Divine Intervention

By Kirk, Fiona | Stage Directions, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Divine Intervention


Kirk, Fiona, Stage Directions


With a little help from her friends, Bette Midier is building a comprehensive performing arts program and renovating a historic auditorium for an inner-city school.

Washington Irving High School, located in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan, has made the news recently. Earlier this year, the 2,800-student high school was named one of New York City's 12 most violent schools in a report that was quickly picked up and sensationalized by New York City tabloids. Last May, students threw a stool out of a sixth-floor window, injuring a pregnant woman who was walking below. Yet for the past three years, several individuals, including actress/singer Bette Midier, have been working quietly behind the scenes, combining determination with a fierce loyalty to the school and its students, in order to restore the school's breathtaking auditorium to its former glory and provide students with a comprehensive theater training program to rival that of the top performing arts high schools.

Midier was first introduced to the school by designer and WIHS alumna Norma Kamali. "I went down and it was such a beautiful building. The bones of it were so extraordinary, but it needed a lot," says Midier. She asked the school faculty and staff to come up with a wish list of resources for its performing arts program. The list was long, and included a piano lab, a music library, musical instruments, a black box studio, an acting teacher, mirrors, barres and a new floor for the dance room, even leotards."They had nothing," says Midier. "Nothing, nothing, nothing."

But not for long. After almost everything on the wish list was provided for, Midier addressed the very last item: "We would like to have our auditorium renovated."

The auditorium, which was built between 1911 and 1913, had seen very few improvements over the years. But there was no denying that the 1,500-seat, mock-Tudor venue, with its soaring ceiling, enormous stained glass window and wrap-around balcony, was stunning. "In those days they really did it right," says Midier. "I mean, it's a school auditorium, but it has a lot of character. We wanted to restore the character."

Midier turned to her longtime friend, costume and production designer Bob DeMora, who brought in the expertise of Barbizon Lighting Company as systems integrator, including project manager Brian Fassett and systems division manager John Gebbie. "After we met Brian and John we were really on a roll," recalls Midier, "because they were really energetic and they wouldn't take no for an answer." Their mission: to create a theatrical environment that was safe and usable and could support a training program.

Phase 1 of the renovation, which involved new stage lighting, sound and rigging equipment, cost just under $1 million. Midier, through the Gertrude Jeckyl Foundation, along with the generosity of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, provided all the necessary equipment. The NYC School Construction Authority, under the direction of the NYC Mayor's office, provided the architectural guidance and the installation labor.

One of the biggest challenges in Phase 1 was making sure the equipment chosen was appropriate for the venue and the students and wouldn't "walk away." Barbizon provided an ETC Sensor dimming system, along with an ETC Express 125 control board. An ETC Unison architectural system was installed for house lighting control. Three automated DeSisti self-climbing lighting hoists were permanently installed for front light positions, so students could safely hang lighting equipment without the need for ladders or catwalks. Barbizon also provided a complete lighting fixture and expendable package that included a full complement of ETC and A-ltman lighting fixtures, Lycian followspots, Rosco effects devices, Wybron color scrollers, booms and bases, gaff tape and accessories-right down to china markers and Sharpie pens. I. Weiss & Sons safely demolished and replaced the ancient rigging apparatus with a new counter-weight system with 11 line sets and a locking rail that can be safely locked off when not in use.

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