorporated in the showing of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Cooper also said they will be opening up the orchestra pit, allowing an additional 40 seats to be sold for the viewing of “Phantom,” which opens April 8.

As for the theater students, Cooper said they are amazed and thrilled.

“It’s raised the level of professionalism, especially backstage,” Cooper said. “Now our production students actually have room to do their jobs.”

“It’s a very exciting space for Liberty University,” Piper said. “They don’t have anything like it … It’s going to be an amazing space to help educate young theater majors.”

The Theatre Arts Department’s spring line-up will include showings of “The Mikado,” “The Civil War,” “Enchanted April” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” For more information, visit www.liberty.edu/theatre.

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