Whether your last visit to the Gaillard was 20-plus years ago or during 2012's Spoleto Festival, every local arts lover has their own special memory. "I will always have the image of a person throwing up over the balcony during a performance." That was my mom's email when I told her I'd get to tour the Gaillard construction the other week.
My own favorite recollection is radically different and a lot less messy. For me, it was seeing mash-up musician Girl Talk fill the huge space with stimulant-fueled co-eds thrusting to "Bang This in the Club." "There were doubters who said we couldn't do this show in a theater with chairs," Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, shouted to the sold-out audience that night. "But we vanquished the room and we vanquished the seats."
Indeed he did. But it's hard to envision the DJ doing any such thing in the new and wildly improved Gaillard Performance Hall. Though still under construction, the theater is beginning to take shape. And if my tour was an honest glimpse of what's to come, it will be the grand, new neo-Classical venue Charleston has long needed, especially for big acts and large productions. How's that? As I see it, the Charleston Music Hall is great, but it only has 918 seats and minimal fly space. Memminger is bigger, but it's a black box and hardly the environment you'd pay top dollar to see an opera. The Dock Street is a historical gem, but with an in-house company, its season is already full. And The Sottile, again, is limited by its size at just 785 seats. To bring the traveling shows that typically get relegated to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center downtown, the city has to have an option like the Gaillard which, thankfully, looks to be ready on time.
"The timeline is unchanged. We still look at a spring 2015 opening," says Doerte McManus, Gaillard executive director, who led me around the building. The project, run by Skanska, has 450 workers building on two shifts around the clock. Their efforts are not for naught. Right on time, the construction group just unveiled the first portico on George Street. Four huge columns frame the entryway. It's a jaw-dropping visage. "All the limestone is from Indiana," says Chris Becker, senior project manager. Intricate depictions of Palmetto trees grace the top of the building, and 300 windows give a nod to the city's popular Georgian style with the six-over-six pane treatment.
"But these aren't working windows," Becker says, meaning they won't open. Rather, the double-paned glass is all up to the latest earthquake codes. In fact, the entire building is (lest we forget our fair city sits on a mighty fault line). A huge green generator is hidden on the Anson Street side, too. "It could power the building for three days," Becker adds.
But that's not the only part of the earthquake- and hurricane-preparedness plan. All kinds of intricate wires have been placed within the piping and HVAC system of the $142-million project in case disaster strikes. "Seismic cables can minimize movement on ductwork," explains Becker. Once we're inside, he points out the large metal ropes gripping vents and plumbing. Equally importantly, the adjustments to the HVAC will allow the 1,800-seat performance hall to have exceptional acoustics thanks to essentially the Cadillac of heating and cooling units. Air will travel into the theater via a plenum or chamber below the seats. Then, if all goes correctly, the air should swoop through the audience like a wave, causing zero turbulence. Therein lies the acoustic boon: No turbulence means no impact on the sound. And better sound equals a happier audience and orchestra.
But there are more perks for musicians. The Gaillard's orchestra pit size has been enlarged, and with the theater now one third of its original size, that should make for a good show even in the cheap seats — of which there are, and this needs to be stated, few.
Seating, in fact, is actually one of the most dramatic changes in the theater. The new Gaillard will have not one, not two, but three balconies in a four-tier system: orchestra, box tier, dress circle, and gallery. "Here is a box seat," McManus says, pointing to a box tucked way up on the third story next to the proscenium. It's dizzying to look at it from the vantage point of metal scaffolding. Four stories below, crews continue about their job, sweating and hauling more equipment into the space. But if you can stand the height, experts say top-level seats not only offer, obviously, the best view, but the best sound. "Often the seats that are high up are the best because they are more resonant and they get good reflection from the ceiling. That helps with clarity and articulation," says Adam Huggard, Gaillard's theater designer on the project's blog. Who knew?
The Gaillard Performance Hall is being constructed in a horseshoe shape. That means that box seats will face each other and have an excellent view of the entire audience. Just as boxes were popular with 19th-century theater-goers who were as interested in being seen as seeing, we suspect they'll be a hot ticket with Charleston's scenesters.
We climb another level, arriving just a few feet shy of the ceiling. In front of us a huge circle is hidden by a plastic sheet.
"That's the mural," McManus says. "We've contracted EverGreene Architectural Arts out of New York. They're making a Lowcountry sunset image."
Some could argue it's just a painting, but it feels a little symbolic. The sun has set on the original 1968 municipal building. Charleston has changed and our performance venue needs have changed too. The new Gaillard Performance Hall won't be perfect, but it looks as though it will better serve the city's production needs.