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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019 4 months ago

Booker VPA to see $4 million renovation

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School officials hope investment into the theater facility will shine a brighter light on student artists.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

As Liza Minnelli sang in the Academy Award-winning musical “Cabaret,” money makes the world go ’round.

With Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Theatre set to receive renovations to the tune of more than $4 million, school leaders hope that axiom holds true on a smaller scale, too.

When Booker High School underwent $58 million worth of  construction in 2012, the theater, built in 1994, was one of the newest buildings on campus. Although the facility got a few updates at the time, it missed out on some much-needed renovations, VPA Theatre Chairman Scott Keys said.

Now, nearly eight years later, the theater will receive a face-lift. Plans include improvements to infrastructure, technology, new seating and a larger

The theater's entrance will be expanded to offer more mingling space to patrons.

lobby.

“Hopefully, it’s going to improve production values,” Keys said. “The level of things that we’re going to be able to do will just be heightened.”

The current lobby, which is little more than a wide hallway, is not large enough to accommodate the theater’s audience of more than 400, VPA Director Rebecca Abrahamson said. When people are crammed in the small quarters, it becomes hot and hard to move around.

The project will pull the front of the building out to create a larger entrance and replace the original glass facade. In addition to making the space more welcoming for guests, it also will allow enough room for the art department to showcase student work in the space.

“Oddly enough, the visual art is one of the least visual aspects of our arts department on campus,” Abrahamson said. “This will bring the theater back to the Booker Visual and Performing Arts center instead of it being theater, music and dance shows.”

The inside of the theater will receive new paint, carpet and seating alongside updates to comply with building codes. The theater will go from 437 seats to 426 to make way for the largest component: new technology.

The theater produced its first show in 1995. Since then, much of its technological infrastructure has become antiquated, said Nick Jones, the production manager for the performing arts center.

The renovation will allow for advancements in lighting, audio and video. 

“Bringing the equipment component up to date with technology that’s being used on Broadway and national tours really brings an awesome educational component,” Jones said. “Being able to teach 21st-century technology to kids that will utilize it as soon as they step out of the high school is a driving force behind the project.”

The technology will allow students to do many things they can’t do now, Jones said. For example, the school will be able to more easily use a video wall the VPA previously received as a donation from Princess Cruise Lines.

Currently, the theater doesn’t have the equipment it needs to hang the wall on a semi-permanent basis. Every time they want to use it, administrators have to rent the equipment for approximately $1,500 a week. Now the video wall can be utilized more frequently.

“It will not only expand our program in terms of what students will be using, but it also expands the capacity for imagination of design,” Abrahamson said. “When a student dreams of something, we won’t have to say, ‘Oh, no, sorry. We can’t do that. We don’t have the infrastructure.’”

Increased reliance on technology comes with a risk of something going wrong. However, the renovation plans include rewiring to avoid human error, with the hope of avoiding human error, like an occurrence last year. 

One student’s dance piece, which was about disenfranchised people of color, featured carefully picked video images of racism throughout time. During the rehearsal, everything ran smoothly, but during the performance, the videos didn’t work. After running a few tests, theater members found out the videos didn’t work because a student had unknowingly unplugged the video equipment to charge their cellphone.

One of the theater classrooms, which doubles as a green room, will receive updates.

The changes would move the data and power hubs for the equipment off the ground and onto a higher level, which lowers the odds someone accidentally interferes with the tech.

“Instead of running an extension cord to a $90,000 piece of equipment and saying, ‘I hope nobody trips on it,’ we will have an organized system,” Keys said. 

Finally, the three classrooms in the theater also will see updates to paint, carpet and technology.

Although they are happy with the forthcoming renovation, Keys said there was one issue he would still like to see addressed in the future: storage space.

The theater used to have a large warehouse to store bigger set pieces and props. Now it shares a warehouse with other organizations and is running out of space. As it stands, the theater rents a PODS storage space for its costumes.

“We are packed and we just have run out of room,” Keys said. “We have stuff we don’t want to get rid of because you can’t replace it, you can’t rebuild it. We have stuff that was built by Broadway shops and they’re exquisite.”

Construction should begin in the next seven to eight months, Jones said. Because they don’t want to interrupt the day-to-day operation of the VPA, Booker High School or the VPA’s community partners, the proposed finish date is two years away.

However, Jones said they will slowly implement various components, so students can begin working with them right away.

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