Posted in education on April 26, 2016 10:19 am EDT

Inside the AVL Design of Sight & Sound Theatres

A Q&A with Director of Show Design Maria-Jose Tennison.

Sight & Sounds' productions are typically 3-4 years in the making, and once they go live, are powered by an enormous amount of technology and staff.











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TAGS: avl design, community connection, immersive experience, performance space, technology,


By Rachel Hayes

The scale is different, but the goal is the same: Create opportunities for encounters with Jesus. That’s what any house of worship that embraces production arts, regardless of its size or capability, has in common with Sight & Sound Theatres—and its 2,000-seat theaters that bring the Bible to life for more than one million people each year in Lancaster County, Pa., and Branson, Mo.

“Basically, we utilize technology that eliminates distraction.”

—Maria- José Tennison, Director of Marketing & Show Design, Sight & Sound Theatres

Meant to be a completely immersive experience, productions like "Noah," "Joseph," "Moses," and "Samson," primarily take place on a 300-foot wraparound stage, but the cast of humans and live animals roam the entire theater space, moving through the aisles and soaring above the audience members’ heads. Massive sets float effortlessly across the stage using Vetex automated wheel units controlled by a Raynok stage control system, which also interfaces with three 100-foot long performer rigs. The automated sets find their way around the stage with the help of an iTrax positioning system.

Sight & Sounds’ productions are typically 3-4 years in the making, and once they go live, are powered by an enormous amount of technology and staff. Its current Lancaster show, Samson, uses four technicians in the 50-foot long front-of-house control booth, with 39 additional staff working backstage.

Maria-José Tennison, Director of Marketing & Show Design, Sight & Sound Theatres

But when Church Designer sat down with Sight & Sounds’ Director of Marketing and Show Design, Maria-José Tennison, it became clear that while bells, whistles and all other special effects have an important role to play, the story reigns supreme.

Church Designer: What is Sight & Sounds’ philosophy or approach to stage design and the use of AVL?

Tennison: Everything we do is designed with the story in mind. There’s no reason for special effects if the strength of the story isn’t present. We might be tempted to ‘make it cool,’ but effects must drive the story forward. “Moses,” for instance, was very effects-driven because of the nature of the story—there were so many supernatural aspects. “Joseph” was different, it had a much more relational focus so the special effects were minimized.

We want to keep people in the moment and protect the emotional connection as much as possible. We use seamless transitions and make sure the sets move on their own. We have GPS-oriented equipment that can move up to10,000 pounds. Basically, we utilize technology that eliminates distraction.

Church Designer: How do you determine when to use special effects and when to have a simpler moment?

Tennison: We don’t necessarily have a checklist. We hold each other accountable during the design process to make sure the spectacular or ‘wow’ moments drive the story further. If we feel [effects are being used] for the effect only, we end up cutting it.

Image courtesy of Sight & Sound Theatres.

Church Designer: What advice would you give architects or AVL designers/integrators that are designing or specifying for large-scale performance spaces in houses of worship?

Tennison: In our shows, we want the story to be brought to life in such an inspiring and immersive way that guests feel they are within the pages of the story. Our space and design decisions back that goal up. Although we have our fair share of cool toys, we don’t build something into our infrastructure that doesn’t drive the story forward. We want the audience to relate to the characters and be so moved that it ignites a desire to explore further … outside of our walls. There’s a temptation to push and be cutting edge constantly, but we must still be efficient and drive the story. The latest and greatest may not be the best solution. We also need repeatable solutions—setups that can be relied on over and over and in different circumstances.  continued >>