Theatre Space: Crowning Achievement

November, 2013

The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) combines conservatory-style arts education with traditional secondary school curricula for a student body of 600 budding visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, singers, actors and theatre technicians drawn from the 80 school districts in the county. The school’s practical conservatory instruction is offered in six arts departments: cinematic arts, dance, music, visual arts, theatre and musical theatre. As a high school it lays claim to a number of statistics that would be the envy of any other. The school has a near 0% dropout rate and 95% to 98% of its graduates go on to college. Now, after 28 years, “Fame High” finally has its own theatre in its own facility on the campus of Cal State LA.

For nearly the first three decades of its existence LACHSA operated in shared space with California State University, Los Angeles — better known simply as Cal State LA. But with the use of some $31 million in construction funds from the California School Facilities Program’s public bond issues, the school built a two-story building housing 20 classrooms, a film classroom/studio and editing room—and topped it with a black box theatre. 

Designed by Jim Wurst, AIA, a principal in the architectural design firm of HMC in Ontario, Calif., the 46,275-square-foot building sits on 1.35 acres of land on Cal State LA’s Circle Drive. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, parent organization for the school, is applying for a Green Building Certificate under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The program determines the level of energy and environmental efficiency in seven areas including sustainability, water efficiency, materials and resources, and energy and atmospheric impact.

The building is topped by the Leonetti/O’Connell Family Theatre. Conveniently shortened to "Caroline’s LOFT," the theatre is named for the founder of the Leonetti/O’Connell Family Foundation, philanthropist Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson (the wife of Howard Ahmanson). When California’s Career Technical Education Program supplied a $1.25 million grant to equip the new theatre, the Foundation matched it and earned naming rights.

The building has what might look a bit odd in any other high school: classrooms labeled “History/Drama,” “Math/Music” and “Science/Dance,” because, while the students pursue a rigorous academic program, they also work in the six arts disciplines. Two days a week, 16 of the students from the theatre department work with faculty member and technical director of Caroline’s LOFT, Chris Krambo, to learn technical skills. An additional 25 students from the non-theatrical departments work with him on Fridays, which are dedicated school-wide to elective work across disciplines.

Caroline’s LOFT

The theatre literally sits at the apex of the entire establishment, a visible box sitting atop the two-story school building, complete with its own lobby. Its prominence announces the purpose of the school as an artistic conservatory. To emphasize the school’s mission even more, the exterior wall facing Circle Drive is emblazoned with the school’s acronym, LACSHA. It is spelled out with one panel for each of its six letters illustrated with imagery representing one of the six artistic discipline departments.

Inside the theatre is a 70-foot-by-70-foot black box with a seating capacity of 260 which is infinitely reconfigurable using StageTek tiered seating platforms and chairs from Wenger Corporation. Krambo says he has known Wenger’s products since his student days, and so “when it came time to research some platforms, choir risers and other equipment for our new space, Wenger was the first thing that came to mind.”

For this project more than 130 StageTek decks with a variety of leg lengths allow up to ten levels reaching as high as six feet to support Wenger Portable Audience Chairs. Wenger’s contribution to the campus wasn’t limited to the theatre space. They provided platforms, chairs, music stands and other equipment for the classrooms as well.

Tony Stefani, principal for Specification and Entertainment Sales at MPA Lighting and Controls of Burbank, delivered a lighting package run by an ETC Gio console that includes 200 individual instruments, more than a few of which are ETC’s Lustr Desire D40 color-changing LED luminaire. “We had hoped for some computer movables,” Krambo said, “but the budget wouldn’t quite reach that.”

Rigging was the project of LA ProPoint, based in Sun Valley. Krambo had nothing but compliments for the work of Tim Moore who handled the pipe extension and drapery install under project manager Nick Shoob. All the soft goods were Rose Brand.

The school hit the ground running with the opening of Caroline’s LOFT, providing performance space for no fewer than 17 shows in the first 10 weeks following the dedication in May, including a cabaret, a dance concert, a band concert and the inaugural dramatic event, an evening of two plays by LACHSA alumnus Josefina Lopez.

It isn’t just student performances that fill the hall, however. “We’ve had science fairs, children’s theatre programs and even jujitsu events,” Krambo says, adding that the Joffrey Ballet’s Summer Internship Program staged their final event of this summer’s program there.

As happy as the people at LACHSA seem to be with their new building, they aren’t finished expanding either facilities or programs. At the dedication ceremony there was much talk of two additional funding measures which will affect the school’s future. One was an $875,000 grant announced by Michael Antonovich, the senior member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who was a co-founder of the school with Caroline Ahmanson. It will fund the construction of an amphitheater using the long wall on the south side of the school’s new building as the backdrop of a playing space before a semi-circular seating area. It is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2014.

Another announcement of funding was that of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina whose $375,000 contribution is to establish a third site for Gustav Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA), a program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic designed to “provide access to free, high quality instrumental and orchestral education.” 

Not that LACHSA’s classrooms or Caroline’s LOFT need additional programs to be fully occupied with high quality youth arts programs — that’s been the case since the dedication.