Lights, Cameras, Action: T-minus One Year Until Grand Opening

| December 21, 2018

Over the last two years, I have had the great privilege of working in the newly opened Smith Learning Theater here on the 4th floor of the Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College Columbia University in NYC. As we pass the one-year anniversary of the opening of the space, I want to reflect on some highlights, challenges, and lessons learned from those of us “backstage.” This is the second in the series of articles. Read the first here.

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As furniture arrived and we started to unpack, we were faced with turning words like “experimental” “flexible” “innovative” into real learning, teaching, and research projects. Projectors, microphones, cameras and lights were unboxed, instructions read and “trainings” attended.

The Library team created internal challenges for ourselves to inspire us to figure out how to turn on the toys and start making things happen. We tried our hand at game design, fabricating props and game pieces for a “Learn About the Learning Theater Challenge”. We imagined hundreds of possible theater use-cases with different layouts and ground plans, and we played with how quickly (and how artfully) we could move the furniture from one configuration to another – at one-point choreographing librarians dancing with chairs to Madonna’s Material Girl.
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LCA Blog 2 chair dance

As our toolset expanded so did projects requiring our support and collaboration. The President’s Office requested we host the October 2016 Board of Trustees meeting in the Learning Theater, and although we didn’t feel ready, this ended up being a great opportunity to apply some of what we had been learning.

The theme of the meeting was the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Giant footage from the Republican and Democratic conventions projected on the back walls of the theater (we hung the big projectors; although they were not yet connected to the AV routing system, we got them turned on). Book displays held free copies of the candidates’ books (we’re a library, after all. We do books). Alternating playlists from the two conventions played as the trustees entered.

The programed portion of the meeting featured TC faculty reflecting on the impact of the possible outcomes of the election. This required a bunch of clip-on and handheld microphones and was easily the most nerve-wracking part of the experience for those of us behind the scenes. We discovered that too many clip-on microphones combined with funny, charming panelists causes feedback (and not the good kind)!

The best lesson of the October 2016 Board of Trustees meeting? Bathroom DJ came to life! This is an early example of what has evolved as a kind of learning process for the Library Team in the LT…

To allow for maximum flexibility and customization, the theater has 54 individually addressable speakers (including one in each bathroom) and a digital audio system called Dante by which different sources are sent to different speakers. No one who works in the library had experience with this system, but Jackie, a designer in the EdLab with some experience in sound design and who is generally technically inclined, got inspired by the idea of being able to “Bathroom DJ”- to provide personalized curated playlists to individual bathrooms. She spent a few weeks working with the system until at last she made it bend to her will. When the Board of Trustees asked the Library to curate an experience in the theater, the capability was in place so we were ready when inspiration struck.

During the meeting, each of the four bathrooms played a speech by Presidents Reagan, Bush, Obama, or Clinton. The presidential speeches accomplished more than we originally intended – a clever use of technology to embed some additional thematic content. The speeches were instantly recognizable and provoked a surprisingly emotional response; the discovery was private, but it provided connection between participants as they quietly shared their experience with each other, uncovering the broader experience and deepening the meaning. For us, we learned that pursuing a slightly weird but intriguing idea, enabled by some hard-won technical magic, could produce a little genuine delight.

Associated Links:
Bathroom DJ Rhizr
The Learning Theater Revealed blog post

This is a series of articles on working in the Smith Learning Theater, an Innovative Learning Environment in the Gottesman Libraries.  Please leave comments or questions below!