Public Activism Begins to Stir on New Mason High ‘Fly Loft’ Issue

FALLS CHURCH CITY MANAGER Wyatt Shields, at the podium, welcomed the citizens who showed up for the second Community Design Review session last month 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 News-Press has learned that a citizen groundswell is developing in the City of Falls Church to oppose current plans to diminish, rather than enhance, the theater arts program in the new George Mason High School, despite the $120 million price tag of the new school. Citizens will have one final shot at offering input on the proposed design at a meeting later this month whose time and place have not yet been specified.

In reaction to the report that the new auditorium would not include a “fly loft” system akin to the one currently in use at the present high school, Falls Church City Public Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan wrote Tuesday in an email to the F.C. school community, “We take our arts program very seriously. In fact, if you look at the dedicated spaces in the new design, the arts are one of the largest footprints in the building.”

“But,” he added, “we recently did an analysis of the benefits and concerns about a fly loft system and discovered through our research that as much as we would like a fly loft, there are inherent dangers.” He cited the Virginia Department of Education construction specification recommendations “discouraging schools from building them, and our insurance carrier, the Virginia Municipal League (VML), is urging us not to, as well.”

He said, “The VML recently told us, ‘Given the dangers involved there is a chance that should a student be injured there is a potential case for this injury to be labeled as gross negligence which would remove any immunity the school system might otherwise enjoy.”

Noonan further added, “We are building a high school on a tight and vertical site. To establish a fly loft would sacrifice other classroom space above, which then begins a compromise the rest of our instructional program. There is an equity issue for space that must be considered in the overall design.”

He went on, “I recognize this is hard for some in our community to understand, because we’ve had a fly loft and we are taking something away…however, given new technology, different types of modified rigging systems to accommodate rolled sets which will be considered for installation, and the need to move away from two dimensional sets to three dimensional sets we just can’t afford to put one in from multiple perspectives.”

But Planning Commissioner Melissa Teates, who authored the guest commentary, “Don’t Compromise on Theater in Our New High School,” with Gordon Theisz in last week’s News-Press, wrote to the News-Press yesterday, “I have been talking with lot of people who had no idea that the theater will be lesser.” One leading citizen, she said, “is very upset as he imagined a community theater program that would bring people in off the Metro.”

She noted that, about Noonan’s safety concerns, “Arlington and Fairfax both have theaters with flys, and Falls Church has had one for over 40 years with no issues.”

She added that the Virginia State Department of Education’s specifications come in the form of recommendations, only, and not mandates. The recommendations interrelate safety and cost concerns.

She said that Noonan told her “sets could be pulled in from the side, which is called a ‘slip,’ and requires wing space equal to the size of the performance space. But, she said, “We’ve been told the wing space is being cut back, too, and the last plans I saw did not allow for ‘slip’ style sets.”

Unresolved issues in the plans as of this week, she said, include whether adequate wing space (on the stage behind the curtains) is provided, whether dressing rooms will be provided with direct access to the stage for a cast of 35 to 40, whether entrances into the theater are on both sides of the stage, and whether there will be catwalks, sufficient storage, a lighting grid that is convenient and safe to use, washing facilities, electric hoists for battens and drapes to replace some of the fly functions, a reasonable increase in audience seating, and adequate costume and set storage.

In none of the four earlier public meetings to discuss the school design were any of these issues brought to light.

In other comments in his letter to school constituents Tuesday, Noonan responded to the issue of “whether or not we are redeveloping our sports stadium and baseball field.” He wrote, “There are no plans to touch the stadium field or the baseball field. In fact, at the new building site, we will replace the practice field with a turf field on the south side of the athletic complex. To ensure there is lighting on the new turf field, we are in the process of identifying funding in the project or through partnerships.”