BANFF – Two generations of artists have graced the stage of the Eric Harvie Theatre, while audiences at those performances enjoyed those creative endeavours in the 940-seat venue.
It is in important legacy for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, but it was clear the theatre, built in 1967, needed an upgrade to bring it up-to-date technologically and provide an improved experience for audiences and performers.
That's where Calgary-resident Jenny Belzberg comes into the story. Her family donated half the $7.1 million needed to transform the theatre over the past 15 months into the 638-seat Jenny Belzberg Theatre.
"Since 1967, there have been tremendous performances here, but every one of them left the audience members cramped and sore, because it was not a comfortable theatre," said director of customer services Jim Olver. "Jenny Belzberg ... learned about the Banff Centre when she was a girl and became the chair [of the board of directors] in the 1980s.
"She always commented on the chairs and we are very pleased she encouraged her family to make this transformational gift."
The other half of the funds for the game-changing project for the Banff Centre came from the Government of Canada's cultural spaces program, according to CEO Janice Price. That was after three months of work by KPMB Architects.
Price said the Stuart Olson construction crews were on standby as the final event of the 2019 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival wrapped up a year ago, to begin the work to remove the theatre's chairs and rebuild.
"They were literally hovering outside the front doors on the last day of last year's film festival," she said. "Within days, it was completely gutted."
Price said the community is invited to experience the new theatre space as part of small tours to be held over the next several weeks. Beginning Thursday (Nov. 12) until Dec. 12 on Thursdays and Saturdays, groups of 10 will be able to check out the new theatre, along with a small performance by local artists and alumni, with COVID-19 measures in place.
The Jenny Belzberg Theatre was built inside the old theatre space. Not only are the chairs much more comfortable to sit in, there is more space for the audience to enjoy the wide-range of events on the stage.
One of the most important improvement for the audience experience, according to vice-president of operations Michael Code, was to significantly increase the amount of accessible seating.
"[Before], we did not have the ability to properly deal with people with mobility or access issues," Code said. "The seating you see now has many different configurations. We can take some of the seating out, move things around, and we can make more accessible seating."
There is a new wrap-around balcony, that is at the same level as the lobby, with adjustable seating specifically for those with mobility issues. As well, everywhere it was possible within the seating area, flexibility was built in to accommodate wheelchair access.
The sound quality of the new theatre was also a major focus in the design and construction. One of the best sound engineers in the world, Bob Esert, was brought in to consult.
The walls of the theatre are made of bevelled white pine, recycled from an old barn in Ontario, designed to distribute the sound of either acoustic or amplified performances throughout the space. Olver said there every seat in the theatre provides exceptional sound quality.
"Acoustic engineers have designed those vertical slats to break up the reflections of the sound so that we can deliver in almost every seat," he said.
Managing director of production Kevin Tanner said the Meyer surround-sound system is state of the art. The new theatre has 62-kilometres of cable for lighting, sound and video beneath the floor to deliver a high-quality audience experience.
Tanner said specially designed perforated metal covers, which match the wood walls, were used to cover the speakers.
"I have seen a lot of flat surfaces, but I have never seen metal shaped with the wall," he said.
That is especially true for the next Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which will "blow audiences out of their seats" in a good way, according to Price.
"Of course, we had to think of the film festival," said vice-president of arts and leadership programming Howard Jang. "We had to make sure we had a system that could handle the films."
Jang pointed out there were also improvements to the sound, lighting and video booth areas to provide space for students taking practicum programs to learn those skills.
"That is a really big deal, because teaching for us is very critical," Jang said. "Our practicum programs, which is very much about teaching technical talents, we needed room for them to be alongside our own technical crew, so they can learn with them."
He said in addition to thinking about the teaching opportunities, and audience experience, the design team was also focused on the experience of the performers on stage as well.
"We wanted to create intimacy on both sides of the stage," Jang said. "Even if the theatre is not full, it will feel connected."
He said 940 seats was too big and could feel cavernous, especially if an event was not sold out. But the new size, which ranges from 602 to 638, is an ideal number in many ways.
"What we recognized too, is many of the performances, or the showcases we do, are often resident companies that are working on a program they want to take on the road," Jang said. "We are finding the sweet-spot of 600 to 650 is actually the perfect touring size space for theatre or dance companies touring Canada or around the world."
Ronelle Schaufele and Nigel Boehm, with Banff's Ensemble Cascade, spoke to what it was like to perform in the new theatre.
"I cannot express what an honour and privilege it is for us to be among the first to play on this amazing new stage in this amazing new hall," Boehm said. "When we were playing this Mozart piece, it was just amazing to hear all the different articulations that are speaking now on the stage, and the different colours and sound.
"The acoustics in here are beautiful."
Both are alumni of the Banff Centre's classical music program. Boehm began attending as a musician in his youth and throughout university. He said they loved it so much, they decided to move to the community.
"This is such a special place for both of us, as I am sure it is for so many artists in Canada and everywhere in the world," Schaufele said. "I feel confident this will be a space that musicians and audiences are going to enjoy for generations to come."
Go to the Banff Centre's website to book a spot on one of the upcoming community tours of the Jenny Belzberg Theatre.