Auditorium upgrades promise to inspire arts appreciation

Last month, drama students at Sam Barlow High School finished their production of “Lend Me A Tenor.” The play, a comedy of mistaken identities set in a 1930’s opera house, is the final performance of the year for Barlow High School’s drama department.

Students at Barlow High School recently concluded their production of “Lend Me A Tenor.” The show was the final production in the old auditorium. Substantial renovations and improvements are coming to Barlow High School’s auditorium, thanks to funding from the 2016 School Bond.

It’s also the final performance for Barlow’s auditorium before major renovations begin. Starting this summer, Barlow’s auditorium will undergo a substantial overhaul that will replace sound equipment, lighting equipment, and build much larger dressing rooms. The renovated space won’t be open until 2019, but the renovations will also provide Barlow with a new black box theater. This flexible performance space will be used as the Barlow drama classroom and for smaller student performances.

“It’s going to be really flexible,” explained Jeff Schroeder, Barlow’s theater director. “We can arrange seating and the stage wherever we want.”

Schroeder spoke fondly of his students’ recent performance of “Steel Magnolias,” noting that, in the future, similar productions would fit nicely in the forthcoming black box performing space.

An auditorium in the heart of downtown Gresham

Similar investments are underway across town at the district’s other high school. This summer, construction begins on a brand-new, 550-seat auditorium on the southern edge of Gresham High School’s campus. The new auditorium will include a massive atrium that faces SE Division Street looking towards downtown Gresham.

“We’re at the point where we were doing so much work troubleshooting the space that it was hard to be productive and creative,” said Sara Dempsey, Gresham’s theater arts director. “We were always just trying to adapt to the circumstances.” The old auditorium had leaky roofs, electricity shortages and sound problems.

The auditorium improvements coming to both Gresham and Barlow High Schools will also allow school staff to open their respective theater to the public while keeping the rest of the campus secure and locked down. Safety improvements are a critical priority for the Gresham-Barlow School District, and being able to secure the school campus during evening events is a key component of school bond improvements.

Engagement with teachers, community, guide planning process for new spaces

Thanks to the 2016 bond, Gresham High School is getting a brand new auditorium on the southern edge of campus. The final production in Gresham’s existing auditorium, Les Misérables, ran in March. Photo credit Zach Zelinka

As with other facets of the bond, the district has deliberately engaged teachers, students, and families to ensure the new buildings meet the community’s needs.

Gresham Principal Michael Schaefer believes input from the Gresham community has been critical in helping the new building best suit the needs of the students.

“Our staff has done an amazing job to plan the most functional building possible while staying within the budget,” said Schaefer. “It’s been an exciting process – sitting with architects in the room and letting teachers design it. It should make this a great building.”

“We’ve been involved from the beginning in the design process, to ensure not only theater but also the band and choir departments can reap the benefits of the bond,” said Schroeder.

Better auditoriums produce better actors, students, citizens

The new performing arts spaces at each high school will prepare future generations of Gresham-Barlow students for personal and professional careers and lives fully engaged in art and music. Teachers also think these experiences are important for producing well-rounded citizens and community members.

“We’re not just trying to produce actors, but people who are a significant part of their community,” said Dempsey. “The work ethic that theater teaches, the ability to communicate and collaborate; it’s such a collaborative art, and you have to work together to produce an end product.”

“Being able to [run a theater program] in a better and brighter environment that’s better suited for students, and to have an operating performing arts center – it’s an outstanding opportunity for our band, choir and drama departments,” said Schaefer, before proudly noting that Gresham High School is an eight-time state thespian champion.

“There’s no ‘app’ for theater,” Dempsey says with a laugh. “Having to actually talk to each other and come up with an end performance is difficult! Having a beautiful new theater for us to be able to perform will make all the difference for our students.”