San Mateo Theater Debuts as Multipurpose Educational Space

Twenty-first century performing arts theaters serve more than just performing arts functions in today’s schools. Students and staff — as well as the rest of the community — use them for everything from presentations to video projections to discussion forums. As a result, the theater’s multipurpose role is affecting the way architects design performing arts spaces. This was certainly the case for the design of the newly renovated, 1,540-seat, 55,000-square-foot San Mateo Performing Arts Center (SMPAC) at San Mateo High School in San Mateo, Calif.

“[School] principals have said how surprised they are about how many teachers use the theaters for other projects,” said Mark Quattrocchi, principal at Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Quattrocchi Kwok Architects (QKA), the architect on the project. “In the 21st century learning environment, [the theater] is an important facility to have because the staff and students are using it for so much more during the school day. It affects a lot of the media and technology that we make available in the theater — particularly video projection.”

The $28 million SMPAC underwent an extensive demolition, reconstruction and renovation completed in October, making it the largest theater between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif. It features a new basement space, lobby, seating area, orchestra pit and fly loft. The center was originally built in 1963 and, although it was a large theater space, that was basically its only highlight, Quattrocchi said. The facility had bad lighting, audio and terrible seating and was poorly designed in terms of handicap accessibility, he added.

“The goal was to create a brand-new, state of-the art theater for both high school and community use,” Quattrocchi said. “We created a balcony and mezzanine seats so that now there’s an upper level. The whole audience is much closer to the stage, providing a much more intimate experience. There is no bad seat in the house both visually and acoustically.”

In addition to QKA, the project team consisted of Sonoma, Calif.-based Greystone West, which served as the construction manager; San Francisco-based Cahill Construction as the general contractor; and San Francisco-based Shalleck Collaborative as the theatrical consultant.

Students & Staff Get Technical

The design team worked closely with a committee from the high school that consisted of drama, music and dance instructors, as well as met with students to talk about how they used the theater. Quattrocchi said they received very specific feedback about what kind of lighting and sound systems needed to be incorporated in order to meet the multiuse requirements for the space.

As a result, sophisticated sound and lighting systems were put in place. With three main lighting catwalks a full technical ledge, lighting bars and a computer control lighting panel, the theater provides the lighting needs for any event, including a soloist, full orchestration, dramatic performance, choir, lecture or speaking forum. House lighting includes wall sconces to allow varied house lighting moods depending on the event.

The acoustics are just as noteworthy. The highly tuned house and stage volume provides acoustics for all types of speaking, musical, choral and dramatic events. Suspended “acoustical clouds” and specially designed side and rear wall finishes ensure all seats have clear, un-reverberant sound. Plus, the stage and house is equipped with wired and wireless technologies for presentations including a large format video screen and sound reinforcement.

One of the other elements the staff and students thought the theater needed was to have a great sense of entry and sense of place, which is why QKA created a very dramatic three-story lobby with a three-story glass wall facing the public. The lobby features enhanced patron services, such as concessions and bathrooms distributed throughout the main and mezzanine levels to reduce congestion, as well as audio and video screens for broadcasting performances.

“The lobby’s three-story glass wall serves as a beacon, welcoming theater-goers for evening events, much like archetypal theaters of the past,” Quattrocchi said.

Apart from the massive size of the theater and the technical systems involved in creating it, there are some other major theatrical elements that make this facility unique, particularly for a public school. For instance, it has a fly loft in which “scenes are literally thrown up into the air above the stage,” Quattrocchi said. The fly loft provides 50 separately controlled battens that can fly scenery out of view or onto the stage — both manually back stage and remotely from the control room — for immediate scene changes.

The theater also has an orchestra pit that includes an orchestra lift — something that, in Quattrocchi’s 28 years of experience, he had never designed. It allows the floor of the entire orchestra pit to be moved from the basement level to for the purpose of moving sets, to the orchestra level for performances and musicals, to the house level to provide extra seating for levels, or even to the stage level to provide a stage thrust when the orchestra is not needed. All of this movement happens simply with the push of a button.

QKA designed SMPAC using energy savings criteria from the Collaborative for High Performance Schools as opposed to LEED. Some of the center’s energy-efficient features include daylighting in the lobby to reduce demand on artificial lighting. Plus, the project team used many recycled and readily renewable materials to build the facility.

The biggest challenge on the project was working on an active high school site. By working collaboratively with the school district and the general contractor, however, they were able to complete the project within about three years.

The Arts Matter
Quattrocchi said that he believes the SMPAC renovation is part of a resurgence and interest in the arts across the nation. “It’s a nice thing to see the arts matter,” he said.
QKA alone finished three performing arts centers for the San Mateo Union High School District in fall 2013. In addition to SMPAC, the architecture firm worked on a renovated theater at Mills High School and a new theater at Hillsdale High School.

The Mills High School theater underwent an extensive remodel and upgrading of amenities to replace its previous auditorium. It now features a two-story glass lobby that faces the quad, moveable acoustics and multiple catwalks. The previous Hillsdale High School auditorium was inadequately sized and underused, so it was replaced and expanded to become an inviting space that offered a better variety of performing arts features. The theater boasts a new lobby with quarry tile columns and two-story glass walls. Both Mills and Hillsdale High School theaters seat 780 guests.