Before Catherine Cahill became an arts administrator, she was a performer studying cello at Temple University.
She was also a fan.
“I would ride my bike out to hear the great concerts here in the summer,” said Cahill, sitting under the pavilion at the Mann. “I fell in love with the Mann back then. It was actually called the Robin Hood Dell West for the first couple of years when it was built here in 1976.”
When Cahill became president of the Mann in 2008 — after six years as president of the Brooklyn Philharmonic — both its advantages and the problems were well known.
“The experience is really special,” said Cahill. “It’s not like something you get in a typical concert hall where you go in, cross a threshold, sit in your seat, clap between movements. This is a very different experience. It’s relaxed. You can come in Bermuda shorts, sit on the lawn with wine, or sit up close. You’ve got birds chirping, wind blowing through trees. It’s really magical.”
The Mann has 4,500 seats under a gigantic pavilion, and another 4,800 just outside the roof, with more open lawn space spanning up the hill. Visitors can have the acoustics of an indoor hall, or the open-air above them, or recline under the summer sky.
Part of the problem are those same seats. The outdoor seating is small and cramped, installed at the urging of Live Nation, a former presenting partner, which insisted the venue needed more seats to stay competitive.
Since then, Cahill has learned that people don’t want more seats. They want more lawn.
“We have concerts here where we can’t accommodate the lawn at the level we would like to,” said Cahill. “People are too crowded.”
When Cahill arrived four years ago, she inherited a 2001 strategic plan to improve the facility and expand its footprint. The box office, entrance plaza, and VIP areas have been revamped; now the expansion commences.
As soon as the current concert season wraps in October, the Mann Center will begin a dramatic makeover. All of those 4,800 outdoor terrace seats will be torn out, replaced by just 2,000 more spacious seats. The remaining space — several thousand square feet — will be become open grass. High-definition video screens will be installed for outdoor viewing.
Work will also commence on a 3.5-acre expansion just above that lawn, on top of the hill boasting one of the best views of the city skyline. Currently there are bathrooms, concessions, half of a traffic turn-around (Fairmount Park foliage absorbed the other half), and a forgotten statue by American sculptor Daniel Chester French (the creator of the Lincoln Memorial).
This is where the new Skyline Stage will be built. The secondary stage will be smaller than the pavilion stage, and will have no seating at all. Concert-goers will be expected to sit on the grass, bring a blanket, or stand. Cahill expects to attract younger audiences who are accustomed to the nightclub experience of standing in front of the stage.
“There’s a real possibility that there is a different type of audience that will want to come to the Mann and enjoy this sylvan setting with skylines to die for,” said Cahill.
Staging an experiment
That notion was put to the test in July, when a temporary Skyline Stage was erected for two concerts by the Icelandic art-rock band, Sigur Ros. As an experimental run, Cahill wanted to see how load-in would happen, where the emergency vehicles would go, how to accommodate food trucks, and how many people could comfortably populate the lawn.
For the most part, the gamble paid off. About 5,000 people came to each show, many who had never been to the Mann before.
Wesley Baughman lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, a 10-hour drive from Philadelphia. He and his wife happily made the trip just to see their favorite band.
“If I had in my mind some way to see Sigur Ros, this is something really, really close to how I would want it to be,” said Baughman, reclining on a blanket underneath a copse of trees. “It’s really, really nice. It’s peaceful, serene.”
A permanent Skyline Stage is expected to be finished in time for the 2013 summer season.