Crosstown christens new theater 'The Doll House'
Crosstown Arts’ new, $11 million performance and film hall is now built and has new name and manager. The not-for-profit organization for contemporary arts has christened the 28,000-square-foot facility The Doll House.
Longtime Crosstown Arts volunteer and employee Jazzy Miller is the first theater director of the building that is all but hidden from passing traffic behind the massive Crosstown Concourse.
The theater’s physical obscurity freed Crosstown Arts to spend less construction money on the exterior design and more on making the acoustics, staging and seating as flexible as a yoga instructor.
Crosstown Arts will take the theater on shakedown cruises this fall, hosting informal, “mic check’’ events to determine what needs tweaking.
The theater will host more formal events starting early next year, including Crosstown Arts’ prolific programming. The organization was created eight years ago in part to grow the city’s creative community with exhibitions, performances, production, education and even retail.
The hall also will be available to other Memphis organizations in the performing arts, music and film. And the theater is available to 40 or so tenants of Crosstown Concourse. They including Church Health, ALSAC/St. Jude, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency and Crosstown High School, which will use it for assembly and performance space.
Jazmin "Jazzy'' Miller is a 2008 Rhodes College graduate who most recently served as Crosstown Arts’ community theater coordinator.
She started volunteering during summers four years ago with Story Booth, Crosstown Arts’ creative-writing program for young people. She also performed one-woman shows about the life of Sojourner Truth and earned her masters of fine art in theater direction from the University of Memphis.
Given her passion for theater, she’d have fun if the facility simply hosted a play every night. “But I am most excited about this space in terms of the variety of things we’ll be able to offer,’’ Miller said.
“… There may be film one night and the very next night you come in and there’s a jazz show. Next morning you come in and there’s a Church Health meeting (Church Health is housed in Crosstown Concourse) and the configuration of this space is totally different. The next day you might have a rehearsal for a dance concert happening that weekend. And the next week looks totally different,’’ she said.
“And that sounds maddening. But we had the space designed in such a way it could be flexible.’’
Miller’s background in theater makes her a great choice, but her character and personality make her ideal, indicated Todd Richardson, co-director and co-founder of Crosstown Arts.
“Couldn’t be a better personality in terms of the spirit of somebody,’’ he said.
"She is the spirit of Crosstown Arts in terms of interacting with folks and thinking in a collaborative way as opposed to ‘This is my theater and this is going to have my fingerprints on it,’’’ he said. “At Crosstown Arts, we always like to really collaborate with people who are already doing things really well.’’
Crosstown Arts is still searching for a technical director for the theater.
To demonstrate the superior acoustics, Richardson stood on the stage and talked in a normal, conversational voice to a reporter on the theater’s back row. Each word was easily heard.
For fun, Richardson pointed to the walls and asked the reporter what kind of material covered them. It looked like billowy fabric. Richardson smiled and said, “Go touch it.’’
Turns out, the walls are covered in diffuser panels sculpted in poplar wood by Ben Butler. He’s the same artist who created the monumental “Old Growth’’ sculpture, Overton Park’s welcome gateway near the East Parkway playground.
Buying traditional diffuser panels – which disperse sound waves for clarity – is so expensive anyway, Crosstown Arts asked Butler to create panels that would double as a work of art, Richardson said.
Butler hand-drew profiles for 4,500 poplar wood blocks, each 24 inches long by 8 inches wide by 2 inches thick. His crew members cut each piece in half along the curvy line Butler had drawn, and each curve was different “like a meandering river,’’ he said.
So when the next board is stacked on the previous board, “the bumps in the line are transferred to the next layer and it becomes a three dimensional ripple in the ‘curtain,’’’ Butler said. “It’s all made in cross-section.’’
Butler mounted the two halves of each wood block on opposing theater walls. The result: The diffusion panel on one wall is the matching inversion of the panel on the opposite wall.
Assembled in the theater, the 9,000 panels cover 3,000 square feet.
The walls may look to some like billowy fabric, but that was not Butler’s goal.
“I did want it to feel like some organic, dynamic material that was not static but evocative of the sound moving through the space and of something that is alive,’’ Butler said.
Diffuser panels are good for un-amplified events such as a lecture or symphonic performance. But the sound often needs to be absorbed for events like amplified bands and films using the speaker system. So three sets of fabric – acoustical banners – are poised to be lowered from the catwalk to cover the wavy wood diffuser panels.
The hall’s sound has been tested for a standard rating system for acoustics. The result: “We are well (within) the rating as a space that can record, so we can record live shows and other performances,’’ Richardson said. “It’s almost like a studio.’’
One day the acoustical engineering consultant who does projects around the world was at the Concourse theater for sound testing, recalled Tony Pellicciotti, LRK architecture firm’s principal in charge of the Crosstown Concourse renovation.
“Immediately after he came over and said, ‘This is absolutely incredible. This theater is on par with anything else in the country. And it has cost a fraction of what everybody else is spending,’’’ Pellicciotti said. “We were able to produce that level of design on half the budget.’’
Moveable seats and stage
Given a crew of three or four volunteers and a couple of hours, Crosstown Arts can reshape the stage and seating arrangement to fit the type of event.
In front of the stage is a modular-floor section, all or parts of which can move up and down in small increments. The floor can be flush with the stage to enlarge the stage. Chairs can be attached to the floor in a stair-stepped way for additional seating with unobstructed views. The morphing floor also can be like a fashion runway flanked by seats, or can be a theater-in-the-round.
An entire front section of telescopic seating can be retracted behind a wall to expand the flat floor.
The theater holds 600 people standing, 425 in theater-style rows or 250 people in banquet-style seating.
A state-of-the-art projection system offers Memphis filmmakers and movie-goers a new place to show and see independent, art house films.
“We are heavily geared toward music and film, with a screen and projector,’’ Miller said.
“Film is so very important to us,’’ she said. “We’ve got this nice big screen, nice projector. We’ll have film nights. Additionally, if a (Concourse) tenant has a meeting and there are 300 to 400 employees, they can use the space and the projector can hook into a laptop and you can have slides on the screen.’’
The theater’s capabilities in screening films and accommodating live music of all types is one reason why the new theater complements the city’s performance theaters instead of competes with them, Richardson said.
“For us, it was thinking about those things we don’t have great theater space for, and one of those is independent film,’’ Richardson said. “To have, every week, programming related to independent film. We don’t have an art house film theater in Memphis. So this will serve that.
“The other thing is live music. Again, high-quality, intimate live music experiences.’’
The vast majority of theatergoers will walk through the Concourse’s Central Atrium – past the restaurants, coffee shop and ice cream parlor – to reach the theater’s front doors. There’s no need for a large theater lobby, Richardson said.
In effect, the theater is just another room of the 1.1 million-square-foot Crosstown Concourse even though theatergoers must walk a few yards outdoors from the Central Atrium to the lobby.
A simple exterior
Nearly all the live-performance theaters around Memphis are on or near major streets. Their outward appearance matters.
But the Concourse theater is hidden behind a massive structure.
“This will sound funny coming from an architect,’’ LRK’s Pellicciotti said. “It allowed us to focus the dollars on acoustics and performance and room far more so than the architecture had it been prominent on the street … The envelope is not where the focus is: But the room, the space and functionality.’’
Architect Jonathan Smith, an LRK senior associate who was project director for the theater design, said he knows of no other theater in Memphis as flexible for sound and seating as the Concourse theater.
“It has been every bit of Todd’s desire to have this space be the most flexible and highest-performing space,’’ Smith said. “That’s where the focus has been given.’’
The gray-and-off-white theater building has a glass-front lobby, a small amount of glass in back and some simple lines scored into the solid walls.
Asked if the simplicity hurt an architect’s ego, Pellicciotti responded:
“For me, in Crosstown Concourse as a whole, what we’ve done there is about community and about the people. We can do a beautiful building on the corner anywhere. But it’s not every day you get to create a community and get to foster and spark the energy and excitement in the mixing of different people you do not normally get to mix in the city in a constructive way.’’
Seeing the mix of races, religions and age groups with smiles on their faces inside Crosstown Concourse, Pellicciotti said, “That’s magic. That’s where the ego comes.’’
The Doll House
The theater’s name reflects several connections, but is primarily inspired by Ruby "Doll'' Wilson, mother of Kemmons Wilson. The late Memphian who founded Holiday Inn credited his success to his mother's loving support.
The Kemmons Wilson Companies and Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation provided lead grants to Crosstown Arts to support the theater and launch its upcoming fundraising campaign.
The Doll House stage is named the "Kemmons Wilson Family Stage.''
McLean Wilson, co-leader of Crosstown Concourse, is Kemmons Wilson's grandson.
The Doll House name also reflects the flexibility of the theater, designed to feel more like a house than a formal theater, Crosstown Arts officials said.
"A literal doll house is the perfect metaphor for a performing arts space in its highest form — a space where children are encouraged to indulge their imaginations, let go of reality, and create their own stories through uninhibited curiosity and experimentation,'' states the organization's prepared statement.
Crosstown Arts also links the name to a groundbreaking 1879 play, "A Doll's House,'' by Henrik Ibsen. The play "pushed the boundaries of accepted cultural norms and tells a difficult story of self-discovery,'' the organization's release states. "The Doll House at Crosstown Arts will work to be a safe space where similar challenges and discoveries take place.''
This fall, a series of sneak peeks of The Doll House will be available to the public as part of Crosstown Arts' 'mic check'' events. They are:
Oct. 22, 7 p.m. — Halloween Horror Film screening ($5 tickets)
Nov. 14, 6 p.m. — Children’s Theater performance (free)
Nov. 16, noon — Public speaking test (free)
Dec. 15, 7 p.m. – Holiday Jazz Concert ($15 tickets)
For details on Crosstown Arts events, visit crosstownarts.org/calendar.