Transforming the abandoned Strand Theater into a stunning stage for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater demanded all the elements of great drama: creativity, honesty, passion, risk. Lighting design performed multiple roles, from public engagement to the enhancement of modern architectural forms inside a century-old shell. Challenged by structural and historical constraints, the pressures of a high-profile project, and a nonprofit budget of only $8 per square foot, the lighting team scrutinized and perfected each fixture over three years. The resulting solution champions integrity and transparency over concealment and artifice, celebrating The Strand’s gritty past and its bold future.
Activated by soft, dramatic LEDs on the cornice and columns, The Strand’s seductive façade beckons the next generation of theatergoers. This seemingly effortless performance required painstaking mockups of color temperature and beam spread to accurately render the lush cherry-red and shield migrating birds from glare.
Expressing theatrical energy in a way that draws in passersby and invigorates the emerging mid-Market corridor became a team obsession. Strategically placed architectural fixtures, invisible from the exterior, suggest a magical interior luminosity.
Accent lighting in the lobby preserves the glow of a 30-foot LED screen, balances daylight, and creates poetic pools of illumination at night. Meticulously calibrated color temperature across fixtures achieves a crisp-yet-welcoming white that contrasts with the box office’s red glow, reinforcing branding and foreshadowing the theater beyond.
Surface-mounted fixtures echo the nothing-to-hide architecture, creating clean, honest layers of light that showcase the intersection of old and new. The team’s daily riddle during construction: How to successfully route tight conduit runs for 113 monopoint fixtures through a labyrinth of existing beams.
Tucked behind a knife-edge plane, a 90 CRI 3000K LED flush track system coordinates seamlessly with the portable lighting Unistrut used for special events. Asymmetric window-mounted LED uplights create a soft ceiling halo and frame the lobby from Market Street. LED fixtures slashed energy use to 10% below California’s strict efficiency requirements.
Reimagining the mesh lobby screen as a theatrical scrim, the team carefully focused narrow beam LEDs to illuminate patrons navigating the interior staircases. Theatergoers become part of the act, on display to the lobby and the city beyond.
Luminous fixtures counterbalance daylight and echo lines of track on the mezzanine. A combination of linear and monopoint fixtures gently guides patrons to their seats.
Innovative detailing using cost-effective fixtures creates a custom feel. Plaster-in lights required precise architectural coordination to carve out space within the existing infrastructure.
Inside the theater, handrails snake around uplights placed directly on the existing floor, in submission to historic walls. Portable cabaret seating demanded a unique surface-mounted step light solution for egress.
In the majestic 283-seat theater, column lights punctuate the narrow space and accentuate the raw architecture, without the distraction of irrelevant decorative lighting. In contrast to the typical dark upper cavity, catwalk-mounted uplights illuminate the vibrant ceiling and silhouette technical lighting, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the intimate, passionate world of A.C.T.
Lighting Design: PritchardPeck Lighting
Photography: Bruce Damonte/Jody Pritchard
Location: San Francisco, CA