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'The most unique and intimate environment': McKnight Center construction nears completion

The whirl of drills and pounding of hammers drone throughout the cavernous building at Hester and University.

In less than a year, symphony music will replace the raucous sounds of construction.

On Friday, Dec. 10, members of the community were invited to tour the construction site of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University, a soon-to-be epicenter for the arts that has already attracted national and international performing arts productions and artists.

Mark Blakeman, executive director of The McKnight Center, provides oversight and direction to the project and led the tour through what he calls one of the most intimate performing arts centers in the world.

“The McKnight Center is what I call a ‘purpose-built’ facility,” Blakeman said. “The goal is to create the optimum listening environment for acoustic music. It can do a lot more than that, but because of that, the acoustic design becomes the primary driver in the design process. The acoustician has more veto power than anyone else on the design team. They get very specific about everything. The fabric that’s on the theatre chairs, they analyze it. They test the light fixtures to see if they emit noise… A lot veto power because we’re trying to create this incredible concert experience for everyone who comes to the McKnight Center.”

Filling the maximum number of seats possible is the standard business model for most performing arts center, however The McKnight Center has a different approach, Blakeman said.

Among the three performance spaces, The McKnight Center is anticipating about 25 performances in its first season.

“We are attempting to mix that up as much as we can,” Blakeman said. “Twenty-five might sound like a lot. Where I come from, it’s not very many at all. I was doing 160, 170 concerts a year in Nashville, so with so few opportunities, we’re really just focused on quality and not quantity.”

In 2016, Billie and Ross McKnight donated $25 million to create a program endowment for The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at OSU.

Blakeman said the McKnights have been directly involved in the progress of the project, helping recruit a group of donors who have given $1 million or more to the center. They were also critical to the creation of OSU’s partnership with The New York Philharmonic, which will perform during The McKnight Center’s opening week in October and work with students in masterclasses.

“Really, how we think about the center and in terms of our brand, is that we are providing world-class talent and artists to the OSU community, the Stillwater community and the community of Oklahoma,” Blakeman said. “We’re presenting them in the most unique and intimate environment that you can see them in.”

Blakeman said members of the New York Philharmonic have told him that no one on the staff could recall playing in a place this intimate.

“You can’t go anywhere else in the world and see that group perform with only 1,000 other people,” Blakeman said. “That’s what’s really special about this space.”

Along with the unique intimacy the performance hall offers, there is a variety of technology that Blakeman said will enhance the audience’s experience.

There are high-definition, robotic cameras in the hall that will shoot close-up video of performers that will then broadcast onto LED screens on both sides of the stage, Blakeman said.

Blakeman said he saw similar technology in use during a P!nk show in Houston earlier this year.

“I was amazed,” Blakeman said. “I was sitting in a giant arena with 10,000 people, but they’re using these cameras and they’re putting these performers up on these giant screens. We’ll be able to do the same thing here and it’s going to be special.”

The McKnight Center’s performance hall holds 1134 seats, the recital hall holds 217 seats and there is outdoor plaza with infrastructure for temporary staging and lighting, including a 32-foot LED wall.

Blakeman said the performance hall is, by definition, an opera house, and it’s not unlike the Tulsa Performing Arts Center or the Civic Center in Oklahoma City in terms of its production capabilities.

“This stage area of the performance hall is scaled very similar to those other performing arts centers,” Blakeman said. “But the thing that’s unique about the McKnight Center is the audience chamber. We have 1,134 seats, and most performing arts centers have a minimum of 2,000.”

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center’s Chapman Music Hall seats 2,365 and the Civic Center’s Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre seats 2,477, both double the capacity of The McKnight’s Center’s performance hall.

Although it’ll be months until it’s show-ready, the building has the foundation and makings to become a premiere attraction at OSU. The audience chamber was still bare, but as the group looked toward the stage, it was hard not to imagine future packed houses. Voices and clamoring construction echoed in the hall, concrete, plywood and drywall still lined the inside, but Blakeman said the progress is equally evident as it is exciting.

“This inaugural season will be absolutely amazing,” Blakeman said. “It is the start of our work at The McKnight Center to have a lasting, long-term impact on our community and on the students at OSU."