Patrick Bergé is the Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Scéno Plus, a Montréal-based architecture firm that specializes in designing theaters. Some of their venues include the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace, the famous La Nouba theater at Walt Disney World Orlando and over 200 other projects around the world. Their newest project is a specially designed transformable theater for the new Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida and is their largest project to date.
How did you know that there was an opening in the market for this new perspective on theatre design?
We don’t really have competitors because no one else focuses on theaters like we do. When I was young, my mom was a costume designer so I was living in theaters from the ages of 12-18. When we toured, I lived in a van and Summer and Christmas were spent in theaters. I spent so much time in poorly designed theaters in the province of Québec growing up, I wanted to design better theaters to respect the people who were there all the time. The idea was also to help the Québec culture, to give to my community better structure and better equipment since there were so many theaters that were just falling apart or were just no good. When I went to university and told them I wanted to design theaters I learned that architects don’t focus on theaters. They said that I might get to do one or two in my life. But since all I wanted to work on was theaters, that was all I did. The Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui in Montréal was my first project and for a while I was building public theaters in Québec and renovating others.
Then when Cirque du Soleil started expanding and wanted to create a resident show I went with Guy Laliberté to Las Vegas to make the theater that would fit their needs. So we built the theater for Cirque du Soleil’s first permanent show “Mystère” which was adapted to the needs of the artists. It, like my other buildings, was built from the inside out. What I mean by that is, first you need to make the artists and the technicians comfortable. You find out what the needs of the artists are since they will be performing there twice a day for years, and the technicians basically live there, and they need to run the show. Then you need to find out what the audience needs when they are watching the show and lastly how they see the theater from the outside. The theatre for the Cirque du Soleil “O” was the most adapted theater we have done. So even though there is a 1.5 million gallon swimming pool instead of a stage there, it couldn’t feel like a pool for the audience so there was all kinds of work on the humidity, the viewing angle, and how to prevent it from smelling like a public pool! Many people think of the theater first from the outside, but I say we need to decide what the needs are and then make the facade.
How has Scéno Plus changed since it was founded in 1985?
I got my start working on government contracts for theaters in Québec, but to even do that we had to change the rules. Normally they would hire general contractors to do these theaters, but they would always have problems. Architects would always go over time and over budget and so I worked really hard to not do this. I also showed them the importance of having the best technology in theaters.
Next, we started working with casinos in Las Vegas and that really improved my project management skills because they are already selling tickets for shows that can only start after you’ve finished building the theater, so there is a lot of pressure to do everything on time.
We’ve done 35 public projects in the province of Québec but now business in Québec is only 5% of our total. Over the years we have expanded a lot internationally, but we still help little theaters in Québec. We often do it for free and help with theaters that we built 15 years ago. My wife also is involved by being on the boards of many theaters.
Now we’re working in China and we’re trying to introduce the idea that private clients can build theaters, not just the government. It’s the same thing that we saw in Québec 30 years ago. The public government wants to do it one way, but they often don’t know what they’re doing and will have regulations that are just not practical, so we listen to them, but we also have to show them why their strategy needs to change. China has made us go faster. Even though we are very experienced with producing fast and on-budget results from years of working with cities and casinos, in China they expect another level.
There are also cultural differences. Titles are really important in China and you can only meet CEO to CEO. My oldest son is starting to develop China by himself and to do that he had to be CEO or else he couldn’t meet with CEOs there, so there’s a lot of adjustment. The younger generation there is listening to us. They’re on board with meeting the needs of artists, but the older generation still doesn’t really get that we are able to give them an entirely new type of theater.
As a builder of theaters and someone who must understand the industry, do you think the performance arts are changing?
Resident shows and specialty-built theaters are becoming more popular. Artists prefer it because it is much more comfortable to perform in a theater that was built with the artists’ needs in mind than it is to perform in a stadium built for sports. It’s also more iconic to have your own show in one place than to always do tours. We’ve worked with artists like Céline Dion and Lady Gaga to build their residency shows in Las Vegas and they’re excited to get to work in an environment that was built for them.
Transformable theaters are becoming more popular now because having a purpose-built theater is important, but sometimes the theater will need to accommodate different types of shows. This is the case with the new Hollywood Hard Rock Live, which can transform from a 6,600-capacity theater for large concerts to a 2,500-capacity theater for musicals and can also accommodate wrestling and boxing matches.
Your official position at Scéno Plus is now Co-founder and Chairman of the Board. What are some of the difficulties in planning for succession for a business like Scéno Plus?
It’s a very difficult thing to do. My wife and I have been working together for 35 years and we split responsibilities. I would do the theater designs and negotiation and she takes care of more finance and administration. I am lucky to have two very talented sons to take our places. Olivier, my oldest son, is an incredible architect and designer and Vincent is taking over the finance aspects. Both are very capable of taking over what we’re doing, but we’re also building the company differently, so it can’t be done exactly the same way it was when I was leading. Now the company is managed by four people and we’re learning how things will advance in the future. My wife made a good point that it is like learning to ride a bike. Of course, we can try to support them forever, but at some point you have to take off the training wheels and if they crash, they crash, but they will learn.
Do you have any advice for current or future arts managers?
I would recommend to anybody to start understanding other cultures before you get into it. In China, the first thing we do is to listen to them. Everyone wants to open business in China, but they don’t realize how different it is there. It’s really important to understand the culture you’re going into. The creative process needs to involve foreign partners from the beginning. You can’t just bring them something you made and expect it to work. You need to listen to them to understand how they expect things to work before you can start helping find solutions. How else do you make people happy? It’s like with artists in the theater. They have different needs than the person paying for the theater and if you don’t think about those needs from the beginning, no one will be happy.