THE SHOW WILL GO ON
By ANDREW MCGINN
he first thing most people seem to notice is the sheer size of the space.
“It’s really big,” Greene County High School senior Andrea Grundon said of the high school’s new 700-seat auditorium.
The auditorium they left behind — built before most people even owned a color TV — only sat 380, give or take, considering that the first two rows often had to be roped off in order to sandwich a pit band between the stage and the seats.
“We’ll really have to start selling tickets,” observed Darren Jackson, the social studies teacher who frequently has a hand in the school’s drama offerings. “Because nothing’s more empty than a half-empty theater.”
Even the stage itself seems massive, like it might just swallow the meekest underclassmen who make up a show’s chorus.
Looking downstage is a full orchestra pit. Looking upward is a rigging system and a fly loft capable of bringing sets in and out up to a story and a half in height.
For a small high school in rural Iowa, it’s better than adequate. Fact is, it may be among the best.
But among the cast members in rehearsal for “Beauty and the Beast,” there’s not a shred of trepidation. This is the challenge they’ve been longing to meet.
“Having a stage that big will be really empowering for anyone who’s into performance,” said Grundon, who will play Belle.
“We can fill it with our voices,” echoed senior Avery Bardole, who is playing the Beast.
Senior Makenna Fox, who will play Mrs. Potts, hopes the debut production in the new auditorium begins a snowball effect.
“I want people to see us,” Fox said, “and want to do what we do.”
Already — the curtain doesn’t even open on “Beauty and the Beast” until March — the consensus is that Greene County High School’s new auditorium will be a catalyst for something special, from a strengthened performing arts program to a potential career track in partnership with Iowa Central Community College’s career academy.
“I think it’s a whole career path we didn’t even think about developing,” explained Sam Harding, a former school board member who is overseeing construction of the new high school and career academy as the owner’s representative.
With the auditorium’s LED lighting and cyclorama — a large white backdrop at the rear of a stage that can be illuminated to stunning effect — students could learn lighting design, complete with two overhead catwalks and a light booth.
Those interested in sound engineering will have at their fingertips a 64-channel digital mixer. (List price: around $17,000.)
As Harding explained, they were floored when the sound engineer who recently installed Greene County High School’s new mixing console casually told them he “just did an AC/DC concert on that exact same board.”
“It’s at that level,” Harding said.
It’s difficult to even call the new space an auditorium. Greene County High School is now home to a performing arts center.
“Our town is going to benefit in ways we can’t even imagine,” Harding said.
The space still isn’t quite finished. Vocal music director David Heupel’s choir rehearsed in the space for only the first time last week as construction guys toiled away in the light booth above.
Bags of construction-grade grout still sit near a room that soon will serve as a dedicated parking space for the high school’s Steinway Model B grand piano, newly rebuilt and refinished at Crowson Piano Service in Ankeny. Gifted to the high school in 1974, it had fallen on hard times in the decades that followed. A $20,000 grant in 2019 from the Greene County Community Foundation enabled its restoration to commemorate the new high school.
If bought new today, the seven-foot Steinway B would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $101,000.
There are still hopes to unveil the new auditorium and the rebuilt Steinway with a concert featuring the premiere of a piece by Elaine Hagenberg for choir and piano. Heupel commissioned the piece from the Iowa composer long before the pandemic.
COVID-19 was also the primary cause for the delay in the auditorium’s construction. As Harding explained, the fly system came directly from New York City — a city that locked itself down to deal with the virus.
No one’s still quite sure what seating will look like for “Beauty and the Beast,” but Heupel reasons that if it’s safe enough to wrestle and play basketball, it’s safe enough to perform as well. He and Jackson are co-directing.
The first event in the new space is set for Feb. 8, when Greene County High School hosts a state jazz choir competition. But even that will be muted, as choirs were given the option of performing virtually or in-person — many chose virtual.
Admittedly, Heupel didn’t know what to expect the first time he saw the new auditorium.
It certainly wasn’t this.
“It’s gonna be a whole new ballgame,” predicted Clay Ross, president of the Community Players of Greene County. “It’s just a matter of people having forethought.”
Theatrically speaking, Greene County isn’t in Kansas anymore.
Whereas the old auditorium — in the mid-’60s building that’s now Greene County Middle School — was strictly analog, the new space is mostly digital.
“It’s probably the top of the line for high schools, and would probably challenge a couple of college ones,” Ross said.
As Ross explained, one LED light in the new auditorium will be able to do the job of six old lights. Before, one light did one thing at one time — it might have been red, which required someone to put a plastic gel over it.
Now, Ross said, the same LED light can be red for one scene, green in the next, followed by general white and a return to red.
Backdrops and scenery can be flown in and out as well, Ross said.
No one is more blown away by the new auditorium than Harding. Even a lifetime spent looking at building plans in the construction industry couldn’t prepare him for what was to unfold.
“I walk in and it still amazes me we built that,” Harding confessed.
And they did it all under budget.
In addition to the auditorium, the $34 million high school and career academy boasts the largest school gym in Iowa between Ames and the Missouri River. As a housewarming gift, the AAI/Spalding factory next door wheeled over two portable basketball backstops — the exact same kind used in the NBA.
To encourage passage of a bond referendum after two defeats, the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. put forward $4.5 million in funding toward the facility’s gym and auditorium.
But, as Harding said, the gym didn’t cost as much as planned.
In the planning stage, Harding said the architects were informed of Jefferson’s long history of support for music and the arts.
They ran with it, giving Greene County perhaps the ultimate bang for its buck when they tapped Broadway consultants.
“Our community has a huge respect for the arts, and it always has,” Harding explained. “And that’s what we’re supposed to do is reflect our community.”