The Queen of the Negev gets her palace

Sneak preview: Beersheba's new, NIS 150 million, state-of-the-art Culture Hall.

BS Culture Hall 88 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
BS Culture Hall 88 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
It's taken seven long years, but finally Beersheba's long-awaited, much-discussed, soaring new NIS 150 million 'Culture Hall' is in the end stages of construction. Workers are still busy with electrical hookups, tile work and installing inside fixtures and furnishings, but a Grand Opening date has been set: On September 22, Israel's government leaders, Knesset members, local dignitaries and anyone else who can snag a ticket will come together to celebrate and cut the ceremonial ribbon. For Beersheba - dubbed the "Queen of the Negev," but with few palaces to prove it - the new Culture Hall signals a significant step forward for those who live in the South. "This building will change the character of Beersheba," says Eli Malul, Beersheba's Municipal Construction Manager, who's working overtime to oversee the finishing touches. "It will be known as a 'Culture Hall,' but in the office, we've been calling it the mishkan, like in the Temple. It will be a dwelling place, a place for the arts, an asset that will allow Beersheba to host any kind of music, opera, theater, dance or other performance the country has to offer. There's nothing like it in the entire country." The new hall will be a permanent home for both the Beersheba Sinfonietta and the Beersheba Theater, offering abundant offices, rehearsal space and performance venues. But beyond that, with two separate theaters, Beersheba will be able to host not only classical music and theater, but also dance troupes and opera, the latter of which requires sophisticated stage enhancements not previously available. Even now, the hall's two theaters give every indication of being magnificent by the time seats and plush carpeting are installed. The smaller of the two seats a modest 420, but with state-of-the-art electronically operated stage and scenery drops, and several catwalks with specialized lighting, it's likely to be a popular venue for all kinds of performances. The larger theater - which will seat just under a thousand people - is a work of art in itself. With a domed ceiling fitted with hundreds of tiny lights that shine like stars, it boasts tiered seats on the floor level, and loge seats in several side balconies. There won't be a bad seat anywhere in the house. The orchestra pit is enhanced with an elevator, allowing the orchestra to rise and descend, while the stage itself has a sub-level, also equipped with elevators, to augment performances when required, or just to make changing scenery easier. Above the stage, a maze of scenery installations dangles high above audience eye level - equipment that will allow scenes and props to be raised and lowered from a central switchboard. High above the seats, five catwalks are lined with stage lights that can be adjusted to highlight virtually anything in the theater. Each theater has its own foyer, so two separate productions can play simultaneously. Throughout, earth-colored tiles - in Negev colors - blend with modernistic glass and mirror. A step-down café and cafeteria with a mirrored ceiling offers a pleasant place for audiences to gather, and from there they can enter either of the theaters via separate grand staircases or elevators. Just outside the building's arching glass entryway, there's even a "late elevator," allowing latecomers to be whisked directly to the theater level without passing through the front doors, and without disturbing others. Malul notes that the entire structure is handicapped-accessible, with no-step entryways, ramps, several elevators, and even special places in the theaters designed to accommodate wheelchairs. Those are the public parts. But Malul is equally proud of the "employee" accommodations the building offers, whose benefits musicians, dancers, directors and other professionals will enjoy. "In the back of the building, there's a big plaza, where all kinds of outdoor events can take place. From there, a stairway leads to a back entrance for performers," he says. "There will be an information desk there, a ticket office, and a place to wait, if you have an appointment with someone upstairs. Above, there are five floors of office space, with dozens of private offices for both the Sinfonietta and the Theater people. The offices are different sizes and configurations, but each has an outside window and an airy feel." A "green room" will host actors and musicians as they await their moment in the limelight. "Performers can come here to relax and prepare. We'll have comfortable chairs, and a few tables for coffee, snacks or even lunch. There'll be a few desks and places for people to meet." State-of-the-art rehearsal space is another plus: "There are two separate rehearsal rooms," Malul says. "Each is quite large, and comes equipped with soundproof walls and parquet floors, so dancers can rehearse here, too. There's also lighting equipment, and even room to move in a stage, so these rehearsal rooms could be used for actual performances, if someone wanted. Dressing rooms are nearby. There's lots of space." Today, electrician Avi Galon says his crew is still working to perfect the highly complex electrical and lighting systems that cover the huge structure - both theaters, rehearsal halls, the public rooms, offices and entryways. When asked if it's been a tough job, Galon laughs. "It's been very complex, very difficult. But we're getting it done. We've had to make some changes and adjustments along the way." The building - situated on the busy intersection of Rehov Rager and Sderot Shazar, just across the street from the municipal buildings - has attracted considerable interest from passersby, who have watched it rise from its early days as a hole in the ground. With its soaring arches, jutting modernistic graphics and glass walls rising to 20 meters, it's impossible to miss from the busy streets. "Lots of people have asked about the stairway," Malul notes, pointing to a two-level metal staircase currently appended to the north side of the building. "That's not staying. It's just part of the construction equipment. It will be gone, and something else will be there, a balcony, perhaps." Other issues have cropped up as well. "Some of the light bulbs set into the extraordinarily high ceilings can't be changed from inside," he says. "We'll have to work something out, maybe find a way to change them from the top of the building, going down in. Most of the outside glass walls will have to be washed that way, too, with scaffolds coming down from the top." Parking is another issue. "Parking is a problem. There's not enough, we know that," Malul says. "But the biggest events will most likely be taking place at night, in which case there's also parking available across the street near the government buildings." Malul acknowledges it's been a long haul to completion. "Getting the Culture Hall built has been an enormous undertaking. It was a very expensive proposition," he admits. "If it hadn't been for Mayor Ya'acov Terner, it wouldn't have been built at all. Mayor Terner did it - he fought for it all the way. It took someone like that, with vision and commitment, to see it through." So save the date: September 22. At long last, the Queen of the Negev will have her palace.