An Old Auditorium Gets a Color Make-Over

The early 70's green seating in Pote Theatre as construction began in December.

When the auditorium at Blank Performing Arts Center was installed in the early 1970s,
in addition to the unique seating configuration (a combination thrust & proscenium stage reminiscent in shape of a classical Greek theatre), the auditorium seats were also an unusual color:  green.  Not a dark forest green, or a blue-green, but a deep, vibrant, primary green.  Part of the architectural metaphor was the architectural conceit of “bringing the outside in”.  This was most obvious in the lobby with walls of windows on both east and west ends of the BPAC lobby.  This led to the choice of bright green carpeting in the lobby space.  Presumably the color channeled the grass of nature outside (never mind that between the lobby and the grass outside is a sea of concrete…and in Iowa the grass is only green about 5 months of the year).  It was probably a natural choice to carry the green carpeting from the lobby and into the auditorium and from the carpeting to the upholstery.  While the carpeting has been replaced throughout the facility at least twice in the intervening years, the bold color choice of the upholstery drove the selection of similarly hued replacement.

When the time came to re-imagine the facility and the auditorium (made essential by the need to finally accommodate ADA accessibility requirements) most of us involved in the decision-making knew that we wanted to make a change.  I brought in the photograph of a remarkable main drape that I captured on photo during a stay on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas a few years ago.  Inthe interest of preserving the designer’s copyrights, I feel restrained from posting an illustration.  Suffice tosay that it is a remarkable Art Deco/Nouveau inspired composition of abstract musicians in long robes all done in remarkable reds, oranges, golds and purples.  I have to admit that since the school’s colors are red and gold, we were concerned that while coordinating with the school’s colors, we wanted to avoid a direct translation of these hues, lest the auditorium be confused with a sporting venue.

The Wutel venue at The Guthrie Theatre

One important choice that we made was to replace the seating, which used to be a single uniform color with a spectrum of colors randomly sprinkled throughout the auditorium.  Several members of the design team have great affection for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.  Readers, who are familiar with the Guthrie, will recognize this multi-color scheme from both the old thrust stage and the newer Wutele stage.

Color Swatch Palate

We selected upholstery based less on the colors of the actual inspirational artwork, than on the “idea” of the colors on the inspirational artwork.   This was, in part, due to the palates of the suitable fabrics that were available, appropriate and affordable for the project.

Many other decisions went into the selection of the seat itself, the height of the seat back, the covering of the bottoms of the seats with fabric (so that when the seats were unoccupied, a contrasting band of seat-bottom wouldn’t create horizontal bands around the

Preliminary sketch of "random" color layout on seating. Notice the Greek theatre audience configuration.

auditorium), to even coming up with a new seat-numbering scheme.  The seating was unveiled for a February production of the opera Albert Herring and occupied again for a March production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice.  It would be cliché and an overstatement to say that the result  “exceeded my expectation”, but in certainly met my expectations.

The decision to scatter a controlled palate of colors randomly about the auditorium does disguise empty seats in the event of a less-than-capacity audience.  However it also gives the auditorium a perpetually active appearance.  As hoped, the lack of a strong pattern of horizontal, and the inevitably random alignment of colors and values from one row to the other, emphasizes the vertical axis.  An unexpected but not unwelcome phenomenon causes the empty auditorium to evidence a curiously uniform massing because of the “camouflage” phenomenon.  In my view, the color choice was very effective.

New seating in renovated Pote Theatre

By channeling versions of the school colors the auditorium becomes subtly aligned with the rest of the campus without losing its identity as a theatrical venue.  The controlled palate has a classy look, and a visual excitement.  While any single color choice might become outdated, (a lesson not lost on anyone who remembers the harvest gold kitchen appliances of the early 70s), perhaps there is a timelessness to be achieved in this palate.  In the words of Jimmy Buffet: “Only time will tell.”

That’s all for now.

Have fun. But be safe!,



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