A sunset in the mountains of Banff can be breathtaking and dramatic, but it can also be a fiery, blinding distraction. Audiences at the old amphitheatre at the Banff Centre know this well, having suffered through many a glorious sunset over the years, the light shining in their eyes as the sun went down directly behind the stage.
"It was sort of a natural hill, but not really a natural amphitheatre," says Kelly Robinson, the Banff Centre's director of theatre arts, of the old set-up. "It was great for large outdoor concerts, but there was no intimacy, no real sense of location or anything other than a great view that got distorted when the sun was in your eyes."
No more. Robinson, an acclaimed theatre and opera director who is also director of creative development at Toronto's Mirvish Productions, has been deeply involved in the construction of a new amphitheatre, opening this month. The Banff Centre Shaw Communications Amphitheatre still takes advantage of the natural, sloping site, but swivels the action around, so that the audience is facing due south, with that sunset now visible only out of the corner of their eyes, and Sulphur Mountain forming a new, dramatic backdrop.
The Diamond + Schmitt-designed hillside theatre (with landscaping by Toronto's du Toit Allsopp Hillier) is the final piece of phase one of a $120-million revitalization project, with seating for about 470 and room for more than 1,100 others on the grassy slope around it. It will also be state of the art from a technological perspective, with a 7.3 x 3.8 metre LCD screen so bright they're looking for ways to dim it down (it registers even in full sunlight); optical fibre ringing the site, allowing for high-end audio recording and input for the sound system and HD screen; a sound and lighting booth; and front-of-house lighting.
The lighting, hardly a given for an outdoor amphitheatre, was a late addition to the plan, included after discussions with other companies that have installed outdoor theatres.
"We talked to folks across the country to say 'if you did it again, what would you do?' And so out of that certainly came [the lighting]and the optical fibre," said Robinson. "We thought it made sense anyway, but there was pressure from other people saying 'if you have the chance, make sure you do it.'"
Construction, which began with the destruction of Donald Cameron Hall last August, has been tricky, given the remote location and the rocky land.
"This terrain and this climate don't yield easily to this kind of the size and scale of manipulation," said Robinson, plans in hand next to a dusty construction site still very much in progress just a few weeks ago. "It's been a challenge."
Add to that a rainier-than-usual spring and summer, which caused construction delays, forcing the soft opening - originally planned for a July 19 Alex Cuba concert - to be pushed back. The amphitheatre will now open to the public with Big Brass with Jens Lindemann on July 31. (There was a private fundraising event held there July 22.)
The amphitheatre, built with a $1.5-million donation from Shaw, will serve as a theatre, dance and even film venue, a training ground for students, and a lunchtime rehearsal space. But it will be used most often as a concert venue, for music of all genres - from classical to rock.
"We've even thought about a mosh pit," said Robinson, referring to the flat space in front of the stage where audiences can get close up and dance, during performances by acts such as Blue Rodeo and Serena Ryder, both planned for later this summer. "That's a very important feature here."