Vivian Beaumont Renovation -- The Same, Only Better

Vivian Beaumont Renovation -- The Same, Only Better The Vivian Beaumont Theatre -- the Broadway theatre at New York's Lincoln Center -- has been closed since January 1996 for renovations. The theatre will reopen Oct. 31 when previews begin for Juan Darien. In the meantime, Thomas Cott, director of marketing and special projects for Lincoln Center Theatre, hosted Playbill On-Line's David Lefkowitz on a tour through the nearly-completed theatre. Here is his account:

Readying the lobby of the refurbished Vivian Beaumont Theatre for its reopening Oct. 31
Readying the lobby of the refurbished Vivian Beaumont Theatre for its reopening Oct. 31 (Photo by Photo by David Lefkowitz)

The Vivian Beaumont Theatre -- the Broadway theatre at New York's Lincoln Center -- has been closed since January 1996 for renovations. The theatre will reopen Oct. 31 when previews begin for Juan Darien. In the meantime, Thomas Cott, director of marketing and special projects for Lincoln Center Theatre, hosted Playbill On-Line's David Lefkowitz on a tour through the nearly-completed theatre. Here is his account:

Once through the unadorned entrance on mid-65th Street in Manhattan (audiences generally get to the theatres by crossing the grand Lincoln Center Plaza and fountain on Columbus Avenue) my first stop was the sedate, carpeted office center where the institution is run. One walks down a narrow corridor, with cubicles on the left and small offices on the right. A stop by the coffee machines is mandatory -- one regular, one decaf -- and I congratulate Cott on his promotion the previous week. For 11 years, he's been director of marketing; the special projects tag is a brand new addition for him. "I'll be evaluating new musical projects for the theatre," he explained.

Through a door and up three flights of stairs we went, to where we could look down from the scaffolding and see the huge Vivian Beaumont space beneath us. "The depth of the Beaumont auditorium is 70 feet," Cott explained. "That makes it the second largest in New York after Radio City."

At its fullest configuration, the Beaumont holds 1,050 seats; the Mitzi Newhouse, technically an Off-Broadway space, holds 299.

New York audiences know Lincoln Center to be among the classiest and loveliest theatre spaces in the city; so why the $16 million renovation campaign? Because theatregoers (especially Lincoln Center's many subscribers) were also getting tired of having difficulty hearing the productions, or being physically uncomfortable while watching them. The previous two shows at the Vivian Beaumont, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, followed by David Hare's Racing Demon, were both very verbal, very erudite scripts that required extra attention on the part of audience members. When poor acoustics got in the way of the words, or poor ventilation made concentration a chore, the natives became restless.

"Arcadia WAS a problem," admitted Cott. "Some of it was the staging. The sound ended up going straight up instead of out into the auditorium. But we really did fix that pretty well for Racing Demon. We brought in a Dutch company that had developed something called S.I.A.P. -- System for Improved Acoustic Performance. The whole idea is that it doesn't amplify the sound. It repeats the sound through a bunch of small speakers all over the theatre, which cuts down on the decay."

The system worked well enough that Lincoln Center is keeping S.I.A.P. In place as part of its renovated space. "Not only that," added Cott, "but [Skylight and Racing Demon director] Richard Eyre is putting it into the National Theatre's Olivier space before he leaves."

Cott also showed me other ways the theatre hopes to solve the acoustic problem. "The challenge is to push the sound back down into the auditorium. Bounce it back instead of having it keep on going up and out." The cure will include acoustic tiling and filling in the empty grid space above the Beaumont ceiling.

"We've also done a lot of work on the air-conditioning system, including removing and replacing the air-conditioning ducts," Cott said. "They were state-of-the-art 30 years ago when the theatre was built, but now there are more sophisticated, quieter methods of air-handling. You'll get less of that white-noise humming you get in those old Broadway houses."

The new air circulation methods should be more balanced throughout the auditorium, avoiding dreaded hot-spots and deep freezes patrons have complained about in the past.

Workmen tromped past scaffolds and over iron fittings as Cott and I scanned the Beaumont's daunting backstage area. "Remember Abe Lincoln In Illinois?" Cott asked.

"The train?" I replied, referring to the celebrated final image of the president-to-be riding a slow train off into history.

Cott nodded. "That's what you can do in a space like this."

With that, we were off to see the second space, the Mitzi Newhouse. "Renovations are less extensive here," Cott pointed out, "simply because the theatre is so much smaller."

A plastic tarp covered the seats surrounding the circular stage. "The seats are new but put in before the renovations. We'd had an electrical fire here during the run of Northeast Local. It was the last week, and then we had to bring in Jon Robin Baitz's A Fair Country. The fire wasn't much, but the sprinkler system went on... Somehow we had the new chairs ready -- although some were taken from the Beaumont, which was already under reconstruction."

Cott also showed me three other areas benefiting from the remodeling: The bathrooms, the box office and the lobby's wheelchair accessibility. The ladies room has already been in place (with over a dozen stalls); the men's room is soon to follow suit. The box office booth will be a bit roomier than before.

Quite important is the new wheelchair ramp, specially designed to be less steep so that physically challenged individuals will be able to negotiate it on their own. Other improvements to the space include a much larger lighting grid (over 80 available positions!) and semi-circular catwalks for the designers to use. (The previous walks were rectangular, making them awkward, considering the circular Beamont and Newhouse stages.)

"This is our dream renovation," Cott said when I ask him if the theatres had to skimp because of budgetary restrictions. "The $16 million Capital Campaign really allows us to take care of everything we need to." (Cott was quick to point out that not all the money would go towards physical renovation; some is earmarked towards endowments and funding of varous projects.)

And where did the dollars come from? "A whole lot of it came from individuals, private donations and corporations. We're also incredibly grateful to the Board Of Directors, who've been very generous."

"This is our first major renovation," Cott said at the end of the tour. "We've done minor repairs here and there, such as fixing up the Travertine marble on the building's exterior. We started fundraising for the big one two years ago, and the scaffolding went up in March."

Some $6 million has been spent on the renovation project so far, yet Cott cautions that audiences shouldn't expect to walk into Lincoln Center and be floored by 21st century dazzle. "We're keeping the stages the same, the basic outlay the same. In fact, the ideal is that audiences won't even notice any differences -- EXCEPT that they'll feel better and hear better when they attend a performance."

The performances they'll be attending include Juan Darien, set to re-inaugurate the Beaumont space Oct. 31 through Jan. 5, followed by a revival of The Little Foxes, starring Stockard Channing, in early spring. The Newhouse will re-open with Craig Lucas' God's Heart, beginning previews Feb. 1997.

When asked about further scheduling plans, Cott reminded me that the hit revival of A Delicate Balance will close at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre Sept. 29, while Christopher Durang's Sex And Longing (starring Sigourney Weaver) will open at the Cort Theatre Oct. 10. Both are Lincoln Center productions. Cott added that Lincoln Center, headed by Artistic Director Andre Bishop and dramaturg Anne Cattaneo, rarely plans a full season in advance.

Considering how successful Lincoln Center has been since their modern era began in 1985, one can only assume their motto will be identical to that of the renovation: The same, only better.