The J. Alton Keith Theatre at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, GA, provides such state-of-the-art facilities for its students that some of them work part-time in the technical services department at Six Flags Over Georgia and compare McEachern's facilities favorably to the theme park's.
The theatre is used for both home-produced shows and national orchestral and band competitions. The auditorium was built to accommodate large sets for musicals, orchestras in the pit and on the stage, and plenty of backstage traffic and load-ins from competing schools. “It's a showplace — there is no question about that,” says Lawrence Graham, senior theatre consultant for Atlanta-based consulting engineers CDAI Associates.
The project was the result of a close collaboration between architects Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates and CDAI. According to Graham, CDAI was in on discussions about the project from the beginning and was able to work out the shape of the auditorium from an acoustical point of view, and decide how the backstage relationships should work, before giving their designs to the architects, who turned them into a functional building. “The earlier we get in to a project, the happier we are, and we were very happy with this,” says Graham, who notes that in many such projects the acousticians and technical designers only get to the table after much of the structural planning has been done. “The owners wanted a building that would do everything,” says Graham. “When we defined what ‘everything’ meant to them, we were looking at a building that could support musical plays and host national music events at the high school level.”
The budget for the project came partly from the county and partly from a private endowment, and when it came to budgetary priorities, the architects' were in tune with the engineers'. Graham says, “SRSS understood that you have to be able to see and hear to be able to produce in the theatre, and their priority was to keep the building functional.” Construction costs around Atlanta had been affected by the building boom around the time of the Olympics, so to keep the project on budget Craig Nixon, the principal architect for SRSS, found alternative finishes for the building's exterior.
The auditorium is a freestanding structure on the high school campus, so there were no zoning restrictions or noise constraints on the project.
From the beginning, the owners were clear that they didn't need the auditorium to pull double duty as an assembly hall or gymnasium. Although the student population is around 3,000, the auditorium only seats 920. “They wanted a building that was suitable for drama and musical events, including shows with an orchestra in the pit or onstage — a real general-purpose theatre,” says Graham. The theatre complex includes two large rehearsal suites, one for instrumental and one for vocal work, faculty offices, and some smaller rooms for solo or duet rehearsals. Dressing rooms have space for around 35 people, and there is a costume room and large scene shop.
The scene shop is located at stage left; here, students are taught woodworking, including how to make a flat, and set design. The shop has an overhead clearance of 18' and connects to a loading dock so that other schools can bring in sets and equipment during competitions. “The reason they like to use this facility is because we have the biggest stage and, in my opinion, the largest roll-in area in the region. It is really easy to get sets on and off,” says Kristina Vassella, technical theatre director at McEachern.
For a production of Anything Goes this spring, McEachern students designed and built an elaborate three-level ship, roughly 48' long and rising to 8' high at the smokestacks. The ship is designed to be mobile so it can be pulled off the stage between shows and it breaks into three parts for easy storage. Vassella jokes, “One of the drawbacks of having a large shop is that there is so much room to build, the sets just keep getting bigger and more elaborate and then we don't have anywhere to store them.”
Graham, whose background is in stage design rather than engineering, designed the lighting with musical theatre and concert performances in mind. He says, “For concert lighting, we usually avoid anything like straight-on illumination from the front, since it is apt to ‘dazzle’ the performers and make it harder for them to see the conductor.” Choosing equipment that students could operate was not an issue for him: “In our experience, high school students, most of whom are already computer-literate, have no difficulty in adapting to even the most sophisticated types of computerized lighting control systems.” The designer chose an NSI/Colortran 24/48 console with 250 Colortran dimmers running ETC Source Fours, Colortran fresnels, and a variety of PAR cans. There are two Altman Explorer followspots front of house and, unusually for a high school, a Sony Multiscan rear-screen projection system permanently mounted on the backstage wall. Vassella says this is the only piece of equipment whose use is restricted to the most committed drama techies.
Although CDAI founder Roger Dixon and his team designed the acoustics in the auditorium, the audio system was installed by the owner and includes a 32-channel Mackie eight-bus mixer with a 24-channel extension board running custom-made speakers by Peavey. They also use Shure wireless lapel and head mics.
Graham is pleased with how the acoustics turned out in the main chamber, which features RPG diffuser systems. “The acoustical treatment of the orchestra pit and the orchestra reflector, which is a part of the ceiling treatment, work very well together,” she says. “Because of that we get very good sound out of the orchestra pit as well as the stage.” The pit holds 50 musicians and the audience chamber is 80' wide by 100' deep. The stage is 80' wide by 40' deep with a proscenium opening of 48'. The rigging and stage curtains were installed by Roberts Stage Curtains.
One area where Graham was less satisfied with the acoustics was in the large rehearsal suites. “Initially we did not have the amount of diffusion in those rooms that we should have had,” he says. In order to prevent acoustical anomalies Graham specified sawtooth-shaped diffusive walls, but they were not properly constructed, so after measuring the finished rooms, he had to retrofit new treatments at the end of the project.
One design feature the McEachern staff would have liked was to have access from the catwalk directly to the light booth, rather than having to go down to stage level first. This would make rigging go faster and save on legwork. However, catwalks are usually prohibited in school theatres to protect students from possible falls.
For students using the facility, the state-of-the-art equipment allows their imaginations free range. For a revue called Footlights 2001, a “Mission: Impossible” skit featured Aaron Levi Shores, a senior at McEachern and the assistant technical director, rappelling down from the catwalk to the stage, grabbing a prop briefcase, and diving onto a crash mat in the orchestra pit. The Gala Spiralift in the pit had been lowered 13' below stage level, and once the crash mat and student were removed it was lifted up to the stage again giving the audience the impression that the student had just disappeared.
When the Spiralift is not being used for action-hero stunts, it is used to store grand pianos during choral festivals as well as holding a full orchestra.
Shores designs many of the sets used at McEachern, where he is able to make use of a 42-rail fly system and several specialty curtains including a mirrored curtain for lighting effects. Shores, who also works at Six Flags, in the technical services department, says, “There is nothing like this kind of hands-on experience; we can set a budget and create a plan for a production. The set we are building for Anything Goes is massive. I do shows for Six Flags and they don't even have sets this large.”
Because of the heavy schedule of productions the auditorium hosts each year, students have to deal with two-week turnaround times and staff shortages just like in a professional theatre. Despite this pressure, learning the ropes in the J. Alton Theatre has obviously inspired some students to look for a career backstage. According to Vassella, at least 15 McEachern graduates have gone on to study technical theatre in college.
Photos courtesy Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, Inc.