Falls Church School Board Gets Full Expert Review of ‘Fly’ Issue

EXPERTS WHO participated in Tuesday night’s Falls Church School Board meeting on the design and components of the new high school auditorium were (left to right), Joshua Wise of Polysonic Consultants, Jack Chin of Quinn Evans Architects, Shawn Northrip, George Mason High theater teacher, and Deisy Brnfman of Braisford and Dunleavy. (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church School Board was provided an extensive, expert presentation on technical aspects of the auditorium planned for the new George Mason High School at its work session Tuesday night in the wake of growing citizen concerns for whether or not it will be as versatile and capable as the school’s existing auditorium.

Namely, the existing auditorium has a full “fly loft” system for lifting and moving sets and props, and the new auditorium is not scheduled to have the same capability.

But the new auditorium, as presented by Superintendent Peter Noonan and the team of expert consultants he brought to the meeting Tuesday, is scheduled to include newer technologies, including ones increasingly being utilized even on Broadway, including use of three-dimensional, projection and LED lighting technologies, that are more efficient, safer, and theatrically vivid.

Moreover, the audience capacity of the auditorium will be increased from its current capacity of 499 to 650, with the potential for another 100 mezzanine seats, and a small black box theater will also be added, along with classrooms for musical innovations.

Asking many questions, led by School Board members Greg Anderson and Justin Castillo based on his own children’s extensive involvement in the Mason high school program now, the Board appeared to reach a consensus, though no vote was taken, to embrace the plans as presented by Noonan and the design team.

The team, chosen in the selection process of the past nine months to undertake the design-build of the new high school, present at Tuesday’s meeting included Jack Chin of Quinn Evans Architects, Joshua Wise of Polysonic Consultants and Deisy Brangman of Brailsford and Dunleavy. Also an active participant in the discussion was Shawn Northrip, Mason High’s current theater teacher, having been there seven years so far.

Upon learning that a traditional fly loft system would not be included, an influential group of citizens began to speak out in the last month, including a petition from a number of theater specialists working with the City’s non-profit Creative Cauldron production and education theater.

The 37-year veteran former technical director of the Mason High theater program, John Ballou, joined the protest with a letter to the editor published in this edition of the News-Press.

Ballou wrote, in part, “From 1981 until my retirement last year, I worked every production that our school and surrounding community put on in that auditorium, as well as used that space for a surprising range of unusual projects…the rigging system our auditorium enjoys allowed our students to plan and act much more ambitiously than if we had a ‘cafetorium’ type of stage. This counter-balanced set of bars, cables and ropes allows a very dynamic approach to positioning lighting instruments, sound equipment, curtains and set pieces. Our catwalk that is above the stage allows the stage crew to sprinkle snow on a Nutcracker ballet or work some such other special effect.”

Ballou added, “We never had a serious accident in the 37 years I worked and played in that rigging. A whole lot of students learned a love of stagecraft by working in this versatile facility…It would be a shame if our new school building was not at least as versatile and capable as the one we currently have.”

But rigging will not be entirely absent in the new facility. The only component of the existing system that won’t be put into the new school is “just the system that flies in two-dimensional sets,” Noonan clarified. “Ballou seems to think that the lights and some of the curtains won’t be rigged, and that’s not true.”

As Joshua Wise of the Arlington-based Polysonic Consultants who’ve done work with the Kennedy Center, National Theater, Strathmore, Arena Stage, Wolf Trap and other area venues, pointed out forms of motorized and computerized systems that are being now considered are a tripped drop system, a roll drop system and floor tracks, in addition to an advanced projection system.

Northrip, who was originally skeptical of the new system, said that the new capabilities “are really good and cutting edge, just because we had a fly before doesn’t mean this will not be able to offer even more.”

He clarified the impact of the loss of a traditional fly loft system on International Baccalaureate stagecraft requirements. “IB does not mandate any type of special equipment,” he said, “IB understands that all schools do not have the same level of resources or facilities, and there are no assessments or rubrics that are marked based on anything other than what the students are creating.”

Of course, it was acknowledged Tuesday that the cost of implementing a full traditional fly system would require an additional 60 feet in height above the stage, and that, in terms of current plans, that would displace four classrooms in the new building design.

Northrip, it was noted, utilized the full fly at the existing school only once in the last seven years of his directing the theater program there. It was for “The Phantom of the Opera,” and while he conceded that productions like “Peter Pan” could be a problem in the new space, School Board member Castillo quipped, “Maybe Peter Pan could be flown in by drones.”

Northrip said “the great passion about the fly system issue that has been expressed is a good thing. It serves to make sure we work harder to ensure we meet the full potential of the new system.”

A keen observer at Tuesday’s work session was civic activist Gordon Theisz, among the first to raise doubts about the lack of a full fly system in the new school.

Theisz wrote the News-Press after the meeting saying, “The administration’s commitment to the current box design of the building and unwillingness to bump out a fly will simply prohibit its inclusion.”

“I still have questions and there are a lot of unknowns and ever-changing designs. Interested parties need to stay committed to ensuring a state-of-the-art facility. This is not just a school facility, it is a community asset. As the largest meeting space in the City, funded with City taxes, it must be a space for all.

“As to the fly, or lack thereof, the School Board and administration must commit to proven technologies that function in place of the fly. These need to be funded up front, not put on a wish list for the future. The new theater needs to be fully functional on day one.”

A town hall meeting on the overall campus project, including the new high school and the economic development portion, will be open for public comment this Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m. at the Falls Church Community Center, 223 Little Falls Street.