The new $29 million Performing Arts Center at Palo Alto High School (Paly) opening this fall hopes to attract more students to the performing arts program by offering professional technical equipment and interdisciplinary classes.
The Performing Arts Center — whose construction funding came out of a 2008 bond measure — includes a 582-seat theater and a classroom that doubles as a performance space. A new class, called “Comedy Literature and Performance,” will be co-taught by Drama Director Kathleen Woods and English teacher Lucy Filppu. “We’re working to get as many students as we can through the doors of the theater,” Woods said.
The opening of the Performing Arts Center comes as the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) seeks to re-emphasize the arts at a time when many students are focusing on technology.
Kevin Skelly, who was the PAUSD superintendent when the Performing Arts Center was initially pitched in 2007, is excited for the facility to inspire students with many different interests.
“The arts are a vital part of being an educated person,” Skelly, who is now superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District, said in a phone interview. “I think we’re getting back to that in education.”
The center was originally set to open in 2014, but it faced delays amid a building boom on campus that includes a Media Arts Center, a Math/Social Sciences building and an Athletic Field Concession Facility, all funded by the same bond measure. It is now set to open before the next school year begins.
The Performing Arts Center’s theater includes a motorized orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered to accommodate various audience sizes and a full fly loft allowing a stage crew to safely change scene effects. The structure also includes a patio and an area for building and storing major set pieces. Multiple green rooms and dressing rooms accommodate performers. Students will be trained to use professional equipment in the facility, preparing them for projects beyond Paly.
The historic 98-year-old Haymarket Theater across from the new structure will continue to be used for now as a rehearsal and storage space. While the Haymarket’s acoustics haven’t suited choir and music performances, the new building, equipped with a Meyer Sound System, can accommodate performances for drama, choir and band.
The structure, while modern in design, complements the historic buildings at Paly and Stanford University with its traditional red roof and cream color. Solar energy will be used to heat and cool the building.
Although the Performing Arts Center will first be a campus facility, people involved with planning said there is wide anticipation that outside groups will eventually perform there. “If it’s only used for the school, that would be a shame. It should be used for other groups when the school’s not using it. And I think it will be,” Skelly said.
The facility is able to accommodate the sound systems of touring productions. The lobby can hold various events and the outdoor patio encourages community mingling. “It’s really a prime location on campus and for the community,” said Project Architect Brad Gunkel, who hopes to cultivate community engagement in the arts.
The new Performing Arts Center is the result of extensive advocacy by district staff, teachers and community members, some of who are continuing to shepherd the project to completion.
Holly Ward, president of Paly Performing Arts Boosters, a local nonprofit, was involved in getting the initial design for the center approved by the school board. Though her children have graduated from Paly, Ward personally pledged to raise $200,000 from the community to provide the finishing touches to the structure that weren’t in the initial budget.
Paly librarian Rachel Kellerman, a member of the Facilities Steering Committee at Paly, said although it took time to propose the Performing Arts Center and to receive funding from the school bond to construct it, the project “speaks volumes” about how “integral” the arts are to students of Palo Alto, a sentiment echoed by the teachers.
“Students in the arts perform better. They perform better on tests. They’re stronger emotionally, socially, they really are walking out with all these great skills,” said Woods, the drama director. “But there’s still a very strong belief that STEM matters more. And I’m not saying they don’t matter, I’m just saying the arts matter equally.”