Photograph by Bella Nathan
Major changes to the Berkeley High School (BHS) arts building and theaters are in the works, and are predicted to start by the end of October. Those involving the Florence Schwimley Little Theater are in the later stages, and will be the first to be started. There are also changes planned for the setup of the entire arts building to make it more accessible to people with disabilities and to make it a generally more open, welcoming space.
There are two stages of changes happening to the BHS A-building within the next couple of years. “We’re doing some really nice upgrades to the Little Theater, that are not really cosmetic, but more technical,” said Wyn Skeels, BHS program supervisor. By the end of this October, pending approval of the Division of State Architects, Skeels hopes to have started the renovation of the Florence Schwimley Little Theater. These changes include an upgrade in sound, lighting, and projection equipment, as well as a general increase in the theater’s technological capabilities, allowing for more complex sets, and more professional looking productions overall. It also includes an improvement of the Technological Theater classes ability to communicate with one another and performers during productions. “The Little Theater hasn’t had any technical upgrades in years,” stated Skeels. “We know that other changes are unlikely to occur in that space for really the next five to seven years.”
The second aspect of these changes will not begin before the summer of 2020. However, many of these major changes to the makeup of the A-building are being planned. “The project is being considered in two main phases: the classroom wing, and then the restructuring and refurbishing of the Community Theater itself,” said BHS principal Erin Schweng.
The classroom wing will change to include major renovations of the structure of the building. According to Schweng, the floor will be leveled out to make it much more accessible for people with any sort of mobility limitation. It will also include utilizing the entire space, and filling it with an array of classrooms and rehearsal spaces, as well as dance and music studios.
The second phase of the reconstruction revolves around the Community Theater, though it is lowest on the administrators list of priorities as the space is not used nearly as often as the other two. Architects will have to work with a smaller auditorium space, given what will be left of the cut up A-building.
During periods of construction, there will be some disruption to active arts classes. Still, according to Skeels, many arts teachers are ready to accept that downside for what they hope to be a vital, long awaited change. However, plans have not been made for what will happen to displaced classes.
Through this process, most teachers of the A-building have been consulted about what changes they want to see. BHS drama teacher Jordan Winer said that he is willing to face those barriers to improve his A-building classroom. “My room is small, drafty, with no windows, and it really isn’t a theater space,” said Winer. “The A-building is definitely a pretty weird place right now, with dead ends and empty rooms, and it’s not really user friendly.”
Some BHS staff are critical of key points of the renovations. Benette Williams, a BHS language teacher, felt there was a lack of clear information coming from administrators. According to her, many of the BHS teaching staff haven’t been given much information regarding these major upcoming changes. Her main issue with the division of the building is that it would reduce the capacity of the Community Theater. “I think it’s a shame to give up the ability to have the school together as a whole,” said Williams, “I really think people need to feel like they are a part of [BHS].”
Concerning the number of seats that will be available after the restoration of the Community Theater, Skeels stated, “No one is sure what number we are going to actually land on.” The decision has not been finalized since those changes are planned for further in the future.
While these changes will bring some disruption to classes, those planning the project hope this will yield an improved A-building. Schweng added that she hopes these changes will allow for “all the things that a really vibrant arts program would need.”