Fighting to play

JDHS auditorium is only full-scale stage; many say it's not enough for Juneau

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

The competition is fierce. The deck is stacked and everybody knows it, but it's the only game in town.

For many performing artists there's only one stage in Juneau, the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. It's a great place for concerts, dance performances, opera and theater events, say many local presenters, but it has problems. The biggest is availability.

A two-part series examining the issues behind a performing arts center in Juneau.

"It's the only stage for presenting formal companies and concert events," said Sybil Davis of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. "It's the only proscenium stage - with an arch and curtains, an orchestra pit, with the width and depth you need and the audience sightline and raked floor. It's got problems but it's a really good space."

The auditorium is shared between the high school and the community, and Toby Clark, the auditorium manager, said the actual use is about 50-50. But when it comes to scheduling, the deck is stacked in favor of school functions.

"Is it a community auditorium or is it a school auditorium? This is a major bone of contention for some people," said Lena Simmons of the Juneau Lyric Opera. The lyric opera and the Juneau Symphony would benefit if they could move their joint spring opera performance to the fall, she said, but they can't.

"Getting three weekends in a row in the high school in the fall is an impossibility," Simmons said. "But everyone has scheduling difficulties. We need some place that we can call our own."

School events have top priority and nonprofits such as the arts council, the lyric opera, the symphony, Juneau Jazz and Classics and Juneau Dance Unlimited take precedent over commercial presenters such as Northland Sound or Janice D. Holst.

The hall rents for about $600 for an evening concert, and closer to $1,000 for a larger event with technical needs such as lights, sound and sets. Once the lights and sound system are set, the cost for additional performances drops to about $600 a show. The hall is available even on short notice if there's no conflict.

That arrangement's not necessarily unfair, said Susan Burke of the Juneau Symphony. But it is a huge problem.

"I appreciate the fact that the high school students have a real need for that facility for their activities, no question about that," she said. "The problem is that community users can't confirm a hall reservation until May. That makes it very difficult to book a guest soloist for a symphony concert in the fall."

Davis has the same problem with arts council events.

"We're planning for our next concert season right now," Davis said. "I negotiate with other statewide concert presenters and agents, and I don't have an assured venue. That's why we often get Tuesday and Wednesday nights, because the other Alaskan presenters, even Ketchikan, have an assured venue. I can't be sure I can get the high school auditorium."

She lamented losing the chance this fall to present a dance concert with Aeros, an award-winning Romanian gymnastics troupe.

"For nonprofit groups it's a real crap shoot," said Jetta Whittaker of the Juneau Symphony. "We can't wait until June to book national acts for the fall."

Toby Clark, the auditorium manager, said the late spring confirmation date makes it difficult for everyone. Like the arts council, the school district is also scheduling its 2001-02 season now. Next year's school talent shows, concerts, fall plays and spring musicals are booked into the auditorium this fall. Then the schedule is passed to the district's athletic activities coordinator for regional and statewide school events such as debate tournaments and school music festivals. Her deadline is late May.

"Once that is scheduled, then the rest of calendar becomes available for the community," Clark said.

Groups can request dates as early as January, but only the school events are confirmed. Clark sends out a letter confirming community dates in early June.

June inevitably brings disappointments. This year the symphony learned the preferred date for its winter concert was bumped from Dec. 3 to Dec. 16, causing conflicts for many of the musicians. Last year the symphony found one concert was booked at the same time as a basketball tournament, and the noise and activity in the commons area and competition for parking proved problematic.

"Groups like the symphony and the lyric opera would like some flexibility and there isn't any," Clark said. "Groups are consistently turned down. The arts council would like to coordinate with other groups statewide and can't, and so misses out on events."

Clark met recently with Juneau arts groups to discuss ways to deal with the June deadline. The sticking point is the regional athletic and activities calendar.

"If they set their calendar a year in advance, that'd be ideal, as opposed to half a year in advance," Clark said. "But they have a hard enough time scheduling six months in advance, let alone a year and half."

Many say the solution is a new performing arts facility in Juneau. Davis of the arts council agrees that the high school should have first call on the auditorium.

"The community simply needs its own facility," Davis said. "We got such a thriving arts appreciation and such a strong identity as an arts town."

Next week, Preview looks at the issue of a new performing arts center.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com



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