In one sense, a theater is to a performing arts curator what a white gallery is to his counterpart in the visual arts—an empty volume created to be animated by today’s most innovative minds and bodies. But in discussing the new William and Nadine McGuire Theater in the Walker expansion, design consultant Josh Dachs offers a different analogy. “These spaces are for telling stories, and the idea of gathering around the storyteller is as old as humanity. We used to do it around campfires,” says Dachs, whose Fisher Dachs Associates has helped designed the Joyce Theater in New York, the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., and the new Guthrie. “A space like this is nothing more than a receptacle in which to share that very same instinct.” But at a place like the Walker, that instinct takes some radically inventive forms, from media-saturated works and cross-disciplinary hybrids to new forms of performance that haven’t been named yet—and the new theater was designed to welcome them all. “The aspirations of the Walker’s wonderful program includes some very sophisticated companies doing very sophisticated things, so they need a high degree of technical sophistication,” he says. “The fact is: this enlightened institution has decided to accommodate this important program with a space that’s appropriate for it. And that’s very rare.”
The Walker’s McGuire Theater combines unusual elements—the technical sophistication to mount complex, large-scale, and unconventional performances within an environment focused on unforgettable live experiences for smaller audiences—all in the intimacy of a 385-seat venue. During its inaugural months, the theater will demonstrate its uncommon capabilities by hosting a range of performances from the eight-hour marathon of local musicians paying homage to jazz great Ornette Coleman in April to the May presentation of SITI Company’s ambitious, large-scale performance bobrauschenbergamerica to a solo evening with choreographer Bill T. Jones in June.
The uniqueness of the space arises from its focus on creating dynamic experiences—for both audiences and artists. Illuminated by London-based lighting designer Arnold Chan and featuring artful details by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the theater is “designed to take your breath away when you walk into the room,” says Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts. “It has a lot of texture and personality, but not so much that when the lights come down it detracts from what the creators are making on stage.” Visitors entering the space through asymmetrical doors will find deep black-and-purple hues and unique black-metal acoustic panels embossed with a baroque pattern inspired by lace (a contemporized reference to the ornamentation and fabric of traditional theater decor). Airy balcony box seats open up to the main seating chamber through swooping and scalloped-edged portals that mimic the lace pattern.
What visitors may find most unusual about the McGuire Theater is its goal of collapsing the barriers between artists and audiences. With steep raked seating, excellent sightlines, and a first row of seats at stage level, the separation between performance and audience is reduced. Plus, without barriers like a proscenium or an elevated pedestal stage, “you really feel like you’re in that world,” Bither says. “You practically could be sitting on the stage with the artists in their creative environment.”
The new theater also gives the Walker the ability to present a broader range of performances. The former Auditorium, now being converted into a full-time cinema and lecture hall, was extremely limited in the type of productions it could host because of the size of its stage, flyspace, and backstage facilities. The McGuire Theater, by contrast, offers the flyspace usually only found in much larger venues, allowing for more elaborate stage elements to be raised and lowered during performances. The 40-foot-deep stage can accommodate performances by larger dance companies and orchestras as well as large-scale theater works. Thanks to this flexibility, Bither will be able to reverse a long-standing trend of presenting more than two-thirds of Walker events off-site, while still maintaining copresentations with partner venues such as Northrop Auditorium and the Southern Theater.
Most exciting is the theater’s potential as a laboratory in which artists can develop new work. The site will also host highly visible residency activities such as master classes and community workshops. In the past, the Walker has supported the early development of works by Ralph Lemon, Bill T. Jones, and others, but due to space concerns, it couldn’t support late-stage residencies. One example is the globally touring Builders Association/motiroti project Alladeen, commissioned and presented by the Walker in April 2003 at the Guthrie Lab. The group’s residency was limited to two days of in-town preparation and four performances. “We would love to have given them the final technical support to finish and premiere it,” Bither says. The Walker can now welcome the Builders Association back next fall for a two-week residency, during which the company will develop a Walker-commissioned work as well as present its world premiere in the McGuire Theater.