If you’ve ever seen one of the Broadway-caliber shows put on by Needham High School students, you would never guess that behind the scenes, the quality and management of the performance spaces in town is sorely lacking.
Needham’s three auditoriums at the high school, Pollard Middle School, and Newman Elementary School are used for all fine and performing arts programming as well as by Needham Community Theater. As of early last spring, all three were found to have significant safety issues requiring immediate remediation — and that’s just the beginning. While the more pressing concerns were addressed over the summer using unspent school funds, the list of facility upgrades and staffing to bring Needham’s spaces up to the quality of those in comparable communities is lengthy.
Last year, four students examined these issues as part of the Greater Boston Project. The group gathered data from 22 neighboring towns and highlighted where Needham stands to improve, making recommendations such as the need for a full-time technical director, appropriate lighting and sound equipment, adequate pit space, additional rehearsal space, a safe area for building sets, more storage, and better backstage access.
For Claire Skatrud, one of the authors of the study, this was personal. As a member of the a cappella program and a longtime participant in the musical theater program, she witnessed firsthand the effect of these limitations. She said the No. 1 problem is a lack of a full-time technical director to oversee the management and maintenance of the facilities and equipment.
“I think that’s the biggest first step that can be taken for Needham,” said Skatrud. “It doesn’t require an entirely new building or facility. A lot of the places we toured had a theater manager or a technical director.”
Another significant deficiency the group identified was the quality of lighting and sound. “The lighting booth at Needham High has not been usable for several decades,” said Skatrud. “At Pollard it was makeshift that kids put together with plywood and had to be taken down for safety reasons. At Newman there was no booth at all.”
The town recently contracted with the theater consultancy firm Hewshott to conduct a feasibility study around theatrical lighting, sound and rigging in the three performance spaces within their existing footprint. Recommendations are based on advances in audio and lighting technology, sustainability, and new national and international safety standards. The phases of the project fall into two major categories: safety and compliance and theatrical system upgrades. Most of the upgrades are slated to occur over two years, with a timeline of five years for major construction. The price tag to complete the extensive punch list of improvements is $3.5 million. According to the report, the upgrades have a projected annual cost savings of $100,000, are sustainable and reduce the carbon footprint. The multi-year funding requests will need to pass through the School Committee, the town, and ultimately be voted on by Town Meeting.
These upgrades are important, said Kristen Mazzocchi, theater director and teacher at the high school, but they are the tip of the iceberg. She agreed with Skatrud that finding a technical director is a top priority.
“A lot of things were found to be unsafe because it’s no one’s job to take care of it,” she said. “We’ve really not kept up with even the spaces we have.”
Looking at districts in similar towns, Mazzocchi said she doesn’t understand why Needham can’t seem to figure it out. “Why can’t we go check in with other towns and say, ‘How are you doing it? How are you funding it and how are you managing your spaces?’ These other towns are doing it, it can’t be that hard.”
She said she is frustrated that it seems the town keeps “kicking the can” down the road while teachers, parents and students come up with workarounds and creative fixes on their own.
“If you’re only seeing the end result, you’re only in the audience seeing the show, it’s great,” said Skatrud. “But what you don’t see is the students experiencing difficulties putting it on without adequate facilities. They do a good job, but it doesn’t have to be this hard.”
LeeAnn Sutton, director of fine and performing arts, reached a tipping point last year when she presented the department’s budget requests to the School Committee. Sutton oversees all the curricular and co-curricular programs across the district. In her presentation she asked for “robust technical and performing theater program that has the appropriate infrastructure that meets Massachusetts’ curricular framework standards, equitable access to curricular programs for all elementary students grades 3 to 5, and appropriate infrastructure to support staff, students, programming and community needs.”
“I think our faculty are incredibly resourceful and creative and dedicated,” said Sutton. “They figure out how to get things done and make it look really really good. What people don’t see is the amount of MacGyvering that goes on behind the scenes to get there.”
Ideally, she said, a performing arts space comparable to those in other districts would be a stand-alone space, could accommodate a large scale theatrical production, but also serve the needs of an ensemble of 150 people, would have dressing rooms, a set shop, proper technology and ample, varied seating.
As conversations around the school building projects continue, Sutton said she is excited about the prospect of a performing arts space at Pollard. “It could be utilized by the high school because it’s walking distance and it’s not used the same way,” she said, explaining that the Newman theater is used as a classroom during the school day. “Programmatically there can be a sharing of resources and continuity of the students’ experience.”
Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst, who began his tenure after the high school renovation was completed in 2006, said he recognizes the performance space in town is not ideal. “Is it the kind of performance space we would like for the kind of performances Needham High School puts on? No, I think we can do better.”
Gutekanst noted that using the Newman auditorium as the primary space poses problems. “It’s not easily accessible, there are scheduling problems, you can’t really work during the day or gather students during the day.”
Considering a performance space as part of the Pollard school building project is very much part of the ongoing conversation as plans move forward, said Gutekanst. He sees this as the best option to get the sort of space the community wants. Funding it, however, will be a roadblock. If the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) chooses to fund the school building project, they would not pay for a dedicated performance space. This would leave the community to find resources to cover that cost.
“There are lots of projects competing for dollars,” said Gutekanst. “The School Committee and the community will need to have some conversations about what we can do in a reasonable time frame to meet the programmatic needs.”
Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley said in all her years of service to the town, her biggest regret was not figuring out a way to incorporate an adequate theater into the high school project two decades ago. At the time, however, the town felt the bill for the project was already high and it needed to be careful with spending. Cooley said she is focused on ensuring a space as part of the Pollard project is fully explored.
“I do think there should be an excellent performance space somewhere in town,” she said. “Is it ideal to have the performance space separate from the high school? It’s not. But can it work? Yes it can.”
Cooley echoed Gutekanst about competing needs. “We’re just trying to figure out our way through it given the decisions that were made 20 years ago, because here we are 20 years later and still talking about performance space and I think that’s unfortunate because we do have a vibrant arts program.”
Skatrud said one of the biggest takeaways after seeing what other towns have been able to do with their programs is that it’s not an insurmountable challenge.
“It’s doable, it just needs to be prioritized,” she said. “I think Needham decision-makers should start showing their support of the performing arts and recognizing it as an essential piece of education and treat it as such.”