Macalester College ushers in a new era of performance, learning, and multidisciplinary collaboration on campus with a flexible facility for theater and dance

By Joel Hoekstra

Last fall, an audience assembled at Macalester College to see the inaugural production in the college’s new theater-and-dance building. The performance, Letters|Home, wasn’t the only draw: Many attendees were eager to see the new space. For two semesters, the Theater and Dance Department had been squeezed into temporary quarters elsewhere on campus while the 50-year-old building that formerly housed the school’s proscenium stage was torn down. Now, the new flexible theater erected in its place was in the limelight.

The completion of the building in January 2019 marked the culmination of a years-long effort to refresh the arts facilities on campus. For more than a decade, Macalester officials had been working with Minneapolis-based HGA to renovate and expand the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, built in 1963. The arts commons and music building were transformed in 2012, and a revamped studio-arts facility opened in 2014.

The third and final phase of the project, like the two that preceded it, includes a featured facade whose custom architectural expression reflects the arts disciplines housed inside the building. For the entry to the theater-and-dance complex, HGA designed a flowing, perforated-metal scrim with internal lighting that captures the movement, fabric, and theatricality of the performing arts. “A thoughtful approach embracing a variety of textures and materials provides each building with a unique and artful look, preparing visitors for what they will experience inside,” says HGA CEO Tim Carl, FAIA.

When Macalester officials and HGA architect Rebecca Celis, AIA, turned their attention to the theatrical arts, it quickly became clear that there could be no second act for the old stage. “We went to the faculty and said, ‘If you’re willing to give up the proscenium, we can give you a lot of other things you want,’” says David Wheaton, Macalester’s longtime vice president of administration and finance. “Needless to say, it took them about five minutes to decide.”

The new complex is designed for maximum adaptability, says Celis. It revolves around the flexible theater, which can seat an audience of 200 in various configurations. A wraparound second-level gallery is fitted with hinged platforms that can be tucked flat against the wall, maximizing scenic and seating options for both theater and dance. A wire-mesh tension grid suspended from the ceiling allows groups of tech students to move about safely as they hang lights and scenery. “The faculty really wanted every space to be flexible and multipurpose, prioritizing the needs of students who are rehearsing and learning,” says Celis.

“From the start, the focus of the conversation was on how to make each room a classroom,” says Theater and Dance chair Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento. “Also, we felt strongly that each room should be able to accommodate at least two types of students.”

The building’s primary dance studio, for example, functions both as a daily rehearsal space and an occasional small recital space. On the second floor, eight classrooms designated for general academic use are home to courses in subjects ranging from Shakespeare to seismology, and a skyway links the theater facility to the neighboring science complex. On the first floor, the building adds a new presence to the arts commons, connecting theater and dance more directly to the music and studio-arts programs.

Nascimento says the building’s connectedness has spawned new collaborations and helped the department connect with students who previously only visited the theater building a few times a year, for performances. Now, chemistry majors pass through the facility on their way to choir practice, and music students in the arts commons get glimpses of dance rehearsals through interior windows.

“The building as a whole reinforces the idea of the liberal arts,” says Wheaton. “On any given day, you could have history and philosophy next to dance and physics and math. One alum pointed out to me that the skyway is a physical manifestation of the liberal arts: It’s a link between the arts and sciences.”

“Black-box theaters are by nature inwardly focused, but this one is rendered quite poetically on the exterior with a beautiful and elusive metal screen that appears to flow like the drapery and theatrical screening used inside.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: Macalester College
Architect and landscape architect: HGA
MEP, structural, and civil engineer: HGA
Construction manager: McGough Construction
Acoustical and audiovisual design: Threshold Acoustics
Theater planning and lighting design: Schuler Shook
Size: 58,000 square feet
Cost: Withheld
Completion: January 2019
Photographer: Gaffer Photography