May 10, 2012
The Frost Amphitheatre. If I hadn't been told about this outdoor concert venue smack bang in the middle of the Stanford campus, I would have never suspected that the site, with its grassy seating tiers shrouded in redwood and oak trees, existed. That's crazy when you think about the fact that the venue can accommodate some 6,000 people.
Many members of the Stanford community are unaware of the venue's presence even though they cycle, walk and drive by it every day. But for many years, the Frost Amphitheatre hosted legendary concerts by groups like The Grateful Dead. But it's pretty much fallen into disuse owing to inadequate bathroom facilities, a lack of electricity and nothing in the way of ADA compliance.
According to Stanford's Institute for Creativity in the Arts, the last time Stanford looked at upgrading the facility, the price tag was estimated to be somewhere in the region of $12 million. These days, if the university wants to put on an event there (which it currently only does sporadically, though the band Modest Mouse is performing there on May 19 in a program billed as "Frost Revival") it costs around $400,000 in portaloos, electrics, shuttle buses and other peripherals to make the venue serviceable for an evening's entertainment.
Earlier today, I was delighted to take a tour of the Frost Amphitheatre. I went with a small group and was gobsmacked by the expansive simplicity and beauty of the space. Our group (a Stanford Design School project team exploring ideas to reinvent the theatre experience for new audiences) is looking at a variety of different spaces on and off campus as potential sites for staging unusual theatrical experiences. One idea we floated today, inspired by the gentle grassy slopes of the Frost, is an event which we might call "Potential Energy." It will involve people inventing interesting vehicles in which to propel themselves down the hill towards the stage. Sort of grass toboganning meets Cirque du Soleil.
On a final note, I was surprised by how unadorned the Frost is. There is no shell structure above or around the bare stage. And virtually the only walls on the premises are natural barriers created by trees. This makes the space extremely open.
I wondered what the acoustics might be like given the sparsity of the architecture. When I stood on stage (see a photo of one of my colleagues which I took from this vantage point, above) I felt like my voice couldn't project very far. Classical amphitheatres, on the other hand, are built so that sound of the unamplified human voice carries to the very corners. There are very few if any vertical surfaces at the Frost for sound to bounce off. And yet the reviews I've read about the venue on Yelp say that the acoustics are great. I guess amplified music works well in this natural environment. But I can't imagine actors trying to project their voices there without amplification.