Below Sea Level

By Rizk, Christie | Stage Directions, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Below Sea Level


Rizk, Christie, Stage Directions


A highly regarded off-Broadway company finds its newest second stage in a sub-basement.

As cars roar in and out of the garage overhead, the Atlantic Theater Company will be producing shows in a sub-basement in Chelsea. The company's new second stage space and acting school opened for business May 1, in what used to be the Port Authority's headquarters on Eighth Avenue.

The renovated space is now home to a 99-seat black-box theater, complete with rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, and a scene shop and storage space. Administrative offices and classroom studios for the Atlantic Acting School round out the 25,000-square-foot occupancy, and afford the company a bigger and better space in which to teach a new generation of actors and produce more experimental shows.

The Atlantic Theater Company was founded in 1983 by David Mamet and William H. Macy who, along with a select group of NYU students, wanted to create an ensemble theater company to produce plays simply and truthfully. Their focus on creating socially relevant theater has earned the company numerous awards.

Although their main stage on 20th Street was getting the job done, their second stage on 16th Street was not. The place they considered their laboratory for creating and innovating was rundown and inadequate. Jesse Fearins, one of the architects from Coburn Architects who worked to design the new theater, describes the old space as "basically a room with 10-foot ceilings that they went in and made a theater out of."

Finding a new space turned out to be easy. The property located on Eighth Avenue was originally developed to house, in part, the headquarters of the Port Authority, with the rest of the space being leased out to various media, advertising, publishing and telecom companies. The Atlantic Theater Company has been given room on the fifth floor for rehearsal spaces and administrative offices, as well as a gallery lobby and box office at street level, but the theater itself is to be housed in a below-sea-level sub-basement-one that has a parking garage directly over it.

The real challenge was trying to make the space into a theater, instead of just a sub-basement with a stage in it. "We don't want people to feel like they're actually in a basement," says Fearins. "We want to make sure you don't feel like you're in a cavern, so it's still welcoming." Part of the solution was keeping the 20to 30-foot ceilings as they were, instead of lowering them dramatically.

Acoustics were another major issue Fearins had to deal with. Paul Scarborough, the principal consultant from the acoustical engineering company, Akustiks, was brought in. He proposed isolating the concrete ceiling with two inches of acoustical sealant and then bringing an isolation ceiling down to 23 feet. "So there's an air gap between the parking garage, the structure above and the actual theater inside," explains Fearins. The drywall and acoustical material keep outside noises out, and the actors' voices in: "Their voices can still project and not have a problem with such a huge space."

The height of the ceilings also allowed the Atlantic to maximize the seating rink, deepen the staging area and improve the sightlines to the stage. The actors are able to act further downstage if the script calls for it. …

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