Bright lights, cheering parents and ticket sales are typically associated with Friday night football, but athletes aren’t the only ones who can draw a crowd. High school students in theater, choir, dance and band work tirelessly to put their art on display for the enjoyment of families and friends. And, as with other activities, having an appropriate space is crucial to the experience.

“The confidence level of students is much higher when performing in the appropriate venue where their voices and instruments are coming across clean and crisp, as opposed to echoing off the walls of a cafeteria,” explains Jeremy Calles, CFO of Tolleson Union High School District (TUHSD). “The lighting and acoustics enhance the performance, and students can see the reactions from the crowd better than they would inside a building that wasn’t designed for that purpose.”

READ ALSO: How the pandemic is heightening issues in Arizona’s public school system

Performing arts centers (PACs) are a fixture of many high schools in Arizona because of the value they bring not only to students but the community at large. Calles adds that TUHSD rents out its facilities, including the new PACs at Sierra Linda High School and West Point High School, to the public at low cost when school is not in session.

These structures, however, require a specialized approach to building. Here’s what makes today’s PACs unique, along with some of the construction challenges involved.

Building for the arts

David Pisani, director of operations at Clearwing Systems Integration (CSI), says that the type of work his company focuses on is directly related to a building’s entertainment apparatus, whether that be sound systems, video projectors, lighting, stage drapes or other niche theatrical elements.

“There are lots of smoke-and-mirror tricks that go into theaters,” he notes. “That’s where the specialty side of our construction trade comes in. We install the infrastructure for entertainment equipment. For example, theatrical stage drapes typically attach to an iron pipe that is suspended from a series of wire rope attachments and capable of electric or manual movement in and out of view on the stage.”

The components needed for a performance space often require the design team and installation technicians to have specialized skills that other subcontractors don’t have. Many CSI employees have experience in the entertainment industry and came to construction later in their career.

In addition, the performance halls at high schools today are much different than they were in the past, according to Pisani. From the 1950s through the 1980s, auditoriums were typically gathering places for announcements or school concerts and didn’t necessarily require a specialty contractor to build. Today’s PACs have the ability to support professional acts.

“I’ve seen a trend in the last 10 to 15 years of school systems pushing for world-class equipment so they can generate revenue on rentals and professional shows, while also having a premier space for traditional school productions,” Pisani remarks.

Located in Scottsdale, Notre Dame Preparatory’s new performing arts center, named after the patron saint of the arts, St. Catherine of Bologna, is an adaptable space fit for many uses. (Photo by Mike Mertes, AZ Big Media)

A program-based approach

As the cost of technology has decreased, it has allowed facilities to become increasingly flexible and have the capacity to cater to a wider range of artistic disciplines. Located in Scottsdale, Notre Dame Preparatory’s new PAC, named after the patron saint of the arts, St. Catherine of Bologna, is an adaptable space fit for many uses. The campus celebrated the grand opening of the building on Sept. 30.

Inside, the PAC features a black box theater, rehearsal spaces for choir and band, and a multipurpose studio with a green screen, cameras and audio equipment that are used for the school’s NDP Live program.

Jill Platt, president of Notre Dame Preparatory, explains, “NDP Live is the marketing department of our school. Jay Sanderson, who’s in charge of NDP Live, solicits his students out as producers to build content that goes on the web and in our announcements,” she says. “They also live stream our home football games, which go on our YouTube channel. It’s an opportunity for students to learn hands-on what it’s like to produce something and also a great marketing tool for us.”

Prior to the opening of the St. Catherine of Bologna Performing Arts Center, the only large gathering space on campus for the past 20 years was the cafeteria. Platt recalls previous theater performances in which students had to deliver lines over the sounds of the ice machine cycling on and off.

Furthermore, the new 300-seat PAC is large enough for individual grade levels to attend mass together, which hadn’t been possible due to the on-site chapel’s small size. The seats themselves are on a retractable platform that allows for easy stowing to create more flat space when needed.

The show must go on

Executing a construction project in the middle of an active campus comes with a host of challenges, according to Keyvan Ghahreman, director of client and pre-construction services for Willmeng, who worked on the St. Catherine of Bologna Performing Arts Center.

“Building on an occupied campus can become an attractive nuisance for students who want to explore and maybe get into trouble. You have to make sure security is in place so someone doesn’t wander onto your job site and gets themselves hurt. Keeping construction separated from campus activities is a big deal.”

Patrick Sheppard, project manager for Chasse Building Team, has ample experience working on active school campuses. Chasse is involved with the upgrades to the PACs at Pinnacle High School and North Canyon High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Sheppard says that safety of the students and faculty are paramount. Subcontractors are required to have fingerprint clearances, and Chasse ensures that workers are easy to identify after they check-in to the site. 

“A high school is a living and breathing entity almost 24 hours a day. There’s always something going on, so we coordinate closely with the school staff to make sure we’re up to speed and that we’re communicating how our tasks might affect them,” Sheppard notes. “The operations of the campus take priority over construction. We plan our deliveries and schedule around what’s happening at the school.”

Depending on the project, utilities might need to be turned off. Steve Poulin, senior vice president of operations for McCarthy Building Companies, says that any potential shutdown is a planned event. “That will happen either on a weekend or during a break. Our schedule has very specific milestones that include those that work around the district so we don’t interrupt learning.” McCarthy, which worked on the Sierra Linda High School PAC, also identifies periods in the year when students are undergoing key testing in order to avoid loud operations during that time.

Despite the intricacies and hurdles to PAC construction, Calles focuses on the student impact. “Not everyone gets to sign a record deal, so that performance during high school may be the biggest one of that student’s life. Why would you have that in a cafeteria when you can have it in a state-of-the-art performing arts center?”