Transforming Denver’s Theater Experience: The Unique Art of Performance Design

DCPA seating
While the new Space Theatre retains the five-sided form of the original, it concentrates more seats at the lower level, which enhances intimacy. The new, much warmer color palette provides a neutral background for the scenery of an in-the-round theater. Courtesy David Lauer Photography


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A common misconception of theater design is that architects are given the opportunity to create a “dramatic space.” In reality, however, good theater architecture creates a supportive enclosure that focuses as much energy as possible toward the performance that will inhabit the space. The challenge is to bend all of the layers of the project toward the goal of serving future performances as completely as possible, and making it look simple.

chris wineman

Chris Wineman
Principal, Semple Brown | Architects & Designers

The performance venue itself represents the intersection of many competing interests: patron comfort, technical capability, life safety, sightlines, acoustics and circulation, to name a few. Balancing all of these priorities in an existing building represented a particular challenge at the recently completed upgrade of The Space Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Bonfils Theatre Complex. The highly anticipated $9 million renovation, which reopened in September after an extensive 18-month renovation, is a good example of what goes into bringing a prominent city theater decades into the future.

Renovating the space. As one of the region’s most unique performance venues, The Space is renowned for its five-sided, intensely intimate, flexible design. Thus, when our firm was asked to oversee the gutting and rebuilding of the theatre, we approached our role with a balance of preservation and complete re-thinking of the task at hand.

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“The DCPA has been fortunate to work with Semple Brown for over a decade. The Semple Brown team undoubtedly has a deep understanding of modern theatrical design but they also work tirelessly to make sure that the design serves each and every client need,” said Clay Courter, vice president and facilities and event services, Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Preservation included keeping the five-sided shape, the cast-in-place concrete and the immersive seating configuration. A complete re-thinking included a total rearrangement of how the audience enters the theatre, and the location of critical support spaces.

“Working on the Space Theatre renovation, it was extremely important to us that the quality of our spaces mirror the quality of the productions produced by our Tony-Award winning theatre company for the last 40 years,” said Courter. “Semple Brown had a keen understanding of the building’s original architectural integrity and worked diligently to ensure that the new Space Theatre honored the original architect’s stylistic intent while also bringing the facility into the 21st century.”

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The history. The original theater complex, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, opened in 1979 as a purpose-built arts center for a resident theatre company with two live theater venues, a cinema and a rehearsal studio. (I attended my first production in the Space Theatre in 1984 as a graduate student, worked in the facility for three years as a professional, and have been fascinated by its uniqueness ever since.)

Space lobby

The new entry portal gives the Space Theatre entrance scale and a visual focal point, which also allows for a sound-and-light lock to isolate theatre from lobby noise. Courtesy David Lauer Photography

By 2010, however, the DCPA recognized that multiple areas of the theater complex needed updating to address shifts in audience expectations and programming needs. They commissioned our firm to evaluate opportunities and help prioritize phased improvements, the first of which was a renovation of the lobby completed in 2011 (including relocating the box office, enlarging the café, increasing patron seating, and de-cluttering signage and graphics). The second project iteration converted little-used office space into a new patron and special event room called the Directors’ Room. And the third phase identified was the Space Theatre renovation.

After more than three decades and some 400 productions, our 2014 assessment – done in collaboration with Theatre Projects Consultants – determined that the theater needed improvements to its audience amenities, performance infrastructure, circulation, code compliance, support spaces and accessibility to meet the needs of the future. We led a skilled team that included Theatre Projects Consultants, K2, Martin/Martin and MKK Consulting Engineers, and set out to improve all of the identified areas while retaining everything that was beloved about the theater, including the intimacy and the audience interplay created by the “in the round” arena form itself.

A Theater for the Future. Today, while the size of The Space’s performance area is nearly identical, and the pentagonal shape of the room has been maintained, a greater portion of the audience seating has been moved to the main level, achieving closer eye contact with the actors while sustaining the sense of intimacy and energy. Five scenic openings can be open or filled with seats, depending on the production needs, and the entire stage floor area over the trap room can be opened for scenic use. The main entrance has also been relocated to give The Space its own dedicated lobby, better circulation, improved accessibility and its own restrooms. Improved acoustical isolation, ventilation, and production capabilities (new accessible dressing rooms, five new control booths, lighting controls, new stair to the trap room and improved rigging support) and improved life safety features were included as well.

A refreshed palette also adds warmth through the introduction of wood panels at the front of the mezzanines, yet retains the “technical” feel of the building through exposed cast concrete and new metal panels lining the theatre. New, upgraded seats also provide comfort throughout.

“Original surfaces and finishes were uncovered and restored in creative ways.,” added Courter. “New finishes were selected specifically to complement, enhance and warm the added spaces. The result is a seamless blend of the old and new. This space will carry us in the next 40 years and we could not have done it without Semple Brown.”

A casual glance at this transformed space may not detect the depth of the changes to the building. But the many new capabilities and offerings of The Space Theatre will be apparent for years to come, both in the performances mounted in the theater, and the enhanced experience audience members will enjoy there. The unique character and dynamic energy of this new theater has prepared Denver’s vibrant performing arts scene for a new generation.

Published in the December 2017 issue of Building Dialogue

Edited by Building Dialogue