Column: Mascoma District Desperately Needs a Performing Arts Center
Mascoma High School has a large number of students interested in athletics and in the performing arts. Each group is equally important, and perhaps in the eyes of their parents, most important.
Yet we have a facility that can address the needs of only one of the groups – the athletes. We are hoping to resolve this inequality next Tuesday when the towns of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District vote on a proposed $21.8 million renovation of Mascoma High School that includes the construction of a 600-seat performing arts center. As the music director at Mascoma High, I hold a unique perspective on this particular issue and would like to explain to the Mascoma community why a performing arts center is not only an important aspect of the project, but is vital to the Mascoma community.
The Mascoma gym is now used for games, concerts, plays, graduations, fundraising events, practices, rehearsals, assemblies, adult pick-up games and gym classes. Needless to say, scheduling is quite a challenge. We run into conflicts every year, and when we are forced to move or cancel a performance date we have to ask over 75 families to adjust their plans. These changes usually occur at the last minute, which causes quite a bit of stress for all parties involved.
A gymnasium is designed to provide a venue for athletics, not the performing arts. They are two very different worlds. Storage space for sets, scenery, costumes, lighting and sound equipment, uniforms, props, musical equipment, portable staging, risers, and performers does not exist. We have no dressing rooms. The stage lacks both depth and wing space.
Staging any sort of performance is an enormous undertaking. First, we have to turn the gym into a concert hall or theater. Student volunteers work anywhere from six to 10 hours, depending on the complexity of the show. Lighting and sound equipment, chairs, music stands, amplifiers, band equipment and portable staging must be brought in. Miles of wiring and tape are stretched out along the gym floor. Ladders reach into the rafters to secure and aim microphones and lighting devices. Then the students have but one day to rehearse in the space where their performance will be seen by hundreds of people. Not exactly what you would call a “home court advantage.” The day after the performance requires student volunteers to spend another four to six hours breaking everything down and turning the space back into a gym. We do this six to eight times a year.
A gym is designed to amplify sound in a way that makes it almost impossible to hear — at least in a way that allows for enjoyment of the performing arts. The walls are made of concrete cinderblock. The floors are hardwood. There is metal piping in the rafters. All of these elements make the sound bounce in weird angles. Because of this, the sound system has a very short limit before loud, ear-splitting feedback occurs. There are also dead spots in the gym. Sit in one seat and you can hear just fine. Move over two seats and you can’t hear a thing. You cannot expect high definition, quality sound in a 50-year-old gym. It is impossible. Believe me, I have tried.
If you are among the few members of the audience who can actually hear what is being performed, you’ll still have to contend with climatological challenges. If the temperature in the gym before the performance is around 75 to 85 degrees, you can expect that it will have climbed into the 90s by the end. The few slow-moving ceiling fans will push the overheated air around a bit, but provide little relief. For our athletes, this can be a true home court advantage. For our young performers, it is a nightmare. So sit back in one of our hard, metal chairs and enjoy the show.
After our last concert, a few students wanted to know what we could do to improve the quality of the performance space. What could I say? The bottom line is that we perform in a small, loud gym that is overused by every athletic and community group in the region. We use it because we do not have another option.
Mascoma students are talented, intelligent, eager, hard-working young people who deserve the very best. Their desire is to learn, grow and develop their interests, no matter what they may be. In discussions with community members about the proposed new auditorium, I have heard a few suggest that what has been proposed is luxurious. I can’t help but ask them: If the school lacked a place a play to sports, would the inclusion of a gym seem “over the top”? An adequate performing space is as important to a high school as good science labs, a library, a fully equipped woodshop or a gym.
Mascoma students deserve better. The Mascoma community deserves better. Please take this into consideration when you step into the voting booth next Tuesday.
David Wilson has been the music director of Mascoma Valley Regional High School since 2000. He lives in Orange.