The $22.5 million upgrade would add a mezzanine, classroom space, a larger lobby and a black box theater.
When students in the Booker High School Visual and Performing Arts program take classes, they often have to complete their school work in a room that smells of gym socks.
That’s because 40% of the school’s 1,300 students participate in a VPA program. The theater was not built for a capacity that large, so two dressing rooms have doubled as classrooms.
But that’s not the only concession students and staff have had to make. The costume room is overflowing, props are stored in a loft space, and students work on outdated technology.
The 27-year-old theater is in need of renovations after missing out on large-scale updates when the school in 2012 underwent $58 million in construction.
“There were some things that weren’t included in our renovation that should have been, and I’m asking for them now,” Booker High Principal Rachel Shelley said. “When you go into our program, it takes five people to pull down curtains. You go into other schools in the district, push one button, and it falls.”
Last year, the school received approval for a renovation project that would allow new seating and a larger lobby in the theater, at a cost of about $7 million. After looking at the project scope and adding in infrastructure compliant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, however, project manager Ernie DuBose said the project would need more funds.
DuBose and Shelley presented three options to the school board last week. Option 1 would add a second floor to the project and ADA-compliant ramps at a cost of $8.9 million. However, it would cost the theater, which consistently sells out, about 50 seats.
Option 2 would add a mezzanine and classrooms at a cost of $12 million. Option 3, which Shelley lobbied for, would add a mezzanine, classrooms and a 125-seat black box theater at a cost of $22.5 million.
She said the black box would allow the students in the program to perform in front of audiences more frequently. Booker puts on about 15 performances a year, but outside groups also use the theater, which means students frequently rehearse off the stage.
“Other performing arts schools do have that black box theater that allows our students to have an opportunity to engage in their practice [and] put on shows for a smaller group,” Shelley said. “Out theater is often booked up — it’s hard to get in — so our students don’t have an opportunity to perform.”
Although three board members supported Option 3, members Bridget Ziegler and Eric Robinson said they support the vision but that it is not wise to push forward with a large-scale capital project when the full financial impact of COVID-19 is still unknown.
“I know how truly special the VPA is — I’ve brought my family there, and it feels like it’s off-Broadway, and it’s amazing,” Ziegler said. “But at the same time, we have to make some really, really tough decisions, and at this point, I could not support that.”
District staff members said funding is feasible, but the district would likely have to borrow money from already-approved projects.
The board authorized staff to move forward with Option 2, which would not include a new lobby or black box theater. However, as budget discussions continue into September, board members are hopeful a full renovation will be approved.
Board member Jane Goodwin said the project for her is about equity, and splitting the project into two phases could mean a more expensive project overall and increase the likelihood that phase two would not happen. Shirley Brown said now would be a good time to make the renovations because the theater is closed due to COVID-19.
Board Chair Caroline Zucker said she wants the full project to be funded this year, no matter what it takes to get it done.
“It’s more than just a theater,” Zucker said. “It is much more than that. It is a training ground for our future in the arts society.“