Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Different Doesn’t Mean Less Than or Worse

By Peter Noonan

One of my favorite nights of the year is the Cappies. For the past nine years (except for one) I have been a presenter and have worked closely with Judy Bowns (co-founder) along with Bill Strauss before he passed away to bring greater focus to high school theater. My personal history with the arts runs deep. Some examples: in high school I was offered full opera/choral scholarships to two universities, my sister is a professional violinist and concertmaster in a major city orchestra who has played a duet with Yo-Yo Ma, and my daughter was on the stage crew of a Cappie nominated show at her high school.

I share this to put my love of and for the arts in context as well as to express my personal desire to build and support a program that is healthy and vibrant for our students now and into the future.

Since the beginning of the design phase for our new George Mason High School, I have continually stated that this is not going to be your grandparents, parents, or your high school. We are building a high school of the future to serve our students for the next 30–50 years. This means from an instructional, use and development perspective we must consider options that are different than what we currently have.

It’s important to note — different doesn’t mean worse or less than. We will have a far superior theater when our project is done compared to our current theater.

Last December, right after the bond passage, we met with the arts team at GMHS to ensure that the education specifications for the new theater were correct. At that time we discussed not including a fly loft to “fly-in” two-dimensional sets. At first, Mr. Northrip was disappointed as it felt like a loss of something but quickly turned his focus to opportunities to expand our program and incorporate more three-dimensional set design and technology. Throughout the past year, we’ve continued conversations with the Performing and Visual Arts Departments about their needs for space.

I trust our teachers, and I trust the experts we have selected to help us make good decisions about the theater design. They include Polysonic (Kennedy Center, Warner Theater, Strathmore Hall), Quinn Evans, Gilbane, surrounding jurisdictions and their specialists, the VDOE and VML who all say:

• 3D and Technical solutions can be better and are “future-thinking” in set design.

• The design of a fly system would decrease the space above by four classrooms which would need to be relocated and create cost.

• The vast majority of surrounding school systems are not building lofts into new construction projects.

• There are general liability issues with a fly loft.

• The fly loft has been used in a production at GMHS only once over the past seven years!

• To ensure community input we made the arts its own stand-alone break out session at community meetings we’ve held. We have been transparent.

There has been a comment about the IB programme and how not having a fly system would inhibit the delivery of a great IB theater program. This is just not true. We will continue to offer a world-class IB theater program. Our IB programme is excellent because of our talented students and teachers.

There has been a discussion that our students will lose out in the Cappies without a fly. This also is not true. Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun won three Cappies last year for Set Design, Stage Management Crew, and Featured Actress, and Riverside High School won Best Female Dancer and Lead Actress in a Musical — all without a fly loft system.

There have been comments that we won’t be able to put on a Broadway quality production in our theater without a fly. Again, not true. Hamilton, on Broadway, uses 3D set design, technology, with no use of a fly loft.

Let’s not lose sight of what we are gaining:

• State of the Art acoustics, lighting, and technology. There will be many opportunities for 3-D sets and other 21st-century set design.

• There will be safe and intuitive motorized rigging options where sets fold or roll and lights raised and lowered without the height needs of a full fly.

• There will be 150 more seats than we have now – 650 total.

• Professionally designed performing arts classrooms and practice spaces built specifically for rehearsals, lessons, practice, large-group instruction, and music, and arts innovation.

• The addition of a Black Box theater, a significant enhancement to the theater program.

• Collaboration spaces for our teachers to work in and further become innovative in their practices.

Our arts spaces at the new GMHS will be great places to learn and perform.

In the not too distant future, I can’t wait to sit beside you for an amazing show or concert — in our fabulous new auditorium.


Peter Noonan is superintendent of the Falls Church City Public Schools.