Until January 2005, the District Auditorium at Richland Northeast High School, in Columbia, SC, was much the same as any midsize multi-purpose public school theatre. A freestanding building built in 1996 to serve RNE as well as Richland School District Two's 16 elementary, middle, and high schools, it had what passed then for state-of-the-art production facilities. By 2005, however, the number of district schools had grown to 24 and state-of-the-art had become not only out of date both also the worse for wear from student use.

The auditorium's original specification called for a Lehigh lighting system and Peavey and Bose sound equipment that included a Lehigh Legacy stage lighting console, 116 Lehigh DX series stage dimmers, a Lehigh Sunburst house lighting rack, a Peavey 16-channel sound console, two Bose 402 center cluster speakers, and two Bose 502 subwoofer speakers.

By 2000, the lighting system had fallen victim to the rigors of school use (among other problems, the house system had twice caught fire). That year, the auditorium replaced the house dimmers and Legacy console with an ETC Unison® house system and ETC Express 48/96 console. The new equipment was more rugged and technically more advanced (for example, the new console has 192 channels where the old one had 48). It also allowed booth personnel to control both house and stage lights from the console (with the Lehigh system the house lights worked from a wall switch). In 2001, the auditorium upgraded the sound system, installing a Mackie 40-channel console and replaced the Bose with OAP speaker cabinets.

“It was advanced for the time,” says David Mitchell, the auditorium technical director, “but as the shows grew in both number and complexity, we found ourselves held back by the technology and really pushed by the time it took to tech a production.” Then as now, the auditorium ran with a two-person professional staff and a few ever-changing student volunteers. Although RNE has the Palmetto Center for the Arts (PCA) magnet program, it does not have any courses in technical theatre.

The arts magnet, which started in the 2001-02 school year, only made the situation more pressing. “Suddenly, we were doing twice as many shows, with shorter turnaround time,” says Mitchell. “The system we had just wasn't intended for the workout it was getting. By the next year, the setup was plagued with system breakdowns. We were doing so many productions and off-site projects that we didn't always have time for regular maintenance. Some of the equipment was wearing out.”

District Two is nothing if not arts and technology oriented. Both the district school superintendent, Stephen Hefner, and RNE's principal, Ralph Schmidt, have danced in PCA ballet productions. Hefner actively encourages formation of new performing arts groups, such as PCA's PB&J pop singing group (with which he recently performed at a statewide meeting of district superintendents) and RNE's Northeast Current, the Southeast's largest electric-string ensemble.

To Hefner, the arts are not education's neglected stepchild. “We want to do the very best we can by all students in every single area,” he says. “We want them prepared for any endeavor they might wish to pursue. That means keeping up with the cutting-edge, top-of-the-Chrysler technology out there right now, because by the time they leave us it will already have been replaced with something even more advanced.”

It was Schmidt who proposed — and got, with Hefner's backing — the arts magnet for his school; he is now overseeing a $1.9 million renovation of the school's performing and visual arts facilities. Between Hefner and Schmidt, if any school district in South Carolina was going to move to the fore in funding for these areas, it was going to be this one.

“The school has an obligation to do its best for its students, in the arts as well as in academics,” said Schmidt. “Technology is an important enabler, and we want to be on the cutting edge. It's almost scary how much the kids can do with the technology. But because we're a school, what's equally important is that through working with technology at a high level. They learn to collaborate, they develop a greater sense of ethics and integrity. Our teachers are go-getters. I believe if you set the bar high, kids are going to achieve. They catch the enthusiasm.”

At RNE, the bar started getting higher last winter, with installation of new lighting and sound equipment that included: an ETC Emphasis with radio remote-controlled focus unit, four ETC Revolution automated moving lights, 10 ETC Source Four® Jr. zooms for the front of house, two ETC SR48 dimmer racks with 127 dimmers and 14 relays, an ETC Net2 DMX Control Network with portable Ethernet nodes;, 15 Wybron Nexera Wash (tungsten) 2560 luminaires, two cascaded Yamaha DM 1000 digital consoles, and a Sennheiser wireless microphone system with 25 wireless mikes (13 of which travel with a portable sound system that includes a Yamaha 01V96 digital sound console for off-site appearances by PB&J).

Mitchell and his assistant designed the stationary system and designed and built the portable rig. They also specified the requirements for the new house system, which not only had to add needed capabilities but also make up for some shortfalls with the auditorium design. For one thing, says Mitchell, “doing as many events as we do in the auditorium — more than 300 for the schools and community — we have no time to do things the old-fashioned way. There is no time between shows to refocus. We need to be able to set up and focus in a virtual environment. Now with a couple of mouse clicks we can provide a downwash in any color in seconds. What a difference!”

To some extent, the choice of equipment was affected by the vendor bidding process that public schools in South Carolina have to follow. But Mitchell said that his technician was a big influence. “He made me do it,” he says. “ETC instruments seem to give more light per watt. Their dimmers are more durable in constant-use environments, such as ours, than are some of the dimmers that builders tend to put in schools. When most of your production staff is under the age of 17 and voluntary, you don't want anything delicate.”

But the auditorium's idiosyncrasies meant that both choice of equipment and installation were far from intuitive. “Handling each situation required an open mind,” Mitchell says. “Unorthodox solutions were not out of the question.”

The first complication was the placement of the front-of-house catwalk, which was so far into the house that the FOH lighting totally washed out the cyclorama. Suddenly what should have been a straightforward setup became an exercise in making do: instead of hanging the four Revolutions on the catwalk, Mitchell placed them 16' in front of the catwalk.

“It created a better angle while still allowing access to the fixtures using a lift,” he explains. “That was a big risk that had big payoffs visually. It also prompted our LD to suggest moving the entire FOH forward.” There are now several pipes in front of the catwalk for hanging lamps when the design requires.

Creating a new FOH position required fabrication of special pipes that would match the look and feel of the room. For this Mitchell went to Productions Unlimited Inc., Greenville, SC, which also built custom box booms when Mitchell realized that it would be difficult to get to the existing box boom to change gels and focus. A technician can climb the custom box booms like a ladder, rather than needing a lift for focusing and changing gels.

The proscenium opening and the flyspace are also problematic: both are far too short to preserve good sight lines, and the flyrail is actually a third full. “We decided to add several pipes in the missing slots and add teasers to disguise sight line problems,” Mitchell says.

During the summer, Mitchell got the go-ahead to purchase a new front-of-house mixing console. Although he prefers analog equipment for teaching (“It's easier to demonstrate a piece of equipment when you actually can see it in action.”), he opted to cascade two Yamaha DM1000 digital consoles for their ability to store show presets and recall them quickly. Moreover, he says, “Choosing digital consoles for the booth allowed us to remove racks of compressors, graphs, and reverbs that filled the cramped booth space.”

Mitchell also went digital for the PB&J traveling production set, whose sound system includes a Yamaha 01V96 digital mixer, 13 wireless receivers with antenna distribution, CD/cassette playback, and drive line snake.

“PB&J requested a sound system that would be portable yet powerful,” Mitchell says. “It needed to have both a high-tech look and feel, with ease of operation and a fair amount of portability. To allow students to dance and sing, we had to go entirely wireless. We chose switchable-frequency Sennheisers, like those in the theatre — ‘b’ band in theatre, ‘a’ band in the portable rack. To make transport easier, we built two extra-deep racks for the main components,” including an amp rack that houses a QSC RMX 2450 for mains and a 1450 for monitors. There is an added compartment on top of the rack for housing all onstage cables, so there is no need for a cable trunk.

For speakers, the system has four JBL 15" two-way Eons. The mains go on stands for coverage; the other two function as monitors. Because they are all the same, it doesn't matter which goes where, making setup that much simpler.

“It had to be plug and play,” Mitchell says. “There is never much setup time when the kids are performing away from school. The schedule is tight so they don't miss too many classes.” Moreover, Mitchell doesn't have time to travel with them: he made sure the sound system was simple enough for a student with minimal training to run from a laptop.

Ditto for the lighting system, which is compact enough to store in a single trunk. “The system is being assembled with PAR38s,” Mitchell explains. “They are bright enough for a good show but they don't draw too much power. PB&J can perform at schools, malls, or country clubs off of wall power. The whole show can be set up and running in 10 minutes flat. This means that PB&J can travel to several schools or performance spaces in one day.”

Mitchell's long-term goal for the District Auditorium includes replacing all existing speakers and making some acoustical improvements to the space itself. “The current setup, while being a vast improvement over the original installation, does not meet all of our needs. The room's odd shape is going to require some strategically placed delay speakers and treatment on the parallel walls. We may even expand on our left right center speaker layout. The new mixing consoles will allow us to do more of a surround sound. Though this would not be something we would use everyday, it could be a great tool for sound design in our drama productions.”

All in all, Mitchell is very pleased with the changes he is making. Still, if time and money were infinite, he would be doing things differently. “On a grand scale, I would prefer to strip out everything and start over. Years of modifications have created a web that needs to be rewoven. Doing an overhaul from scratch would be easier, but time constraints made a long down time impractical. Still, when I remind myself that this is a school auditorium, not a New York theatre, I realize how lucky we are.”

Tony Fling is a theatre technician for Richland School District Two. Susan Levi Wallach, a former Theatre Crafts editor, frequently writes on the arts and is dance critic for The Free Times in South Carolina.