Local Current Blog

Northrop Auditorium to re-open in April, trading quantity for quality

Photos by Nate Ryan/MPR

Northrop Auditorium, the University of Minnesota venue that’s hosted innumerable performances in all genres—including, most notably in recent years, the 2008 election-night show at which Bob Dylan said something not entirely decipherable but unmistakably positive about the forthcoming presidency of Barack Obama—will reopen on April 4 after over three years of construction that are radically transforming the campus landmark.

Construction is still very much in progress, but on Thursday, media representatives were taken on a hard-hat tour (“you can keep the hard hats”) of the 84-year-old auditorium’s new interior spaces.

The changes are among the most significant ever made to a local venue of Northrop’s size, on par with rolling the Shubert Theatre across downtown Minneapolis to become the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. The auditorium space is being completely rebuilt, creating three balconies where there once was only one. The seats will be closer to the center of the stage—82 feet away, on average, compared to a previous average of 97 feet—and there will be over 2,000 fewer of them. The former capacity of 4,847 (as our handy infographic shows) had the Northrop holding nearly as many concertgoers as Roy Wilkins Auditorium; Northrop’s new capacity of 2,700 (revised from a previously reported figure of 2,800) makes it only slightly larger than the Orpheum Theatre.

Further enhancements to the auditorium include a new loading dock (significant because it allows the venue to host much larger productions); improved acoustics (including banners that will unfurl to reduce the reverberations of amplified shows); and an out-of-sight backstage crossover that will allow performers to move from one side of the stage to the other without, as was previously the case, needing to go down and run through the basement. Furthermore, every seat will be a tweet seat: a wireless network will afford capacity for each and every person in the venue to be simultaneously online.

That’s all not to mention the whole new theater being built in addition to the main auditorium. Having moved the venue’s back wall forward, HGA Architects and Engineers used part of the under-balcony space to build a 168-seat hall—the Best Buy Theater, natch—that’s intended to host films, lectures, and other events. The two spaces are being acoustically insulated from one another, so both the main auditorium and the smaller hall can be used simultaneously.

The broader goal of renovations, architects said Thursday, is to change the role of the auditorium from a “rock in the stream” of campus life to a central crossroads. Students will be invited to hang out at Northrop even when a show isn’t scheduled, enjoying the venue’s renovated public spaces including a picturesque mezzanine with a view across the lawn to Coffman Memorial Union. A new reception space (“the Founders’ Room”) will facilitate the kind of wining, dining, and schmoozing that gets projects like this built.

Northrop will officially reopen on April 4, 2014, with a performance of Giselle by American Ballet Theatre. Other performances scheduled for the venue’s comeback season include an appearance by Jake & Amir of CollegeHumor; a lecture by Condoleezza Rice (an announcement met with stony silence among the assembled press corps); a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion; and a recreation of the first-ever Northrop performance by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (which later became the Minnesota Orchestra), played by the locked-out musicians of the current Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of returning conductor Osmo Vänskä.

Though popular music is clearly intended to remain part of the Northrop’s mix, no rock, hip-hip, or EDM shows have yet been announced. When I mentioned this to Star Tribune writer Jon Bream, he just laughed. Rock stars, he said, “don’t plan that far in advance.”