Building the Best Auditorium
Building a quality auditorium has never come at a cheap price. And in today’s economy, a $750,000 minimum price tag just for sound, lighting, stage rigging and seats can seem exorbitant. “And that’s in a low construction cost area,” says David Kromm, president of Kromm Rikimaru and Johansen, an architectural firm in St. Louis, Mo., that has built several high school auditoriums. “Missouri has pretty low costs compared to Chicago,” which is the next biggest city in the area.
Schools that have built new auditoriums or upgraded existing ones in the past decade say the investment is worth every penny. For many, it becomes a community gathering place and an attraction to hold regional events that bring in cash. For others, it offers students a quality educational experience in their future profession. Take McEachern High School in Cobb County School District, just outside Atlanta. Using dollars from the public school’s trust fund, the district built in 1996 an 877-seat stand-alone auditorium on its campus that includes luxuries like an orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered, two rehearsal suites (one for instrumental, the other for vocal), a costume room, and a scene shop connected to a loading dock for professional scene deliveries.
Simply naming some of the equipment creates a sense of wonder. The computerized lighting control system has an NSI/Colortran 24/48 console with 250 Colortran dimmers. A Sony Multiscan rearscreen projection system is mounted on the back wall. That’s just a drop in the bucket of technology high school students here can get their hands on. After the first five years in operation, McEachern High School could boast 15 graduates who chose technical theater as a college major due to this auditorium, and amusement park Six Flags Over Georgia was hiring McEachern students to work part-time in its technical services division. It’s a good return on what was estimated to be a $5 million investment last decade, says technical director Dan Faulkner. “My only advice is to go for it and build the best you can build at the time,” he says. “What I see with a lot of high schools is that the new auditoriums all look the same—they get the same equipment and they are limited on what they an do. Don’t scrimp. If you’re going to do a fine arts program, do it right.”
High school auditoriums break down to four categories of choices for Kromm: coustics, lighting, the stage and the seats. A standard sound system must be connected well to the Internet, and video projection is necessary in order to allow users to work with any presentation format they eed. As administrators work their way through these issues, multipurpose is the key word.
Lemont High School in the Lemont Township (Ill.) High School District 210 added a high-tech auditorium to its existing building as part of a larger $29.6 million project that included classroom additions and football field improvements. Officials hired an acoustician from 2006 to 2008 to advise uperintendent Sandy Doebert and her team regarding the blueprints. They eventually chose to build the walls to a standard so audiences cannot hear a rainstorm while nside the auditorium. Officials also chose to install cloudlike materials floating from the ceiling as a disguised means of absorbing unwanted sound.
“It’s definitely expensive because of the technologies associated with it,” Doebert says. “What was important to us was making sure we were purchasing the performing arts center with the necessary equipment but not bells and whistles. That’s real easy to do because the world of theater technology can be very confusing” with all the details in a bid, she says.
To help draw the line between cool and crucial, Doebert not only hired experts to translate but called other superintendents who had been through similar construction projects for independent confirmation. “We had to do not only what was right for the auditorium but what was right for our consumers and community too,” she says.
The original sound system at McEachern’s auditorium has served the school well for 12 years now, but Faulkner has finally begun looking at upgrades. Don’t look for him to pay upgraded prices, however. He avors the used market, where he says he can get top-notch equipment at bargain basement prices. “I can take my budget from the trust and expand my capabilities that way. I get no county money to keep up the theater,” he notes.
The latest sound systems don’t even tempt Susan McKernan, principal at Ansonia High School in the Ansonia (Conn.) School District. Her sound system, which went on line when the school—and attached auditorium—opened its doors in the 1999-2000 school year, can accommodate eight plug-in microphones and six wireless ones. A curved wall at the back of the structure helps ensure the sound is pleasing, and wired microphones work with a multimedia projector as well as a video camera that can broadcast anything on stage to the rest of the school building. “The new equipment I’ve seen for sound and lighting boards just have some fancy software and a little more memory, but we’re not behind,” McKernan says. “We can do everything they can do. It’s not as if you have to buy new equipment every couple of years once you build an auditorium.”
McKernan at Ansonia has added only a few more spotlights in the ceiling since Ansonia’s auditorium opened. The auditorium previously operated in a 1936 building where someone threw a switch and eight lights snapped on. The community is still thrilled, according to McKernan.
Richard Page, superintendent of the Neosho R5 School District in Missouri, is well acquainted with lighting struggles. Before the district renovated an existing auditorium at the high school and opened it to the public last January, teachers worked with 500-watt bulbs in the ceiling instead of theater-specific lighting.
“Boy, they were something,” Page laughs. “They cast a shadow, and any time you held a meeting in there with all the taff, you couldn’t recognize faces. I’m sure t was good in 1957, but it wasn’t fair to ur kids to have a facility that was not appropriate for what it was made for.”
So when prioritizing his budget, lighting headed Page’s list.
The only drawback Bob Anderson, director of plant operations for the Tempe (Ariz.) Union High School District, sees with upscale lighting and sound choices comes down to human nature. “If you don’t have good supervision, it doesn’t take much for students to start plugging things into the wrong holes and overloading the circuits until they blow out the oards,” he says. “That gets pretty expensive o fix, all because kids wanted to see how much they could crank up the sound system.” He would know, since the district has built six brand new state-of-the-art auditoriums in two decades.
In previous generations, schools could get by with a 20- or even 18-inch seat, but with the American population’s larger physical size these days, comfortable seating means 22-inch seats and three feet of walking space between the back of one row and the seat pan in the next. But high chool auditorium seats still don’t recline, and “administrators aren’t asking for cup olders and other fancy add-ons like that,” romm explains.
Even today’s ordinary, padded seats were an improvement for Neosho High School. Because the previous seats were wooden—with many of them cracked—and creaky, Page made this the second non-negotiable category on his list. “There was more noise going on from the chairs creaking, people moving and the seats slamming up when they stood at our school plays,” he says. Changing to metal frames, which don’t creak, alone has been a big hit with audiences n this small town near Missouri’s western border.
If faculty and staff at McEachern High School have any regrets about the school’s auditorium, it’s that all of the seats were placed into one facility. “When you do a lay like Mr. Roberts and only get 200 people in an 800-seat auditorium, it looks mpty,” Faulkner explains. If he could have a do-over, he’d build an auxiliary stage off to the side for smaller audiences.
Tom Roth, the senior designer at Darien, Ill.-based Wight & Co., who was part of Lemont’s architect team, solved the seating problem by designing a balcony to split the audience capacity. The school can open this section if the audience numbers require it, or work with just the main floor for more intimate settings.
Still, Superintendent Doebert says one regret is that they couldn’t find a way to accommodate more seats, a plus if you want to rent out your stage, due to limited square footage.
In Tempe, facility planning experts installed what Oxford, Conn.-based manufacturer Macton calls “turntable” systems in three of its auditoriums to solve the problem. Sections of the seating can rotate away to form classroom space, thus temporarily reducing the auditorium footprint. Studies at Macton show a 6.3 percent reduction in overall construction costs with this method, mainly because it eliminates the need to build more surrounding classrooms for students.
Desert Vista High School in Arizona opted for retractable wall sections that rotate instead of the seats rotating, but the end result is the same, Anderson says. “Not too many high schools want to spend that much money on auditoriums,” he explains. Tempe could foot the bill because its residents are in the same ZIP code with Arizona State University, “and they have a lot higher expectations. They do not go with the minimum standards,” he adds. If it requires taxes and school bonds to make that happen, so be it.
Five of the auditoriums in the Tempe district installed counterweight fly systems (a set of ropes and pulleys with weights to balance the load they are moving) above the stage for set changes, a move Anderson says means administration has to commit to providing adult supervision. If students aren’t constantly monitored to use the ropes and pulleys correctly, anyone in the vicinity could be in danger of being hit by falling 1,000-pound props. On the other hand, Tempe chose a motorized fly system at Marcos de Niza High School’s auditorium and discovered this choice requires a lot more maintenance.
Lemont didn’t have the physical space to create wings on the side of its stage for storage and set changes, so planners opted for a fly tower, which allows the stage crew to raise sets approximately 2 1/2 times as tall as the arch at the front of the stage. This decision cost less because it uses space above rather than cutting more deeply into the adjacent parking lot the school needed to sacrifice for the building in the first place. But the associated mechanisms themselves were expensive.
To save money, the school kept the number of ropes and pulleys in the fly system to a minimum, reflecting what they needed as opposed to loading the space with extra lines for play scenes and band shells that might be added later. “It was the most difficult temptation to resist,” Doebert admits. “Once you get past the basic decisions, it’s difficult to determine where to draw the line concerning amenities, features and technology in a facility like the Performing Arts Center. Also, there is a steep learning curve concerning terminology—you begin to talk like an engineer. It was a huge education curve for me to make sure I understood enough to make appropriate consumer decisions on behalf of the district.”
From an architect’s side of the table, finding the best location is typically the biggest hurdle, whether building a new building like McEachern High School, adding to an existing building like at Lemont High School, or renovating an existing space like at Neosho, according to Tom Roth, the senior designer at Wight & Co.
Doebert considered a stand-alone auditorium at Lemont High School in what is now an athletic field. But the attachment option required less of a space sacrifice, she explains, “and when you enter the building, there is now a main side for classrooms, and the opposite side with the auditorium, our field houses and football stadium. So we are literally able to conduct two things simultaneously.”
Another challenge is financing. While most public schools end up issuing bonds, this still requires a good sales job from the administration. Kromm is more than willing to join the dog and pony show with his clients, hitting the city meetings with 3-D presentations and virtual tours.
Doebert sold to taxpayers a $29.6 million project bond (of which the auditorium was part) by emphasizing it would not require tax dollars. In fact, because the community’s equalized assessed value rating, which measures financial worth, had increased enough between 1996 and 2006, the district could refinance and literally lower the tax rate associated with the building. Still, the message to the community wasn’t a no-brainer.
“It does require that the public trust that you’re telling them the truth,” Doebert notes. “This is a cynical age, and sometimes they won’t believe you. So our greatest challenge was to build on the trust that we have established all these years that we’ve been fiscally responsible.”
McKernan in Ansonia considers her school’s new auditorium to be one of the most effective public relation tools possible. “I believe strongly that a high school should be busy literally seven days a week,” she says.
Her auditorium has become the gathering place for town hall meetings, board presentations and community banquets—all involving people who need to know what is happening in the local school. “We marketed it as part of the community, and that’s what it has become,” she adds.
Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.