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New Auditorium to Improve Performing Arts Programs

The auditorium will be the first one of its kind in the Mehlville School District.

Students in the Mehlville School District interested in lighting and sound technology learn primarily from their teachers through DVD instruction. But a new auditorium located on Mehlville High School’s campus will give more students the opportunity to practice their skills in live settings.

“We do lighting and sound in the space we’re in now, but we don’t have a lot of the areas that are in the standard theater,” Oakville High School drama instructor Amy Learn said. “Students who wish to pursue a career in technical theater, they don’t know what standard stage curtains are. Students have lost scholarships and placement in technical programs because they don’t have the portfolio.”

The Mehlville school board unanimously approved a plan for the district’s first auditorium at Wednesday’s meeting. Superintendent Eric Knost worked with both high school drama teachers as well as architects to design the structure.

Learn and Mehlville High School drama instructor Paula Heller visited school theaters around the St. Louis area to get ideas. Both instructors said the proper acoustics were vital to the new auditorium.

Both high schools hold drama performances in what are known as black box theaters. Heller said the space is small, and actors have to go through the audience to the public restrooms to change costumes. The new auditorium will have auxiliary spaces, such as a lobby and backstage building and changing areas. It will also have fly space—room above the stage to suspend props—that will effect acoustics and allow for better sound control.

Learn said the new auditorium would bring in more funding to the programs. A play typically runs four nights with each performance fitting up to 120 people. That means a total of 480 people can see the play. With the new auditorium, if the play only runs two nights, more than 1,000 people can attend. With more than double the ticket funds, Learn said the program could afford new costumes and instructional pieces.

With more funding comes a better variety of plays, Learn said. Musicals are very difficult for her program to do because of the cost of music rights. Also, the new auditorium will have room for an orchestra pit, allowing for a cross-curricular experience between orchestra and drama, Learn said.

“It also lets us use more people in plays,” Learn said. “My stage is 17 feet deep and 30 feet wide. I can’t fit 30-40 kids. I’ve done shows in districts where I’ve had 80 kids on stage in a musical; more students will be able to experience the performing arts.”

Funding and Logistics

The auditorium would be about 22,700 square feet and hold 525 seats.

“That is equal to and in most cases greater than the auditoriums that are throughout districts, including Rockwood and Parkway,” Knost said. Rockwood’s auditorium holds about 500 and Parkway holds 300-400 seats.

on the north side of Mehlville High School behind the administration building. Although the new design is not final, Knost believes the Mehlville High School location is an improvement over his original idea of adding the auditorium to the Witzel Learning Center.

The project is estimated at $5.8 million and will be funded through refunds of  that the district issued during Proposition P, the building improvement bond issue passed in 2000. Over seven years, the district will save about $6 million through COPs already built into the district’s budget, Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch said.

Knost said all of the estimates were done for free and construction of the auditorium would not cost residents additional tax dollars.

“I think Dr. Knost is going about it the right way,” Heller said. “This is not about Mehlville having a show space, this is about an educational place for our kids. It’s about education and what our kids will get out of this space that will help them in their life.”

Knost said the next steps would be to further design work and then enter into a contract with the district’s architects. Construction could begin as soon as the summer.

Sharing the Space

Both high schools have afterschool drama clubs as well as theater classes, some for college credit.

But the new auditorium would be available to more than just the drama programs. Knost said the structure would be used on a daily basis by the choir, orchestra and bands for both high schools. More than 1,200 students district-wide participate in the performing arts programs.

“It will be a challenge sharing the space as far as building sets, and those are things we’re going to have to iron out as we go, but we’re certainly willing to make that happen,” Learn said.

Mehlville High School will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on March 8 and 9, while Oakville will be working on “The Curious Savage,” also debuting in March.

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