Amazing theater spaces grace new McDaniel High School

INCLUDES VIDEO VIGNETTE | Take a look at the new theater and learning spaces that are already being used by students of this outer East Portland school, formerly known as Madison High …

Students attending Leodis McDaniel High School are discovering new learning activities on their campus – including a brand new theater complex inside.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Just in time for the start of school this fall, a massive reconstruction project was completed at the educational campus formerly known as Madison High School – and is now renamed Leodis McDaniel High School.

A sparkling new feature of if the school is the Hibbard Theater and theater instructional complex.

Every seat in this new theater has a great, unobstructed view of the stage.

“As you’ll recall, the old Madison High did have a ‘theater’ of sorts; but, it was cavernous Hibbard Auditorium, seating 1,200 – with a huge stage that was just too large for a lot of the shows that schools do these days,” pointed out McDaniel High theater and stagecraft instructor, Dr. Zena.

Doctor Zena?” we asked.

“Yes! Since we last talked, I’ve received my PhD in Educational Leadership, with a focus on High School Theater, Social Justice, and Equity in Education,” Zena responded brightly.

Still organizing her office, Dr. Zena — McDaniel High theater and stagecraft instructor – says she’s enthusiastic about teaching in the new theater complex.

As we walked into the all-new Hibbard Theater, Zena told East Portland News why the decision was made to design and build an entirely new, 514-seat theater.

“Schools have really outgrown the need for an all-school auditorium.

“First, old-style auditoriums cost much more to manage and run, then does a modern  theater,” Zena observed. “And, the leadership realized that, with the technology to build a gymnasium that has sound system and acoustics, it also serves well as an all-school meeting space.”

Take a brief “tour” of the theater
in this Video Vignette

Revamping the old auditorium into a theater would have equaled to the entire cost of remodeling the whole school, she disclosed. “So this saved money, and now we have a wonderful, purpose-built theater.”

This theater has seats to accommodate all students, including those in wheelchairs.

An inclusive and accessible theater
“I really appreciate that I was allowed be a consultant on the ‘design team’ for this space; and more, that they actively listened to my suggestions!” Zena said. “Especially about two things are really important to me: One of them is accessibility, and the other is to make sure that we made the space inclusive to everyone.

“Accessibility means that that we had seats of different sizes,” Zena clarified. “And, we have ten spots for wheelchairs in the theater. Those can enter from the back, at top of the theater, or from the main section of the theater.”

The overhead catwalk is designed to allow students of all physical abilities to learn stagecraft skills.

Demonstrating one of the inclusive features, unique to this theater complex, Zena walked us through an area that links the main stage directly to the balcony of the ‘Black Box Theater’ – an intimate performance space – next door to the main theater. “Here, people of all physical abilities can learn lighting and sound design, without the danger of having to maneuver up to, and around, the traditional theater grid ‘catwalk’,” she said.

The Orchestra Pit below the stage is fully accessible. And, many trapdoors, above the safety netting, can be opened to accommodate the needs of different shows.

Pit, or no pit
Typically, new theaters are not constructed with a pit for an orchestra in front of the stage; most schools these days don’t have orchestra programs, and some schools don’t even have a band – and if they do, their band and choir programs have other objectives than accompanying musical theater, Zena told us. “The designers really wanted to have a pit; so told them if this design feature is fixed, I also want to have trapdoors built into it – and now, I have eight trapdoors – we don’t have to cut holes in the stage. I am pretty excited about that!”

In the costume storage area, Dr. Zena is still unpacking crates from the move from the Marshall Campus.

Still unpacking
She and other teachers had been in the building for about 30 days before school opened. “As soon as the building was turned over from the contractors, we started moving in very quickly and hurriedly; and while there a lot of things are not quite done, we’re getting there,” remarked Zena.

Fortunately, a commercial moving company took it from the Marshall Campus, in the Lents neighborhood, and moved it in the theater space. “It’s a good thing, having to move 1,500 boxes and crates in my VW Bug would’ve been a less than exciting challenge!” Zena exclaimed.

New lighting – both LED and traditional tungsten – and digital controls help students get training on professional theater equipment.

New theater attracts more students
Students, touring their remodeled school and coming upon the theater complex, were surprised and delighted, Zena observed. “I’ve never seen students so excited about coming into a theater space! For these kids, coming into the school and seeing themselves being honored with the new spaces – such as the theater – is very special to them.”

How excited? Well, 50 students enrolled in the drama classes and another 50 in the theater tech classes.

Hopefully soon, the Hibbard Theater Box Office will be welcoming patrons.

“In this case, COVID-19 considerations are on the side of the theater program, because here, we do have the space to keep students properly socially-distanced,” Dr. Zena remarked. “So even with masks on, we can still keep kids properly spaced, and still do all kinds of theater activities and exercises.”

Many students coming into a theater program are curious about both the acting, and the technical side. “We have all-new theater technology, allowing kids to work with state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment; as well as the most modern rigging equipment – and spaces more realistic to what ‘real-world’ theater spaces look like,” Zena said.

Additional performance spaces on campus
Walking out, as the tour concluded, Dr. Zena revealed other performance areas in the school. “These spaces, not necessarily connected with the theater program, include an open platform in the Student Commons; a stepped area in a large stairwell that they’re calling the ‘Poetry Corner’; and an outdoor space, as well.”

Do to the  continuing and evolving nature of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, public performances in the Hibbard Theater have not yet been scheduled. However, student actors and stage technicians now have an unequalled space in which to learn theater in classes led by Dr. Zena.

© 2021 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™

 

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