Weatherford High School's New Theatre Boasts State-of-the-Art Rigging

This past January, Weatherford, TX, opened the doors to a brand-new high school that included a state-of-the-art performance space and an auditorium, designed by VLK Architects of Arlington, TX, which seats 2,000 with a full balcony. Why so big? Well, in addition to the fact that it's in Texas, the auditorium was designed to serve the whole town. Ivonne Levin of VLK explains, “The main idea was that it would be a performance space for the community. However, it is at heart a high school and a teaching space, so the students needed to be able to work in the space easily and safely.”

VLK brought in the consulting and design firm of Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW) as theatrical consultants. Robin Crews and Rene Garza of the firm's San Antonio office took a look at the many uses of such a space and created a functional, flexible, all-level user-friendly environment. Crews points out that VLK's placement of the auditorium in the project is the first indication that this is not your typical high school theatre. “The space can work as both a high school and a public community space. The theatre is located at the end of the school and has its own parking and entrance so you can hold an event without involving the school. The technical systems in the space all had to go from simple uses to more complex events.”

Crews points to the sound system as an explanation of the approach they took on the project. “In terms of sound, we had to start from the way the space would be used. You have first a full-stage event, second a half stage with the apron, and then finally an event that will be in front of the main curtain. We tried to give a lighting, sound, and rigging system that covers all these uses. While the sound is a full-range system it also has the ability to create effects and direction with the effects. We had to provide a sophisticated control console, a system that allows flexibility with the speakers, and, at the same time, a system where the principal can grab a mic and have an assembly without someone at the console but just operate it easily from the stage manager's desk.”

Electro Acoustics & Video Inc. (EAVI) of Fort Worth supplied the sound system that includes an Allen & Heath 40-channel GL3300 console, Shure wireless mics, Crown MA series amplifiers, EAW speakers, and Clear-Com two-channel production intercom system as well as components from Yamaha, Marantz, Atlas, and Frontier. Chris Jordan, president of EAVI, is impressed with the diversity of equipment and the professional level of the facility in a high school. “This is a real teaching tool. A lot of kids get exposed to the industry through these kinds of high-level high school programs. Even though the system may be more than the school needs to operate, it is really an incredible teaching tool. We ourselves have employees who are in the industry because of an interest that started in high school.” The payoff for Jordan comes at the end of the job. “We really love doing the training process at the end of the job and getting to work with the kids. You can see the light bulbs come on in the kids' eyes and it really is exciting.”

The lighting system, which boasts an ETC Expression 3 control console and four ETC 48 Sensor dimmer racks, was just as carefully thought-out for flexibility. “We wanted to take into account that the space would be used for more than just high school events,” Garza explains. “When we thought of all the different kinds of events the space can be used for, we started looking at distributed DMX; we started increasing the circuit counts on the two front-of-house positions, on the electrics, adding in the floor pockets for dance recitals, and adding wall boxes along the stage.”

Texas Scenic Co. (TSC) was the system integrator for Weatherford High School, handling lighting, sound, and rigging. The rigging is where the real bragging rights are for this theatre. Weatherford is the hometown of actress Mary Martin, best known for her performance as Peter Pan, and this rigging system is really something to sing “I'm flying” about. The system is a motorized line system with 10 fixed and 19 variable-speed motor sets. TSC did all the fabrication and installation of the system including the motor control. Crews points out, “A motorized system made perfect sense for the use and type of space that VLK and the school district wanted.” John Owens, vice president of sales for TSC, agrees. “We are finding more motors are being put in schools and there are a number of reasons for that. One is the school district doesn't want to deal with the liability of having students loading arbors, and motors give you control over who operates the system. There is a monetary trade-off as well. The initial cost of motors is greater but you save on the cost reductions in the structure of the building because you don't have to brace now for horizontal loads. Also, it frees up space, wing space, and you gain speed and weight control. There are a lot of benefits to a system like Weatherford's.”

Motors fit into this space also because of the demands on the rigging system. There are fixed motors on the 2,000lb-capacity electrics and the 4,500lb Wenger acoustic shell. The acoustic shell can now be easily flown and handled by an orchestra teacher. Crews states that the layout started with the shell. “We worked closely with TSC on the spacing and staggering of the rigging; we used the shell to start, and it helped set the locations of the electrics. We wanted to be able to use the electrics with the shell open in place; this gives the ability to do more dramatic lighting in an orchestra event. The electrics are available for any type of event. The space had to be usable for the orchestra, choir, and theatre events equally, and the setup of the stage needed to be such that it could be handled by the staff easily.”

The system never overlooks safety, according to Joel Guerra, control engineer for TSC. “The variable speeds will stop if you overload it and everything is controlled through the go button. It is a ‘dead man’ go button: You have to keep holding the button; if you release it, everything stops. You have to hold the button down until the move is complete.” Guerra explains the TSC control system as well. “We use a core control software housed in a rolling console with a 17" touch screen. You can set up all the rigging moves and you can memorize the look. We do have a manual backup on the console that allows you to switch to manual control in the case of an emergency that allows you control with toggle switches.” The ease of use and the ability to preset the fly moves allows for a perfect setup every time of the large acoustic shell, not to mention the ease of changeover between events.

VLK is very happy with the results and WJHW consultant Crews agrees. “Both Texas Scenic and Electro Acoustics are really good contractors. These folks really pay attention to details. I think, as a unit, all the companies worked very well together; the building is gorgeous and the owners have been very happy with the performance of the space.”