Soka University in Aliso Viejo is building a world-class performance space that will become a community resource later this year. 

David Palmer, General Manager of the Soka Performing Arts Center, and Wendy Harder, Director of Community Relations are taking us on a behind-the-scenes preview.

Can you tell us a little about this magnificent building (we’re standing in front of the theater).
David Palmer:   As you approach the building, one of the coolest things in that you not only see the Saddleback Valley over to our left and on our right the hills above Laguna Beach but, as you look at the glass façade, what you see is Founders Hall (editor’s note, a spectacular building, inside and out and worth arranging a visit to tour that building alone.)  

OCS:   We’re about to enter the theater that had its maiden voyage so to speak, last night (Jan 26) with the Pacific Symphony doing an open rehearsal concert.  How did it go?
David Palmer:   Beautiful, it worked pretty well last night.   It was a program they were actually doing tonight (Jan 27) in Palm Desert at the McCallum Theater.  We invited some of their donors and sponsors.  We invited the entire design and construction team for the facility and about 300 of them came. We also invited some of our students, faculty, and staff here to help us learn more about how the facility works.

David Palmer, Soka UniversityOCS:   What is the maximum seating?
David Palmer:   One thousand and thirty-four.  Some of the things we were looking at: ingress egress - how patrons are getting in and out; what’s parking going to be like; not easy at the moment but, we’re working on it.  Anyway it works.  We have some difficulties and we’re learning from that.  What we’re finding is, as people are walking in they say WOW! (this writer included.)  We’ve got cherry-wood that’s all over.  We’ve got the travertine marble veneer that is everywhere, and it is also common to other buildings on this campus so it is a great connection.  The whole building is being submitted for Leed Certification (efficiency and eco-friendly), thus some of the properties we got here, the glass louvers that you see along the façade here are actually, they’ve got these little lines in them, allows light through but reflects heat so that it reduces the heat load here in the lobby but allows in a great deal sunlight, so it makes it really bright and cheery and at night the light goes out and creates a beautiful glow.  Above, the solar photovoltaic cells are part of the systems on the roof of the building. The system is designed to provide about 15% of the energy needs for the facility so that we are we’re literally helping reduce the energy of the entire campus.  On the roof structure we have a green roof and what does that mean?  It means there are plants up there.  We have not only the photovoltaic array but there are also some ground cover up there.  It is a three inch bed of soil up on the roof.  What it does provide is an acoustical insulation from airplane overfly, traffic noise, things like that.  It provides solar insulation so that it helps absorb sunlight a little bit   It helps provide oxygen to the atmosphere.  It also helps absorb some of the initial rainfall and filters that.  It absorbs some of the nutrients and so forth so that helps clean and cleanse the watershed area in Woods Canyon right next to us.  I like to tell people that before this building was here, there was ground cover.  We just put it on the roof.  

I like to consider this as a concert hall with benefits.   It is designed primarily as a concert hall. The acoustics of the facility really drove all of the design elements for it, so that we have the beautiful cherry-wood inside.  The stage floor, is unfinished Alaskan white cedar.  It's like velvet walking on there.   It’s going to be amazingly difficult to keep clean.  Everything really works.  The experience last night with the Symphony Orchestra allowed us to really feel the hall with a full symphony, with a an overture fanfare with a piano concerto and with a full symphony, Mazursky's Pictures at an Exhibition which has such beautiful dynamics that they make a perfect piece to really test a hall like this and I have to say we passed.  We passed definitely.  That particular piece is one of my favorite pieces of music and at the end of it I was ready to spring up and applaud although it's only a rehearsal, because it was just so there.  

OCS:   How many pieces were in the orchestra?
David Palmer:   Eighty-five.  

OCS:   If you're mounting a theatrical production like a musical, does a stage get built?
David Palmer:   The stage is somewhat reconfigurable, that's what I mean by concert hall with benefits.  We do not have a fly loft.  Fly lofts just really defeat the acoustics of a concert hall so no fly loft but, we do have overhead, six motorized battens so that we can hang a cyc, an upstage black traveler.  We can use them as electrics or hang scenic items on them but they don't fly up and out of the way so we can't do a big show with lots of drops and so forth.  We can do a unit set show in here, quite easily.  The seating configuration, the physical stage configuration, if you take a look at the floor, you’ll see some lines in the floor that delineate a thrust and there are three elevators on the floor.  Two at the sides, one downstage.  You see two rows of seats on the downstage elevator.  Those elevators can lower down approximately 30 inches. The side acoustical panels open up and they’re seating wagons that roll, which will increase our capacity to his maximum one thousand and thirty-four.   When those seating wagons are pulled back and seats on the front wagon elevator are out, the capacity is about 915.   With the Pacific Symphony I asked them if they've needed us to remove the two front rows.  They said no.  

OCS:   Can you give us a little idea of the electronics you have here?
David Palmer:   The command central for the concert hall is a live mixing position and one of the cool aspects of this place.  We can adjust the acoustics in here, we can make it extremely reverberating like we did last night (the maiden-voyage hosting the Pacific Symphony) or we can kill some of that reverberation so that things like our Jazz Monsters series which is in a beautiful room in Founders Hall, we can now begin to the transfer that into this space and have the capability of doing first-class sound reinforcement that type of situation, for any touring artist that requires sound reinforcement so forth so we got the infrastructure here to do it all

Another aspects of the infrastructure the little video system here is not for the sound system but is for the video system.  There are six permanent camera positions inside the facility, they're going to be very discreet so that you not staring at a huge camera all the time but it will allow us to be able to either do a multi-camera archival recording potentially be able to do live webcasts or even live broadcasts of events that are taking place here.  So that's cool aspect number two technologically

Number three, our lighting system is state-of-the-art.  It's what virtually every new facility has today.  The only thing we don't have yet are the LEDs lighting fixtures but we do have color changers ad that sort of thing, we are holding off on the purchase of the LED fixtures, we’ve got a pretty large space,  LED fixtures are really good for the smaller spaces right now, their flexibility and price for a larger space like this aren't not quite there yet, I’m going to guess that within the next 1 to 3 years, they’ll be there as the traditional lighting equipment will become obsolete relatively soon.

OCS:  Tell us about the acoustics on the ceiling (a big smile came over David’s face when I asked this.)
David Palmer:   I love the technology, of all the stuff the ceiling that you're looking at here honestly, it's acoustically transparent.  What you looking at is for your eye, it is not for the acoustics of the space.  The acoustics of space is the envelope that surrounds the entire auditorium and it’s all the structure, it's all in how the pieces were put together so the saw-tooth design to the walls, the ribbing you see on the wood walls, up above, the steel structure is put together and it's a very open space there, that is the reverberant space that is your acoustical space the wood ceiling that you see here is nothing but small slats and it literally allows all of the  sound waves to pass through it to be reflected back unlike other facilities all take as an example the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts (at Cal State Long Beach), I was involved in the initial design work on that and that ceiling is quarter inch steel plate it's not for your eye it’s for sound.  The Segerstrom Concert Hall has a whole different acoustical design strategy to it, they have literally openable doors and movable ceiling panels and so forth reflective panels that they can shape the room so what they've done is taken a shoebox and put in stuff to make it acoustically good we've taken a space that is acoustically good to start with, and built the design around that.  

It's simply a design philosophy so the Nagata Acoustics group takes that philosophy, other acoustical groups will take other philosophies.  They both work, I personally like the Nagata approach.  If you build it right from the start, what do you have to adjust?  So, in our particular case, we adjust the acoustics by increasing or reducing the reverberation time, you‘ve got the wide-open natural reverberation time or there's a series of 10 draperies in the ceiling area that can be drawn and closed.  Two very different points, to adjust to that reverberation time so it still sounds good but there's less echo to it.  Last night we started with all of the acoustical drapery at their 50% deployed position with the thought that a symphony orchestra, to help the definition of each of the instruments, reduce some of the reverberation a little bit so we get clarity.  At the break, we opened all of the draperies completely we found that definition clarity was still there but there was a fullness to that sound that we didn't have in the first half of the rehearsal.  So what we discovered last night is the acoustics work.

OCS:   There are many small towns, 10,000 15,000. that don't have a facility one-tenth of what you have here, throughout the world, not just in America, and while you are in a larger community, you are pretty isolated  because you are a campus that while there is outreach and I know that mothers like to walk their babies here because it’s  so just peaceful, I come by sometimes to just look at the architecture so I also find it a very peaceful place to be but, what's a nice theater like this doing in a place like this?  In other words, why a theater of this magnitude on a campus of 400 students?
David Palmer:   Let’s go back to the initial philosophy of the university.  It is to create global leaders that will provide a contributive life right.  What is the purpose of this?  It is the university’s contributive life to our community.  This is here not just for Soka University.  Yes the students are going get a lot of enjoyment. a lot of use out of this space but, it's here to give back to the community that invited us in 10 years ago.  And to the greater Orange County community and ultimately the Southern California community to say, “this is a place you can come to, for walking your babies.  This is a place you can come to just to contemplate the scenery, to get a great education, and to see world-class performances.”

OCS:   What is the schedule for completion?
Wendy Harder:  The first public use of this facility will be our graduation in May 2011, which is our tenth anniversary, will be filled with their families and friends.  When we get to 1000 students, there we will be able to get all of our students in one place to talk with our president and faculty.  While there will be many campus uses, we fully expect it to be robustly enjoyed by our community for concerts and play.

OCS:   You Can you give us some idea of the finishing touches left to be done and that the center will be open to the public?
David Palmer:  There are still some aspects of the building that are being completed.  Final details because of the nature of the structure, for instance, in order to put in the right sound system you can get the sound mixer so we had to build the space and then bring in manufacturers to find the best speakers for this space.  As Wendy said, we are anticipating the fall of 2011 to be our grand opening.  

OCS:  You obviously have the support of the leadership of the university to get it right as opposed to get it done quickly.
David  Palmer:  That’s correct.  We have great leadership.  They are most concerned with getting it done correctly and have it last for 100s of years, rather than cut corners for the sake of getting it done a few months earlier.  

OCS:   My first experiences with Soka was about eight years ago as a consultant to discuss marketing the campus to production companies for shooting movies.  There was also talk of renting out facilities for various organizations to hold annual meetings at Soka. Is that still something you look to do?
Wendy Harder:   We are occasionally used for still photography commercial shoots (many car companies) and are booked two years in advance by many organizations for meeting here.  We are open to requests that work around our prime focus, our student’s use of the campus

OCS:   David, what is your background and journey here:
David Palmer:   I came from Whittier College where I was the theater manager for the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts.  I was there for 19 years.  Prior to that I was with the dance department at Cal State Long Beach as their lighting designer and technical director.  With the theater department at Cal State Long Beach I freelanced, won a couple of Drama Logue awards for my lighting design and continued to work as the resident lighting designer for Shakespeare Orange County.

OCS:   If you have to give me the elevator speech – what is Soka University?
Wendy Harder:   Soka University is a private, 4 year liberal arts university and was founded on the Buddhist principals of peace, human rights, and the sanctity of life.   Our curriculum is non-sectarian, open to students of all faiths.  Half of our kids are from over 40 countries, and half are from the United States.  All students live on campus, we have a student faculty ratio of 9 to 1which means the average class size in 13 and every student lives abroad for half of their junior year.  They are required to study a second language other than English or their native language and their study abroad assignment will use the language they are studying.  This gives them an opportunity to live a culture other than their own.

For more information about Soka's Performing Arts Center please visit


Soka University

Saturday, June 15, 2024