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Performing Arts Classes Adjust to New Theater Renovations

The 80-year-old structure will be completed in September 2022


If you’ve set foot on Berkeley High School’s (BHS) campus during the past year, you’ve likely heard the construction sounds from the A-Building on Allston Street. The 80-year-old structure has two theaters and a classroom wing, which is mostly utilized by performing arts classes. Though renovation began in the summer of 2020 and continued through the virtual 2020-21 school year, the A-Building will not be fully rebuilt until September 2022.

The loss of the A-Building this school year has caused major changes for performing arts classes. The Afro-Haitian dance class at BHS has previously held its biannual performance inside the Berkeley Community Theater (BCT), which is one of the two theaters inside the A-Building and seats 3500 attendees. This year, dance performances will possibly take place in the smaller theater within the A-Building (the Florence Schwimley Little Theater).

Some performing arts classes that typically use the A-Building will be temporarily using portable classrooms. For Band and Orchestra (BAO), this transition won’t be easy. Students who utilize the small practice rooms and sheet music closets in the A-Building’s classroom wing will have to find other ways to complete their tasks. Additionally, BAO used to have access to its own set of lockers for instrument storage, but now the musicians must cram their vast amounts of equipment into portables.

Though some students are frustrated by the construction, much of the BHS community feels excited and relieved. Many students and staff members feel that the old architecture inside the classroom wing had a dark and eerie nature which, at times, made them feel unsafe. For many, this renovation could be a new beginning.

The construction includes many seismic and safety developments. Once the renovation is completed, both performance attendees and students will notice many exterior improvements regarding accessibility and practicality. Built in the 1940s, the building is not particularly accessible for people with disabilities. “[We] counted all the little step ups, here and there, [and there are] over 30 different levels in the building,” explained John Calise, executive director of the Facilities Department for Berkeley Unified School District. “Once the building opens back up, there will now be three very distinct levels of the classroom wing.” The people attending performances at the newly renovated BCT will benefit from these improvements as much as the students using the classrooms.

Students can also look forward to bigger classrooms in 2022, which are planned to accommodate various types of artistic equipment. “An example of this is the CTE Digital Media room, which would really be designed to support digital media, whether it be through the… proper electronics, through the proper furniture, computers, etcetera,” said Calise. For BAO, practice rooms are being rebuilt with increased sound dampening and space.

The construction also includes a new pathway called a Crossover, which will connect the classroom wing to the Florence Schwimley Little Theater. Students used to have to go all the way around the building in order to get between the two, but the future improvements will allow students to wheel equipment easily when preparing for performances. The renovated A-Building will also include a new student lobby that will feature walls and a ceiling made of wooden floor planks from the original stage floor. This serves to both honor the building’s past and the concept of sustainability through repurposed materials. 

The renovation is currently on schedule, but could be finalized sooner than expected. “We are scheduled to open in September of next year, but our hope is that we can actually pick up some time during the project, and have it done prior to school opening,” said Calise.