Plans for New High School Exclude ‘Fly Loft & System’ for Its Theater

FALLS CHURCH CITY MANAGER Wyatt Shields, at the podium, welcomed the citizens who showed up for the second Community Design Review session last Sunday on components planned for the new George Mason High School. The components presented excluded a “fly” loft and system for the school theater. (Photo: News-Press)

The biggest citizen concern to arise so far from recent public input sessions on the plans for the new George Mason High School focus on what the new theater/auditorium space there is going to be like. Unlike the current high school’s space, the new plan would be to remove the “fly” loft and system that many consider vital for theatrical productions, and more than a few parents and citizens are not happy.

A “fly system” is an array of rope lines, blocks (pulleys), counterweights and related devices within a theater that enables a stage crew to hoist quickly, quietly and safely components such as curtains, lights, scenery, stage effects and, sometimes, people, says Wikipedia. The systems are typically designed to fly components between clear view of the audience and out of view, into the large opening, known as the fly loft, above the stage.

So explained Melissa Teates and Gordon Theisz, prominent local citizen activists, in a guest commentary in this week’s edition. They asked, “Why would Falls Church City, spending $120 million to create a world-class state-of-the-art high school, think it acceptable to build a theater that is not fully functional?”

They cited Superintendent Peter Noonan’s report at last Sunday’s Community Design Review session that “the fly is not possible due to the design of the building, but technological solutions may be found to compensate for the loss of the fly.”

Noonan, in comments to the News-Press Wednesday, reiterated that view, saying a fly system is incompatible with the “way the building is vertically limiting.” A fly system would need to double the height of the theater space. He said there may be a “rolled scenery” alternative, and technological solutions that are even being introduced on Broadway, and he also cited safety concerns.

He cited a Virginia Department of Education document, “Guidelines for School Facilities in Virginia’s Public Schools,” which states summarily that “fly lofts and orchestra pits are strongly discouraged for safety reasons” without further explanation.

But theatrical and rigging standards are developed and maintained by the professional non-profit organization, the New York-based United States Institute for Theater Technology (USITT), which will hold its second New World Rigging Symposium in Louisville, Kentucky, next March, as well as the Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA). Both the USITT and PLASA have their own safety guidelines that are always under review.

In this context, Laura Hull, a veteran of the theater arts who heads the non-profit Creative Cauldron theater arts and education program in Falls Church, noted to the News-Press that new school projects “need good consultants who actually work in theater,” adding that, “In Fairfax, all the (school) renovations created awful performance spaces.”

Darien Bates, formerly of Falls Church who ran a New York-based theater public relations company, said fly systems “are less important for modern minimalism, but any musicals or classic shows with substantial set changes and effects would be limited. No one is doing a Broadway-type production without one.”

In the Teates and Theisz commentary, they write, “Theater, music and fine arts instruction and their International Baccalaureate classes are part of the academic program…Students in IB theater classes are required to learn about and create stage performances. They deserve to have a theater to fully express creativity in how they stage their productions. In a newly conceived building, academic programs should not be compromised.”

They added that the current GMHS theater “is the largest meeting/performance space in the City. It is used by the high school, middle school, local community groups including community center dance recitals, and performing groups such as a ballet company. It is also used for larger community and school meetings. No other current or proposed performance space in the City meets the capabilities of our existing GMHS theater.”
The parent of a recent GMHS graduate, Ari Autor, shared the concern in comments to the News-Press Wednesday.

A leader in the high school Band Boosters with her own background in dance as both a performer and instructor, she has performed on the current GMHS stage, and her son had a part in the wildly-popular GMHS production of “Spamalot” last year. She said the new school “should be optimized for the best,” including as a “valued asset for rental” with a deep stage and a fly loft.

She said she was concerned that the lack of a fly loft in the new school design came “almost as an afterthought” in the meeting Sunday. “It was introduced at the very end, but the new school should be our City’s flagship,” and efforts taken to prevent the shortcomings that wound up being in the recently-constructed Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, where a substandard gym and cafetorium spaces have led to ongoing issues.
She pointed to the vertical design of the new Wakefield High School in Arlington as one where a lot of the issues appear to have been successfully met.