Urbana High raises curtain on renovated high-tech auditorium

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Urbana High raises curtain on renovated high-tech auditorium

URBANA — The renovated auditorium at Urbana High School now looks like it could be straight out of the original 1914 Joseph Royer building.

Don't be fooled, though — a recent renovation has added high-tech upgrades that allow things like lights and curtains to be controlled with the touch of a button, and actors backstage to watch what's happening on stage on closed-circuit TVs.

The project's budget was $5.5 million, and the renovation began in June 2011. It was expected to be done by the time school started this fall, but there were delays, and the school district is moving in this week. The renovation was paid for with money from the county school facilities sales tax.

The school's drama club will have its first production in the renovated space Nov. 7-11, when it puts on "Chicago."

"I think the (modern updates) will be really good for our students," said Urbana High School Director of Theatre Tim Broeker, as the department tries to give students hands-on experiences when they're working on a production.

"The cutting-edge technology and equipment, most high school students are not able to (experience)," Broeker said.

The auditorium's stage opening is 16 feet wider, the renovation enclosed a courtyard for more storage and space for actors and new, cushy red seats have been installed.

They're designed to be comfortable for two hours, said Ota Dossett, the school district's director of facilities.

The auditorium will seat about 430 people, and seats have been added again to the auditorium's balcony. They had been taken out in a previous renovation, and the area was used for storage.

The theater features a projector and camera in the front of the balcony, a screen that descends from a slot in the arch above the stage, an intercom system throughout, as well as those digitally controlled lights and curtains. The auditorium also has an orchestra shell that can be digitally directed to move on and off the stage.

A sound engineer worked on the project to improve the acoustics, and other theater professionals also worked on things like lighting, Dossett said. There's plenty of space above the stage, so scenery can be pulled up when not in use.

The auditorium features energy-efficient lighting and has its own mechanical room for the systems it uses.

An orchestra pit beneath the stage has a 10-foot ceiling. Panels in the orchestra pit ceiling can be closed to make more area for the stage or opened to reveal the orchestra. Or the conductor can stand on a platform and see performers when just one panel is open, Dossett said.

But not all of the renovations were high-tech.

"They made a lot of things more usable," Dossett said, "But architecturally, everything matches."

A plaster restoration company worked on the antique plaster and made plaster columns for the space, as well as worked on the arch above the stage.

Wainscoating that had been removed in a previous renovation was put back — and added in some places, as well, Dossett said, and some arches were added to match existing windows in the space.

"It has the complete spirit of the 1914 building," Dossett said.

Downstairs, near the dressing rooms (which now have bathrooms and showers), the makeup mirror features its original lights, which were cleaned and rewired, Dossett said.

The renovation also provided many useful changes for the auditorium.

There's more storage, and the drama department will organize its supplies on rolling carts. They can be moved up and down between levels via the auditorium's elevator.

Previously, the music department had trouble moving its vintage Steinway concert grand piano around the school. Now, the auditorium has a space to keep it when it's not being used, Dossett said.

Plus, Broeker, who teaches English, speech and drama, now has a adjacent classroom, which will provide him easy access to the auditorium. That can also be used as a space for actors to wait backstage if the drama club is doing a big show, Broeker said.

Seat sponsorship

The Urbana Alumni Association is still inviting the public to sponsor a seat in the new auditorium. For information, please visit http://www.urbana-alumni.com/uhs/seats. Seat sponsorships allow you to put a name on a plaque on the seat. Seats in different locations cost different amounts to sponsor.

The alumni association also has other sponsorship opportunities available for the auditorium, including naming opportunities, said Debra Levey Larson, who is working with the alumni association to raise money for the project.

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