Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Don’t Compromise on Theater in Our New High School

By Melissa Teates & Gordon Theisz

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?

At the most recent Community Design Review session this past Sunday, the superintendent stated there were three major issues that had come out of previous meetings: 1) parking issues that continue to be studied, 2) lighting for practice fields that the schools are looking at now, and 3) a fly for the theater. He said that the fly was not possible due to the design of the building, but technologic solutions may be found to compensate for the loss of the fly.

Why is a fly important? A fly is a system of rope lines, pulleys, counterweights and related devices that enable a stage crew to hoist curtains, lights, scenery, stage effects and sometimes people quickly, quietly and safely. These systems move components between clear view of the audience to out of view into the fly loft above the stage. A fully functional theater has a fly just as our current George Mason High School theater does.

Our position: build a fully functional theater in this 21st century school. Build it with a fly and build it with adequate seating.

Being told that technologic solutions may be found to compensate for the absence of a fly does not give us confidence that the new theater will meet the needs of the high school and community.

Theater, music and fine arts instruction and their International Baccalaureate classes are part of the academic program. Performing arts deserve the same full attention and functionality afforded other academic programs. 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.

Falls Church has seen our George Mason High School theater program soar in recent years. Last fall’s “Spamalot” and past performances of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables” drew rave reviews and sold out attendance. It speaks volumes that a school of our size can stage such performances while simultaneously supporting a concert band, choir, full slate of athletic programs with frequent state champions, and countless other student led activities. Our community is truly committed to our youth.

The lack of inclusion of a fly stems from location of the theater in a five-story rectangular structure. Including the fly within the rectangle would reduce space on the instructional third floor which is obviously a non-starter. A simple solution would be to bump out the stage from the current rectangular structure and include a fly above. The impact of this would be possible elimination of the windows of a few third-floor rooms. This could be mitigated with the use of fiberoptic light tubes or repurposing of those rooms to non-light requiring activities. Draft plans show many non-instructional spaces on each of the classroom floors.

Bumping out the stage would also provide the opportunity to expand seating. There is talk of reducing the capacity in the proposed design to less than our old theater. Seating capacity cannot be added on in the future — it needs to be maximized now. Likewise, a fly cannot be added later, it too must be included now.

The current GMHS theater is the largest meeting/performance space available 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 also is 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.

If we build a new theater without a fly, its absence would exclude some current renters and limit future performers from using our theater if they require a fly for their sets. The schools would lose this rental income. The City would no longer have a fully functional theater inside its boundaries.
There is still time to change the design, but time is running out. The school board and community must weigh in on the importance of having a fully functional theater in our new world-class school.

In a City that places a high value on the arts, as evidenced by aggressively locating space for Falls Church Arts and Creative Cauldron in new construction, we cannot intentionally compromise on the design of our high school/community theater that should last the next 50 years.