Harmonic Partnerships

Savvy school districts nationwide are partnering with community organizations to build and operate upscale multipurpose performing arts spaces.
August 11, 2010

Picture yourself a student at the newly renovated and expanded Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Ill.: First thing in the morning, your music teacher ushers you down the hall into the school theater. You walk through a set of elegant double doors, down carpeted steps, and plop down in a well-cushioned seat in the front row of a world-class performing arts space.

On stage, members of the Lake Forest Symphony are rehearsing for their upcoming performance. You take in a near-flawless rendition of Antonín Dvorak's Carnival before returning to class to try your own hand at the famed overture.

Later that afternoon, members of the symphony, joined by world-renowned violinist Mark Kaplan, stop by your classroom to give a hands-on lesson in their craft and to discuss life as a professional musician.

"How's that for an education!" exclaims Harry Griffith, PhD, superintendent of Lake Forest District 67, speaking of the educational opportunities that will result from the district's freshly inked deal to relocate the Lake Forest Symphony to the middle school. "Our kids will have access to world-class musicians on a daily basis," he says.

More than nine years in the making, the ambitious plan involves constructing a 900-seat professional-level theater at the school as the new home for the symphony that will double as a learning center for the school's music curriculum and community organizations.

"A school, particularly a middle school, can be an ideal location for a high-quality performing arts facility," says Griffith. Unlike a college or high school, middle schools rarely have performances at night or on weekends—prime time slots for professional concerts and community events.

It's a sweet deal for both entities. The symphony will pay for construction of the theater through a capital fund-raising program. The land, parking lots, high-end cafeteria, and maintenance and operation of the theater will be the responsibility of the school district.

"From an operational point of view, this deal will have a very minor, virtually negligible impact on our budget, because we can easily reallocate staff," says Griffith. "If the symphony were to build offsite, they'd have to pay for the land and hire their own director and maintenance staff."

A perfect composition

Public-private and public-public partnerships have become a popular way for school districts to expand curriculum, beef up facilities, and become centers of the community with minimal impact to the capital and operating budgets. Schools, communities, and private entities are sharing everything from libraries and computer labs to recreational centers and parks.

Lake Forest is among a small number of districts nationwide that are utilizing the partnership model to help fund and operate upscale theaters and auditoriums. Medina, Ohio, is another.

The city of 30,000 about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland is wrapping up work on a 370,000-sf expansion to its high school that includes construction of a 1,200-seat community theater, a small black-box venue, and a renovated 405-seat theater. In this case, the school district funded construction of the three performing arts spaces. Two local organizations—Medina County Performing Arts Foundation and Fleckley Foundation Charitable Trust—will pitch in to help operate and manage the facilities. Fleckley signed on to help fund long-term upgrades and repairs to the main community theater, while MCPAF provides staff and resources to manage the day-to-day operations of the three venues.

"It's a huge undertaking to coordinate all the different needs, from community and county events to high school, middle school, and even elementary school programs," says John G. Willi of MCPAF's role in the partnership. "Plus, the image has to be there: a high-quality, functional theater that meets the community's expectations for performing arts," says Willi, director of design research and principal with Fanning/Howey Associates, Celina, Ohio, design architect on the project.

Dana Hougland, principal and director of the Denver office with New York-based communications technology and acoustic consultant Shen Milsom & Wilke, says partnerships like this are becoming more common, but are not the norm by any means.

"We're seeing more of this in areas away from metro centers, where a community from a broad area may feed into one school," says Hougland. "The school is often the de facto performing arts center for their community."

She says more school districts are footing the bill for increasingly sophisticated theaters and auditoriums—with or without partnerships.

"These spaces tend to be a showpiece for the community," says Hougland. "Residents aren't likely to see the computer lab or the locker rooms, but they will see their kids performing in a show. And they want to see that their money was well spent."

Hougland says these pumped-up theaters may include sound reinforcement, intelligent lighting, a larger stage, an orchestra pit, TV studio, and a full fly loft (see table).

Theater technology is also becoming less expensive, according to Hougland. "Some lighting systems that can do many of the tricks possible in a Broadway theater are affordable to the average community."

Plan to play it safe

Mark Jolicoeur, AIA, Perkins+Will's principal-in-charge on the Lake Forest project, says there are numerous concerns with designing shared performance facilities.

The space must be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the school's diverse curriculum—orchestra, drama, band, and choir—while meeting the high-level acoustics and infrastructure requirements of professional and community performance groups. The Lake Forest Performing Arts Center, for example, will feature an adaptable stage capable of seating a full symphony, drama, or musical production.

"Working with our theater consultants, we developed a concept whereby what would be the fixed walls around the stage will pivot," says Jolicoeur. "When in the open position, they provide access backstage for drama productions."

Safety and security are huge concerns, says Ronald Lang, SVP with architect Harvard Jolly, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Motorized rigging to raise and lower sets and lights is a must: "It costs money, but from the safety standpoint you don't have to worry about having kids climbing 40 feet up in these fly lofts and catwalks," says Lang.

School officials are also concerned with keeping the campus secure, yet open to the community. Lang offers the following tips:

  • Ideally, the theater should be placed near the front or on the perimeter of the main school building, within eyesight of the school administration office.

  • All connections via hallways and corridors with the main school building should be equipped with security doors.

  • If possible, provide a separate entrance and parking lot for the performing arts space.

Prepare for the unknown

Another challenge with partnerships is dealing with the unknown. "When you hit a rough road with operating, maintenance, or repair costs, the school must have to have a plan in place to deal with that," says Willi.

In Medina, Ohio, the school district and its seven main partners signed joint operating agreements that assign responsibility for everything from maintenance and utility costs to liability insurance and long-term improvement plans.

"It's not as if once the building is built you're done," says Willi. "You have to continue the dialogue because things change—there will be new superintendents, mayors, community members. It takes strong leadership from the school district and from community to pull these off. It's a huge effort."

Anatomy of a K-12 school theater on steroids

Basically equipped high school theater Upgraded theater High-end theater
Source: Dana Hougland, Shen Milson Wilke

Stage size approximately 1.75 times the area of the proscenium opening Stage size approximately 2.0 times the area of the proscenium opening Stage size approximately 2.75–3.0 times the area of the proscenium opening
Dead-hung rigging system; no fly loft Dead-hung draperies with 3–8 operable line sets to fly electric battens, cyclorama, and scenery batten on motorized or manual rigged line sets Fully motorized, computer-control rigging system with full fly loft and walking grid; 20–40 line sets
Unlined velour stage draperies Lined travelers and grand valance with borders, legs, or tormentors made of flame-retardant fabric Lined travelers, borders, and legs made of flame-retardant velour
No orchestra pit Orchestra pit with adjustable-height pit cover Orchestra pit with pit lift
Paintable stage floor Hardwood stage floor Hardwood stage floor with traps
Fixed lighting pipes over house and stage Catwalk system for lighting pipe access At least two catwalks over the house
Side lights on exposed teasers Side light ports near or at catwalk Two or more side light ports with catwalk access
Center cluster audio reinforcement system Center cluster audio reinforcement; playback, with stereo fill as an option Left-center-right audio reinforcement system with recording
24–32 channel analog console 32–48 channel analog or digital control console with house mix position 48+ channel digital control console in a mid-house mix position with patch bay support
1–2 wireless microphones 5–8 wireless microphones 8–20 wireless microphones
96 dimmer per circuit lighting system 96–144 dimmer per circuit lighting system compatible with intelligent or moving light technology 144–192 dimmer per circuit lighting system with intelligent or moving light technology
48–96 lighting control console with 192+ channels and a single monitor 49–96 lighting control console with 250–500 channels, dual monitors, and limited moving light control 96–124 channel lighting control console with 600+ channels, dual monitors, moving light control, and lighting design programing capability
350 microsecond rise-time dimmers 500 microsecond rise-time dimmers 500–800 micro second rise-time dimmers