By Tessa Raebeck
Exposed wires, breaking seats and a sound system that routinely fails during performances are just some of the things the performing arts faculty at Pierson Middle/High School hope will be fixed by the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed capital projects bond — if it passes November 13.
At a community forum Tuesday on the proposed renovation of the Pierson auditorium, teachers told stories of the dangers and inefficiencies of the current space, which was part of the original Pierson construction in 1907 and was converted from a gym to an auditorium in the 1980s.
“The foundational criteria for everything that we were doing was health and safety,” explained Peter Solow, an art teacher who serves on the Educational Facilities Planning Committee, the group of community members which formulated the bond propositions.
The auditorium renovations are included in Proposition 1, which holds the bulk of the proposed improvements. The proposal aims to create safer egress from the theater, increase seating capacity, improve the theatrical lighting and sound systems, and add support facilities and supplemental air conditioning.
“It will make it more efficient on a daily basis, but it will also make it safer,” said Solow. “If we had to evacuate this place very quickly, it could be problematic.”
The teachers estimate that about 60 high school students and 90 middle school students are involved in performing arts at Pierson in some capacity each year, while all students use the auditorium during assemblies.
The auditorium currently has no designated handicapped seating area and no room for the pit orchestra, which ends up using about 50 audience seats during performances. During a play last spring, an audience member sat in a chair that promptly broke, resulting in a fall. In addition to new seats, the bond would increase the seating capacity so the entire student body of the high school could fit in the auditorium at once. The school currently puts on multiple presentations of the same assembly, often at additional cost.
The bond also provides for storage space for instruments and equipment.
“No matter what condition things are in, obviously we are going to do our best and put on the performances,” said Paula Brannon, director of Pierson musicals. “I see things backstage that are safety hazards that are beyond the control of custodial staff or administrators to fix anymore.”
Brannon said sets and costumes which could be recycled for use in future performances are often thrown out because there is nowhere to store them.
“At the end of every show we have a decision,” she said. “Do we throw this away or do we try and save that? And if we save that, we’re now to the point where we have to throw something else away in its place. It will just continue the costs.”
“If you do go backstage right now — and a child does go backstage — there’s tools, there’s glass, there’s wood, there’s screws, there’s nails, there’s all kinds of things — and no lights,” added music teacher Eric Reynolds. “.It’s very dangerous to have a shared space without any kind of room to store some of that material.”
Reynolds said there is not an empty spot to be found in the existing space and instruments and other materials are often lost due to lack of organization.
“One of us is always scrambling to find an instructional space,” he said of the music teachers. “Right now our students really don’t have any rooms to practice in.”
Currently, makeshift dressing rooms are housed in classrooms and bathrooms, making it awkward to navigate the school during production week. Brannon said that during performances, students must “run the entire width of the school” to get to the stage.
“They deserve their own space,” said Reynolds, who added that when audience members use the bathroom during intermission, “you walk in there and the entire cast of boys from the musical is in the bathroom.”
Members of the faculty also spoke of “many incidents” of sound and lighting systems failing during performances. Because the sound system is “antiquated,” Brannon said the school must rent sound equipment every year, using $8,000 of the funds allotted for musicals.
“We love to be self-sufficient, we try really, really hard, but there’s just a lot that we can’t overcome,” said Brannon.
Reynolds said the school started renting outside equipment because on opening night of “Chicago” three years ago, the entire sound system — including all the mics — “totally failed.”
“So, three years later, we hire professional sound guys at a large cost. It would be great not to have to do that,” he said.
Pierson’s audiovisual coordinator Austin Remson recalls, “assemblies where five minutes before the show was going to start, there was a short that blew all the circuits. Unfortunately, that happens very often where this stuff is old, it’s very old.”
When searching for a new light board five years ago, Remson had trouble locating one that worked with the outdated system.
“The only board we could get is a used board from 1995 because our system is what we call DMX and the world is now AMX,” he said. “So that took a great deal of effort to try to find something when the old board completely broke and that [newer] board now has about five channels on it that don’t work.”
“How many Band-Aids are we going to put on?” he asked. “How much money are we going to keep throwing at the problem that is recurring?”
Remson said on a regular basis, an entire row of lights will go out, with replacements costing some $45 a bulb.
“It’s amazing how many crises happen on almost a daily basis that have to be remedied very quickly,” continued Remson, adding that sometimes when he climbs up to change the bulbs, he finds wiring harnesses that have “completely melted.”
“This is really dangerous,” he said. “It’s a little scary.”
The bond would create a controlled climate in the auditorium, which was quite cold on Tuesday. Remson said he asked the custodians to turn the air conditioning off during a particularly cold assembly last week and they replied they were afraid to because they didn’t think it would come back on.
The primary concern expressed by the faculty Tuesday was not for a warmer room or nicer seats, but for the students.
“Students that had their moment to shine and they’re half lit or students who are not able to be lit because we don’t have the capability,” said Remson. “Our students are fantastic and they really deserve a space that’s inspiring and safe.”
The Pierson performing arts department will host another community forum on the proposed improvements on Tuesday, November 5 at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium.