Trying out second stage, Mann previews expansion plans

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts is going through an experimental phase. 

The outdoor amphitheater in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park will be trying out a new stage concept this weekend, one that will expand the footprint of the complex.

As the official summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Mann Center opened in 1976 as an open pavilion with 4,500 seats underneath a gigantic wooden roof. Outside of that, 4,800 additional seats are under the open sky.

“They’re uncomfortable, they’re small, and they’re old,” said president of CEO Catherine Cahill, standing amid the green terrace seats. “Most people, if they want a seat, they want the undercover experience for a seat. If you don’t want a seat, you want something different. That means the lawn. These sit in a limbo-land between the concert experience under the pavilion, and the lawn experience.”

Cahill said most of that seating was put in at the urging of Live Nation, a national concert promoter that insisted the Mann increase its seating capacity to draw big-name talent. This winter, all 4,800 seats will be removed and replaced with just 2,000 wider, more comfortable seats. That will allow the Mann to remain large enough to be competitive, and expand the lawn by several thousand square feet.

Expanding the lawn is one part of a $16 million capital campaign to enlarge the entire footprint of the Mann. On top of the hill, behind the pavilion and its lawn, beyond a property fence, is 3.5 acres of unused Fairmount Park.

Opening up the lawn — and the view

The flattened ridge has a statue, half of a traffic turning circle, and a handful of trees. Those who look sharply will see that the statue is by Daniel Chester French (the man who made the Lincoln Memorial) and the view of the Philadelphia skyline is the best anywhere.

Here is where a second stage will be built, to be called the Skyline Stage.

“This will all become grass. All this blacktop will go, thank God,” said Cahill, gesturing to asphalt paths criss-crossing the plain. “Imagine standing here, looking at that skyline, and looking at our pavilion. Very exciting.”

This weekend, the Skyline Stage will be a temporary build. The Icelandic band Sigur Ros, known for spinning vast and swirly soundscapes, will helm the pilot experiment. There will be no seating, only grass.

“A lot of younger artists — indie rock bands — have a younger fan base that do not want to be seated in a 4,500-seat pavilion,” said Cahill. “Bands think it’s too big. Their fans want to stand, they don’t want to sit.”

Work on the pavilion’s new outdoor seats, its expanded lawn, and the secondary Skyline Stage will begin in October, the end of the Mann’s current season, for a summer 2013 opening.

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