27.02.18

Taking the stage at Jordan’s American Community School

ACS theatre fish eye

After four years in the making, The American Community School in Amman, Jordan has added a 504-seat theatre to its world class facilities. Anna Mitchell reports on AV technologies provided by integration firm INTE.

When Sami Nazzal, project manager at integrator International New Technical Est. (INTE), first heard about plans for a new theatre at Amman’s American Community School (ACS), it was in the form of a tender put out by the main building contractor for the project.

Nazzal quickly realised that the systems being asked for hadn’t been planned by a theatre specialist, nor would they provide the school with value for money or technologies that would suit its needs and objectives. 

Bypassing the main contractor, Nazzal contacted the school directly in 2014 when building work had just started. A happy coincidence meant that, at this time, the school was looking for some help with its gym that it was also using as a theatre.

“We were able to help and it was a chance to show our engineering capabilities,” notes Nazzal. “After that I approached them with an offer to design and build the theatre systems, we negotiated a contract and they decided to go with us.”
“We believe by having a purpose built, professional theatre it will raise the level of our students’ performances and help them be confident presenters.”

Part way through the project James Housego joined the school at theatre manager. “James coming into the project was very good for us,” notes Nazzal. “He has a background in music but is very smart technically so he started to get involved on the technical side. It was great to have that kind of input from the client.”

Housego adds: “I was able to contribute to the final design stages. Minor structural changes were still possible. In addition, I had significant input on the final finishings, electrical, communication, and theatre technical systems.”

The design quickly became unrecognisable from that originally proposed. A JR Clancy rigging system was added, the lighting system was upgraded and a 7.1 surround sound system was removed as INTE felt it would be underutilised and budget could be better spent elsewhere. 

“There was a lot of money put into a complicated video system and signal conversion,” adds Nazzal.  “But most of the time there are simply a few sources from the stage, most of which are HDMI from laptops with a few SDI from cameras. The original design would be good for a multipurpose ballroom but not for this theatre.”

Instead, INTE chose to invest more in the projection system that comprised a 20k lumen Christie  Roadster  projector  and  a  10  x  5.62m projection  screen  from  Screenint.  Matrix switching was handled by a TVOne unit. 

Nazzal explains: “The projector creates a beautiful image and we chose a micro-perforated projection screen and put lights in the back so it can be used as a projection screen or as a set for the stage. This will be really important in the future as they also plan to add LED displays when budget allows.”

D.A.S. Audio loudspeakers were chosen, with Nazzal opting for the company’s Aero 20 line array.  Two clusters of six units were hung on each side, complemented by two subwoofers.     

Four front fill speakers at the orchestra pit cover the first few rows. Twelve stage monitors were also provided and an additional four monitors were used as stage fillers from the left and right. 

“It’s the first time I’ve used the Aero 20,” says Nazzal. “They are networked loudspeakers so I can monitor each unit and check its status using DASnet software.”

Nazzal had to be creative to maximise the capabilities of the theatre while keeping within the school’s budget. “For audio mixing we got a very nice solution from Roland [the M-5000 live mixing console] that we felt was great in terms of value for money,” he says. 

One of the features of the project was that the school wanted to be able to route AV signals between the theatre and its studios, music rooms and swimming pool. Smaller Roland mixers – an M‐300 and two M‐200i units – were installed in the studios and music room. 

“We provided three additional mixers but distributed cable to more areas,” adds Nazzal. “They have two studios, a drama room that is like a small black box theatre, a music room, a multipurpose room and the pool. James wanted to be able to connect to all these places so the mixers can be moved around. We have made good infrastructure for expansion in the future and they can gradually buy equipment as they need it and budget becomes available.”

Six pairs of Tascam loudspeakers were deployed in control room, music room and studio. Inputs included a Tascam CD player and AKG wireless microphones. 
INTE’s scope was wide and even included installation of 504 seats sourced from US theatre specialist Wenger. 

“The technical systems have been designed for impressive functionality as well asACS theatre with frog on display ease of use,” adds Housego.  “The hope is that all members of the school community will be able to execute basic functions of the technical systems intuitively with little or no guidance from technical staff.”

“Accomplishing this required designing multiple methods of accessing the functionality of the technical systems. For the trained staff, we have the hands on control in the control booth as well as wireless control via iPad, laptop and a stage manager access point.

“Power users will be able to control the systems from the side stage point with minimal help from technical staff. Regular, non-trained, users will have three nine-digit keypads at the side stage that control the  sound,  lights,  and video systems through a MIDI signal control system. We will pre-program basic sound, light, and video commands into the MIDI receiving capabilities of the light board, audio mixer, and video mixer in the control booth. This is an untested system that I have not seen before. Our solution was custom designed by me to try to take the scariness out of theatre tech for non-trained users. We will have a list of commands at the side stage that users can punch into the keypads to execute basic functions.”
“The original design would be good for a multipurpose ballroom but not for this theatre.”

Larry McIlvain, superintendent at ACS, notes that before the theatre was constructed, school performances were carried out on a makeshift stage in the gym. “While it served the purpose, and we dressed it up a lot, it was still a gym. It had really old lights, really old sound systems and poor acoustics.” McIlvain even noted that the space negatively affected the behaviour of the audience. 

“One of our goals is that every student have an opportunity to present to an audience each year,” he continues. “We believe by having a purpose built, professional theatre, it will raise the level of our students’ performances and help them be confident presenters.”

Although, INTE got on site and installed the rigging system in 2015, the project faced some long delays and it wasn’t until the winter of 2017 that it was finally complete with the school starting to use it properly at the beginning of 2018. 

That was tough for Nazzal’s team. “It’s hard to be on and off site for a long time,” he explains. “It’s easy to work solidly on a project for three months but not easy to go one day a week. But we are happy with the outcome.”

It seems his client is too. As well as better sound and lighting, McIlvain says the theatre allows the school to teach its students how to be “a proper audience in a purpose built space”, offers greater accountability and importance for the performers, provides more space and more opportunities for students to learn new skills as well as delivering a “wow factor”. 

Tech-Spec
Accessories 

Neutrik cables and connectors
Proel racks, stage boxes, mic stands, music stands and cables

Audio 
AKG wireless microphone system
Altair intercom system
D.A.S Audio Aero 20 line arrays, subwoofers, front fill speakers and stage monitors
Roland Digital Snake stage units, recorder, mixing consoles
Tascam CD player and loudspeakers

Video and lighting
Christie Roadster projector
Philips Strand Lighting 
NEO lighting control console
Roland vision mixer, video convertor
Screenint motorised projection screen
TVOne matrix switcher