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Getting ready for the show

“It’s going to rival any professional theatre that I’ve ever worked in, or seen.” – Jessica Frerich
Keith Düster, Jessica Frerich, Superintendent Davis Eidahl and Transportation/Building and Grounds Director Mike Kasparek (obscured) tour the stage at the front of the auditorium in the new Solon Performing Arts Center, which is scheduled for completion Dec. 1. Frerich is the high school’s drama director and will oversee the musical production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” in January, while Düster is one of the musical’s techincal directors. (photos by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– It’s going to be worth the wait.
The Solon Performing Arts Center (PAC) is scheduled for completion at the beginning of December, with a grand opening for three performances of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” set for January.
The new 809-seat auditorium, an addition to the high school, was approved by Solon Community School District voters as part of a $25.5 million bond issue in September 2014, which also included the construction of a new fifth through eighth grade middle school.
Both projects have been delayed slightly after initially being projected to open in the fall of this year.
The new target date of Dec. 1 was set after school board members switched construction managers for the two projects at the end of June.
The district terminated its contract with Story Construction of Ames and hired a more local firm of McComas-Lacina Construction from Iowa City.
The new construction manager sat down with all the contractors on site, according to Superintendent Davis Eidahl.
“Based on those conversations and their inspections on where the project was, they readjusted the timeline to be a little more conservative with the finish and that’s when they came to a Dec. 1 completion date,” Eidahl said.
In addition to the new auditorium, the high school addition also included the relocation of the art room, a new life skills special education suite (in the former art room space), and practice rooms, a storage room and a new ensemble area for the vocal and instrumental music departments.
The classroom additions, with the exception of the art room, were mostly finished in time for the start of the school year. The visual arts suite was expected to be completed one week in, Eidahl said.
The middle school, under construction to the west of the high school across Racine Avenue, will not be occupied until the 2017-18 school year.
A upwardly-creeping construction budget prompted school board members to review cost saving measures, and then delays in the bidding process resulted in the middle school project being relegated to secondary priority and efforts were focused on moving the PAC forward in a timely fashion.
“The original timeline (for the middle school) was sometime in January and now we’re saying April 1, which will still give us ample time to assemble all the furniture and set it all up to be pretty much turnkey for teachers and students,” Eidahl said.
The PAC, constructed on the east end of the high school, will feature a 3,200-square-foot stage in front of an 8,500-square-foot auditorium, as well as an expansive lobby, green room, set shop and costume and prop storage.
Over the last two months, a massive scaffolding was erected in the seating area to provide an elevated floor for workers as they installed acoustical ceiling pads, cabling and lighting.
The scaffolding is now coming down, Eidahl noted, meaning the project is approximately three-quarters complete.
Since the change in construction managers and local resident Todd Hauser has been providing on-site supervision, the superintendent said, the building project has been steadily gaining momentum.
But he also hastened to add the previous work was never unsatisfactory.
“There’s never been a question of quality,” he said. “The work that all the contractors have done on site we’ve been very pleased with. Not only from our perspective but from the architect’s perspective, also.”
No public grand opening is planned other than the musical, which has been moved from its traditional fall slot into January, he noted.

New Performing Arts Center to premiere with “Disney’s The Little Mermaid”

And students are staff are hard at work to make sure “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” lives up to the new stage on which it’s being performed.
“It’s not just going to be the first show in the auditorium, I think it’s going to be one of the best musicals we’ve done in Solon,” said high school vocal music instructor Joel Foreman, who will serve as music director for the production. Instrumental music instructor Desmond Cervantes will rehearse and direct the pit orchestra, while Foreman will direct the coordinated vocals and instrumentals.
“I think there’s a lot of great momentum and excitement brewing even before the start of the school year,” said Foreman.
Based on the 1989 Disney animated movie, “The Little Mermaid” was adapted for the stage and premiered on Broadway in 2008. It follows the original movie closely, with some additional songs to give each of the characters a little more stage time, according to Jessica Frerich, the high school drama director and middle school vocal music teacher.
“Disney’s The Little Mermaid” will probably be the biggest show undertaken as a Solon musical production, incorporating middle school and Lakeview students as well as high school performers.
“We did a little bit of that for ‘Shrek’ two years ago, but with the grand opening of the auditorium we really wanted to do something that invited the whole family and the whole community into the space,” Frerich said. “‘Little Mermaid’ is so well known and it has such bright, colorful, flashy costumes and there’s lots of parts for small turtles or small mermaids or small starfish so we can get everybody involved.”
Frerich estimated there will be about 70 students in the high school cast, with another 20 in the crew, and she’s expecting another 50-or-so middle school and Lakeview students to also be involved.
This will be Frerich’s fifth year as musical director (her first was “The Wizard of Oz”), but this year’s schedule will be a little different.
Auditions generally start in late spring, and once the cast is set, costume director June Maiers measures cast members and works with seamstresses to start the process.
Then Frerich will talk to her technical directors (Keith Düster and her husband, Jeff Frerich) about what props or scenery will be needed for each scene.
“We’ll do sketches of that and break it down and make sure it would look good on stage with the costumes and it would work for the actors and then we’ll start building right away in June,” she explained.
Scripts are handed out and three or four rehearsals take place over the summer months.
“Generally once school starts, we have an eight-week turnover,” she said. “We learn all the music, we learn all the scenes, and all the dancing, all the set pieces and costumes are completed within eight weeks.”
Originally, the musical was scheduled to premiere in November, but now the three performances are set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 27-29, 2017. The Sunday show is expected to be a 2 p.m. matinee.
“It really is a great thing that we do this the right way,” Frerich said. “We’re all very excited that it’s even going to be in the auditorium, which is a huge, huge blessing because it’s going to be stunning.”
With the new schedules, rehearsals are expected to slow down a little bit.
“Now that we have a little bit of extra time to get everything completed, we can add the extra sparkles and glitz and glamour,” she said.
It’s going to be a marked change from the previous performance site, the auditorium at the existing Solon Middle School.
At the middle school, 10 seats have to be removed from each musical to accommodate the accompanying band. The Performing Arts Center will have an orchestra pit, a pricey feature that survived budget considerations.
The sound and lighting systems at the middle school concert hall are also insufficient, Frerich said.
“We’ve had to replace our head microphones several times, our lights burn out frequently and our electrical box overheats all the time,” she said.
There’s never been any room in the wings to place props or set pieces, prompting some interesting alternative solutions.
“From time to time we’ve had to keep props in the hallway or in the lobby or in the bathroom,” she noted.
The current performance space has no fly system– the theatrical rigging which allows scenery, backdrops, lights and curtains to be moved down onto the stage or up out of sight in a loft.
That’s meant a lot of additional time and money spent on scenery.
For the 2015 production of “Annie,” a backdrop was rented, but it couldn’t be moved, she said.
This year, the theatre department will be renting four backdrops for “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” and Theatre Cedar Rapids has been generous in lending props from its recent production.
The new center features not only an area off the main stage to facilitate the moving of set pieces, but a set shop with a large door that allows access to both an outside drive and the back of the stage.
Because the new auditorium was not ready in time for set construction, everything for “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” has been built in pieces, Frerich said. Three large seashells were constructed at the middle school so the top sides can be removed and put on a trailer and moved over to the PAC when it’s completed.
The PAC will also feature a green room, two separate dressing rooms and two separate bathrooms for students to use.
“We have a small green room that’s on the back side of the auditorium,” Frerich said. “We also use the band room, we use the band lesson rooms, the bathroom, the basement.
“Everybody was essentially spread out all over, and now we’ll be able to have a really cohesive, tight-knit family where we can really just put on an awesome show,” she added.
Sound and video will be fed into not only the green room so students can be prepared for their cues, but the lobby as well.
“So if you have a crying baby or the space is full, you’ll still be able to watch what’s going on inside the auditorium,” Frerich said.
Just the sheer size of the new space is amazing, she said.
The 809 seats is double what the current auditorium can hold (392 if 10 seats are removed for the instrumental crew), and students will have the chance to work with high-tech, state-of-the-art sound and light systems.
“That will just enhance every performance and every concert or even every meeting that we hold in that space,” she said.
There’s also the functionality of having the performance area adjacent to the high school vocal and instrumental music rooms, Frerich noted, and a massive lobby capable of hosting meetings, banquets and smaller performances.
“It’s going to rival any professional theatre that I’ve ever worked in, or seen,” she added.

Foreman agreed.
The lobby, stage and green room can all be converted to practice spaces when necessary in addition to the extra rooms provided for the high school music department.
When the district’s architects met with the music department to plan the layout, he said, both he and instrumental music instructor Desmond Cervantes had their eye on more practice space.
“The architects kind of laughed at us because from their experience they saw a lot of schools districts with practice areas that don’t get used and they get turned into storage rooms.
But at Solon, in the morning or over lunch or after school, the practice rooms are full.
“It’s a testament to the kind of kids that come through Solon High School,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun being able to do different things now because we have the space to make it happen.”
“The whole theatre is very flexible,” Foreman said. “In general, for students and community, it’s going to be a first class experience. And that covers everything. It’s the best seating, it’s the best acoustics, it’s the best equipment, it’s just a first-class experience for our kids.”
The stage, he said, is comparable to the Gallagher Bluedorn auditorium at the University of Northern Iowa, and the inclusion of the fly space, a 32-channel soundboard and programmable lights will enrich the experience for both students and adults.
When Solon students leave the high school and decide to go into music or theatre arts, Foreman said, they’re going to be familiar with the same equipment and space and procedures as a college or professional theatre.
“What we’ve been able to do is give our kids and our community as close to a professional, first-class experience as possible,” he said.

Another first-class feature will be the Steinway Model-D 9-foot grand piano which has been purchased for the PAC in a cooperative fundraising effort between the school district and Solon Spotlight, the fine arts booster organization.
The $76,500 needed for the piano was raised with the help of a $40,000 matching contribution from the district, and the Steinway is currently being held at West Music until the new center opens.
The Spotlight fundraiser will continue through Oct. 1, with all additional contributions going toward the purchase of practice pianos for the choir room and practice rooms.
With the possibility of six rehearsal spaces at the high school and another four or five at the middle school, there could potentially be the need for as many as 10 pianos. The baby grand that previously served the middle school auditorium has been reconditioned and is currently being used by the middle school choir program, he said.
Any funds that come in at recognition level will still be noted on the plaque that will hang in the lobby of the PAC, he added.
And neither the new piano nor the performance spaces will sit idle.
The PAC will serve as the site for concerts by five elementary choirs, four middle school choirs, four middle school bands, two middle school jazz bands, the high school concert band, three high school concert choirs, two high school jazz bands, four high school jazz choirs and the yearly musical.
Foreman said visual arts instructor Josh Koza has discussed hosting the WaMaC art show in the lobby.
“I don’t worry about it sitting at rest too much at all,” he said.

When faculty broke the news to students that the musical would be delayed, he said, students took the news in stride.
“I think the general consensus is we want to open this auditorium with a bang and really do it right,” he said.
“Our kids are amazing,” Frerich concurred. “I mean, there’s something in the water. Every time we get kids together to show off their talent in any way, on the football field, in the fine arts center, they just excel at everything that they do.”
Having a state-of-the-art performing arts center gives them the tools to do that, she said.
“All the things these dynamite kids deserve, and are worthy of, we couldn’t provide for them. So we had to just make do. But this will be different. This will be phenomenal.”
The new PAC will provide a lifetime of music for the community, and Frerich said she’s excited and humbled to direct the first production.
“We owe it to the community of Solon to just say thank you and here is an amazing performance we can give back to you for everything you’ve given to us,” she said.