November 29, 2013 DPR

Larry Kirkegaard

New Wine in an Old Bottle – The Gentle Transformation of Miller Theater

Many of you who are reading this know Miller Theater in ways that newcomers will never be able to experience.  Those memories are precious in a host of ways that also are important to the future legacy of the Miller Theater.

My fresh experience is of a Miller Theater poised on the threshold of new vitality.  I will not forget entering through the Broad Street entrance and the trekking up the entry lobby – a short walk but a long journey through rich memories that the building seems eager to share.  I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of opening the temporary plywood ‘door’ and being greeted by brilliant sunshine pouring in through the glass block window at the far end of the inner foyer!  Nor was I prepared for the openness of that inner foyer to the audience chamber.  This was a movie house where audiences could enter at any time in the course of a film, but before they could even think of finding a seat, their eyes had to become accustomed to the darkness and their sense of demeanor to the propitious moment to sidle into an available seat.  It is no small challenge to turn a movie theater into a full-fledged concert hall.

With the sun flooding into the space, one still wanted to pause, just to take in the whole character of the theater and the inter-relationships of foyer to main floor seating, foyer to mezzanine and mezzanine to balcony entries and balcony to the whole of the space.  Inviting, complex, compelling and perplexing all at the same time – and in that order!

The perplexing part was the nagging feeling that Miller Theater wanted to be heard.  Not in the conventional sense of hearing, but in the sense that we needed to listen from a fresh perspective to what Miller Theater was telling us – its treasures and its secrets.  We needed to be open to its potential.

So, with open-minded, inquisitive ‘listening’ leading me through the theater, I kept questioning whether there could be a less invasive approach to this special space, one that would achieve a better result than any of us had considered.  Compelling and perplexing, indeed!

The answers began to emerge when a small group of musicians entered the stage and began to warm up their instruments.  With the chill of November in the air, this was no simple task.  But, within moments, their sound was warming the space and, happily, being warmed by the space.  Their sound was gorgeous!  Compelling and yet again perplexing …

It wasn’t until I listened to the music as I walked slowly from the open space in front of the balcony backward to the standing rail at the rear that I recognized Miller Theater is really one inter-connected acoustic space.  The lower seating level connects to the inner foyer which opens to the mezzanine that leads through the stair openings to the balcony and finally to the upper volume that draws the lower level seating into one large inter-connected acoustic volume.

One could listen to music being played on stage while walking slowly from the open space near the stage all the way back to the leaning rail and never lose the sense of fullness and connectedness with the musicians.  This was an extraordinary discovery.  I asked the maestro to join me in this journey, but with his eyes closed.  He listened carefully as we moved backwards from near the stage toward the rear.  When we were near the rear of the seating area, I told him to open his eyes.  My instruction was meant to be both literal and figurative…

The sound deep under the balcony was so nourished with sound reflected by the rear wall of the foyer and by the sound making its way through the balcony entry steps and mezzanine openness, that there was barely a change in quality from front to back under the balcony.  We ventured from the under-balcony through the foyer and up the grand stairs to the mezzanine and finally into the balcony, never losing the presence of beautiful musical sound.

Lest we were being misled by our own enthusiasms, I reminded everyone that we were experiencing the room in its most ‘live’ condition – without seated audience on the main floor and without audiences in the balcony seats.  The fundamental question was whether the musical quality that we were hearing would survive the presence of the people the project was meant to serve.  We had to know the answer to that question before we could proceed along any path.

To answer that critical question, we planned an al fresco in February ‘performance’ for an audience of brave and enthusiastic souls.  They were invited to bring themselves, their own chairs, blankets and pillows to create a surrogate ‘acoustic audience’ for the occasion.  This was planned so that we could hear the sound that might be expected if we were to work within the historic configuration of the Miller Theatre.

The test concert was a revealing experience.  We learned, to our collective delight, that the acoustical quality of the room was robust.  It retained its glow and acoustic warmth even with the presence of this brave and happy audience.  The overall all experience was very compelling… We parted later that day comfortable in the knowledge that the critical questions we had asked of Miller Theater were all answered in the affirmative.

Miller Theater does indeed have ‘good bones’ and extraordinary potential.  We learned that its transformation will demand attention to excellence, but not extravagance to achieve.  Most importantly, through the vision and commitment of all involved in this endeavor, current and future generations will experience very special performances in a very special space – rich with old memories and eager to create new ones.



Larry Kirkegaard

Kirkegaard Associates

July 22, 2013

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