Design of new school auditoriums takes center stage

A space that’s usually reserved for student assemblies and performances will become more than a venue for special occasions. A year from now when the new Booker T. Washington High School is built with a new auditorium, the space will become a multifunctional theater with collapsible seating, moveable walls, and a walking grid. It will be a place where students can master production skills in stage lighting, sound, and special effects – like showering snow on an audience.

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“Part of the highlight of being a student in high school has a lot to do with performances – pep rallies, cheerleading, theater arts, the band,” said Washington Principal LaShonda Bilbo-Ervin. “The auditorium brings all those pieces of student life together. This is a place where students express themselves. It’s the only place the school can unite, but right now it’s not a space that students can enjoy every day.”

HISD schools will get more use out of their auditorium when some of the district high schools are rebuilt to include more efficient and innovative auditorium spaces that will be used regularly for classes, lectures, speakers, performances and special events. Funded by the 2012 bond program, these new auditoriums will be flexible and multipurpose spaces with better seating, lighting and acoustics.  The spaces will also be able to be easily divided or adjoined to serve small or large groups.

“Auditoriums require a lot of square footage, and some of them don’t get used but once a week or once a day,” HISD senior facility planner Clay Clayton. “It would be great if they were used more often, and one way to do that is to have them serve multiple functions.”

At Washington, the new 500-seat auditorium’s back wall is being designed to open up to the school cafeteria to allow for at least an additional 500 seats, making the space a 1,000-seat auditorium when needed. The school’s fine arts department will use the space often, but it will also be used by the community and some of its feeder elementary campuses that do not have an auditorium. The space is being designed to model a college amphitheater or a courtyard theater space that can fit an entire class level.

“The largest class, typically being the freshman class, was our design benchmark,” said architect Ed Schmidt of Fanning Howey House Partners, the firm designing the new school. “We wanted to make sure the largest class – 500 to 600 students – could all sit in this auditorium, so if someone from NASA comes and speaks at the school, the entire class can be in there.”

The theater will replace its wooden seats with soft fabric seating. Technologically advanced acoustics and lighting will also be included in the new auditorium design. Above the seating, there will be a walking grid that resembles a catwalk that students will use to produce shows. From there, students can set up lighting and monitor a control room, including a technical and sound booth.

At Lee High School, the PAT has discussed having an auditorium with improved student accessibility to the control room to ensure all performances and events go smoothly. The 700-seat auditorium will add up to 1,000 seats from an adjacent space and will also include a 100-seat black box performance and rehearsal area.

“Our new auditorium needs to integrate technology better,” said Lee High School student Marcelin Kamdoum, a member of his school’s project advisory team (PAT), which is helping architects plan the design of the new facility. “It will be nice to have this kind of seating because it will accommodate more people, and you will have that feeling of being in a real Broadway theater,” Kamdoum said.

At the new High School for Performing and Visual Arts, the school will have an auditorium and various performance spaces such as a black box and recital and dance halls with state-of-the-art theatrical and musical equipment. Compared to its current auditorium space of 550 seats, the new auditorium may have up to 800 seats, allowing the school to sell more tickets to performances.

The primary auditorium will also include balcony and fixed seating for large-scale gatherings such as school performances and assemblies. The black box will have flexible seating, so the space can be used for rehearsals, classrooms, and community events.

“The ability to use various spaces for more than one need is paramount in today’s learning environment,” said design director Lester Yuen of Gensler, the architecture firm designing the new HSPVA.  “We envision that performances, assemblies, (and) classes will occur in all of these spaces. We no longer want the physical buildings to limit the ways that faculty choose to interact with students and the way in which students interact with other students.”