‘It’s kind of embarrassing’: Performing arts leaders ask district to expand CHS auditorium as part of middle school project

Catherine McLaughlin—Monitor staff

As the school board continues to whittle down designs for the middle school, including making a choice about an auditorium, district performing arts leaders asked the board to consider an expansion of the one at CHS.

As the school board continues to whittle down designs for the middle school, including making a choice about an auditorium, district performing arts leaders asked the board to consider an expansion of the one at CHS. Catherine McLaughlin/ Monitor staff

Clint Klose, center, has been a teacher in Concord for more than 30 years. The entire time, he said, he’s longed for CHS to have a full-size auditorium on-site.

Clint Klose, center, has been a teacher in Concord for more than 30 years. The entire time, he said, he’s longed for CHS to have a full-size auditorium on-site. Catherine McLaughlin / Monitor staff

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 06-19-2024 4:37 PM

Every time Concord High puts on a concert, Gabe Cohen rents a U-Haul. 

The Christa McAuliffe Auditorium at the high school —  the district’s largest performance space — has 397 seats, just enough to seat one grade of its student body of 1,400. It’s also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, forcing music performances across the district to be held at the Capitol Center for the Arts, where parents pay $5 a seat to cover the rental cost.

In the evenings leading up to a concert, parents, school staff and Cohen — who is the performing arts coordinator and a music teacher — pack away equipment and cart it to the Capitol Center, then reload it and deliver it back to the high school afterward.

It is important that the new middle school have a functional performance space, Cohen told the school board at a public input session Tuesday, but the district’s greatest need is a full-size performance space at Concord High. 

“We host the All-State Music Festival, and it’s kind of embarrassing that we have to have world-renowned composers and conductors conduct in a gym,” Cohen said. “You guys are sitting in our auditorium. You can see what it looks like … we just don’t have the space here.” 

Cohen was one of several staff members and parents who attended a Q&A on the middle school project Tuesday, held inside the CHS auditorium, and asked the board to prioritize a theater renovation at the high school. The meeting also saw residents and staff weigh in on the various design options for the middle school — notably indicating that they supported an up-front investment in more energy-efficient systems and questioning how much field space was needed — even as frustrations about its location and price tag continued to simmer. 

A stage for performing arts students is like a playing field to athletes, said Clint Klose, a longtime teacher of theater and film who also runs the drama club, and the district’s limitations hamstring the program in a way that would be stark if translated into athletics. 

“It’s like … we’re only going to give you half a basketball court. We’re only going to give you half a soccer field,” he said. “This is like half an auditorium.”

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It also places Concord behind its peers, from Bow to Salem to Nashua, who have large theaters on-site, he continued.

Architects for the middle school project have given quotes for 900-, 600- and 450-seat auditoriums. A combination space like a gym-atorium is also on the table. In the coming weeks — among other design options and their corresponding price tags — the school board will have to decide what facility will best meet both the educational needs of students and the financial bandwidth of taxpayers. 

“Time and time again — since I was in high school — people have just not ever supported the arts,” said Pam Wicks, a former school board member who is involved with the Concord Friends of Performing Arts. “I am tired of my performing arts students performing in gymnasiums or having to go to the Capitol Center.” 

While Wicks said she supports the new middle school having an appropriate theater space, it would be unfair to give that facility more resources than the high school, where students don’t have what they need. 

“I chuckled, actually, when I looked at the presentation, and they're talking about the auditorium at the middle school teaching music theory,” Wicks said. “There is no middle school student taking music theory, but guess what? Our high school students are thinking music theory, and it would be really great if they could actually have really cool performing arts spaces to learn that.”

A working group for the project is recommending that the board go with the 450-seat option, but include retracting seats and other features that will make the space flexible. 

The group felt providing a stage and space that would continue performing arts skill development ahead of high school are needed, said Brenda Hastings, school board vice president and the head of the working group. While the smaller size option couldn’t host gatherings of the entire middle school, the 9,000-square-foot gym space the group is also recommending would, she said. The group will give a full report on its recommendations for programming spaces to the school board on Thursday. 

A 900-seat auditorium carries a $6 million price tag, according to the latest estimate, while a 450-seat one would cost about $4.2 million. The 600-seat option roughly splits the difference. It’s one of many factors that will determine where the cost of the new school falls within the $136–$166 million scale presented to the district.

The idea of adding potential work on the high school auditorium into the project wasn’t discussed by the working group, Hastings said. While it was made clear Tuesday night that the current space falls short, she said, it’s not clear whether or how such an undertaking could fit into the middle school project, as several people suggested Tuesday. It may have to wait. 

On Thursday, the school board will meet with its building committee — which includes community members, teachers and construction experts — to further digest the estimates, options and input. The school board has said it will set a firm not-to-exceed cost ceiling for the project in July. Before then, it will have to settle on an auditorium as well as how many and which fields it wants to include on site, different heating options and whether to include solar panels in the project, among other design details. 

Catherine McLaughlin can be contacted at cmclaughlin@cmonitor.com.