SHHS auditorium upgrades make big difference for arts

Scott Swanson

Josh Crawford stood behind a brand new sound board in the Sweet Home High School Auditorium last week, explaining to a visitor how the new system works.

“These four work this mic,” he said, indicating several of the 24 slide controls on the unit, which controls six microphones. “It used to be, if a mic was turned up too much, we’d have feedback. It’s fixed now so there’s no feedback, no matter how high you put (the volume).”

Crawford, a SHHS senior who’s the sound technician for the high school’s winter play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” March 14-16, was describing a small part of a massive renovation of the sound and lighting systems in the auditorium.

Community residents who remember the days of crackling – or literally non-functioning hand-held microphones – often during recitals and other particularly meaningful performances, garish lighting and other symptoms of antiquated systems that have hampered music and stage productions in recent years, will see a massive improvement in those areas, school officials say.

High school Choir Director Duncan Tuomi said groups who used the auditorium had to rustle up their own sound equipment, from somewhere else in the high school or from the outside.

“There was no integrated equipment,” he said. “Usually, the speakers were blown out because they were not properly used.”

He said he resorted to doing most of his choir concerts acoustically, even though the auditorium is not designed for acoustic performance.

The half of the stage “wash” lights that actually worked burned “really hot,” Tuomi said.

“It was really uncomfortable to perform under them.”

He opted to rent outside lights.

It’s a whole new world now.

“It’s not even in the same universe as the old (systems),” said school district Facilities Director Josh Darwood, who was a major player in getting the new systems installed.

Supt. Tom Yahraes included funding for upgrades to the lighting and sound in the auditorium, and the sound system in the Main Gym at the high school in the 2018-19 budget.

“We wanted equity in our programming,” he said. “We have the sports and athletic side. What about our theater and performance, our artistic side? We didn’t have a good sound system, a good lighting system. That was a priority this year.”

The new system, designed and installed by Darwood and Cascade Sound of Salem, a company that does work for the Oregon Jamboree and provided the staging for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree celebration at the high school last November, includes brand new speakers and a full array of LED lights for both the stage and house lights in the auditorium’s ceiling.

Unlike the old portable speakers that stood on the ends of the stage or in front of it, the new system features a line array of speakers – subwoofers with smaller speakers hanging below, mounted above the stage.

“I’ve done quite a bit with sound and lighting in the past,” Darwood said, noting that he’s had a lot of experience in church settings. “This is exciting.”

Both the sound and lights are much more “user-friendly” than what was there in the past, he and others said.

Crawford said he would use a laptop to pre-set rented lights, then use “a paper clip or something to push the number we needed to reset them.”

“The lights have improved a lot,” he said.

The lighting system offers three different types of lighting on the stage to accomplish different effects. Instead of students or teachers climbing ladders to adjust stage lights for various situations, the new system is entire motorized, operable remotely, Darwood said. He’s set up a pre-set box that allows 10 set-ups for lighting.

Crawford demonstrated the pre-sets during a play rehearsal, flashing different colors onto the stage and then projecting various lighted shapes onto the walls of the auditorium.

“This is all stuff in the play,” he said, noting that one pre-set controls the backstage lights during set changes, which, he said, is helpful.

The new lights can be directed to particular spots and can be focused.

“We now can do a lot of things like spotlighting and throwing light on the walls,” Tuomi said. “It opens up a world of creative possibilities for lights.”

The new system can be operated from an iPhone, Crawford noted.

Another improvement initiated by Darwood is a control booth that’s located along the center of the auditorium’s rear wall. He said he had to sacrifice some seats, but the location gives technicians a better view of what’s going on compared to the front row of seats at the right or left of the auditorium, where they have been stationed – with a laptop – in the past.

“Being back here, being able to see from this position, helps out a lot,” Crawford said.

Darwood said he and Tuomi went to Salem to train on the new system.

Tuomi said having the new systems allows “the focus of the performance to be the performance,” rather than worrying about equipment failures and dealing with rented equipment.

“I can spend more time on logistics and musicality to make the performance look polished and sound good, rather than ‘Who is going to be backstage to turn such-and-such off, or control the lights we rented?”

Drama teacher Elizabeth Wilks said that although theater doesn’t rely on sound equipment to the extent that music performers do, some of her actors, who are more “soft-spoken” and have trouble projecting their voices from the stage, will benefit from the new equipment. “It’s going to be nice to let everyone actually hear them. It takes a little bit of pressure off them having to project all the way to the back.”

The new speakers, she said, are aimed at the front rows of seats and the sound moves through the auditorium from there.

“You don’t necessarily hear it when you’re on stage, but when you’re out here,” she said, indicating nearby seats, “there’s a complete difference of sound. It’s going to be really nice for these plays.”

The sound system in the Main Gym has also been upgraded, as was evident during the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree program held in the facility.

Darwood said that, instead of four speakers hanging from the ceiling, the gym now has nine speakers, including two subwoofers. Mics can now be plugged into the existing wired system in the facility or used wirelessly, and governors have been installed to avoid blown speakers – a problem in the past.

“We have better antennas and higher-quality, wireless mics.”

Yahraes said he told Darwood he wanted a “bulletproof” system.

“With high school kids using it, as we know they will, we don’t want them blowing up the stereo system.

“I remember the day Josh called me up and told me they were testing the system out at the gym. I’d told him I wanted it to be like Portland Trailblazers halftime – a really good experience. When he turned it on, it just wasn’t adequate. He didn’t have the equalizer hooked up. When they hooked that up, the seats started vibrating. It was OK.”

Yahraes said the improvements to the lighting and sound are part of the district’s effort to make the auditorium a “turnkey auditorium.”

He said he’d heard stories about equipment failures of the past ruining performances.

“We focus on academic rigor but the other aspect of our plan is programming,” he said. “We wanted to do it right. We didn’t want to skimp. We wanted to be forward-thinking in the whole thing. This is going to be there for the next 20 years, so let’s do it right. We did.”

Ten thousand dollars in additional funding for the improvements came the Sweet Home Oregon Coalition for Artistic and Scholastic Enrichment, which Tuomi chairs.

The group, which grew out of the Sweet Home Auditorium Remodel Committee – SHARC – aims to promote access, appreciation and understanding of the arts in the community.

The money included a donation from the Oregon Jamboree from a fund-raiser concert conducted prior to last summer’s festival and a grant from the Linn County Cultural Coalition. The majority of SHOCASE funding was raised through the annual SHARC Showdown talent contest, with substantial cash sponsorships by T2, Wendi Melcher of Heritage Northwest and Gary and Pamela Rasmussen.

Darwood said the total cost of the auditorium equipment will likely total out to be about $35,000 for the lighting system and $40,000 for the sound.

The gym sound upgrades cost about $34,000, he said.

“Four or five years ago, the district committed to spending $25,000 on lighting when SHARC, SHOCASE’s predecessor, asked the School Board to help fix the auditorium,” said Sean Morgan, who is a member of the SHOCASE board of directors.

“The district not only met that commitment, it vastly exceeded it, making this a reality much faster than SHOCASE could have on its own.”

Tuomi said he believes it would have taken a lot longer and probably cost a lot more to do the improvements piecemeal.

“It was an impressive investment on the district’s part to put in for their art students, to put in something tangible that we can enjoy, that will last for many years.”

He said the improvements have generated enthusiasm among his students.

“Kids are excited to be part of a program that presents well.”

Yahraes said his goal was to “help our overall programming – in athletics, in arts for Sweet Home.”

“We want to put on quality events, not only for kids but for the community, for people visiting our community.

“Having quality lighting and sound is part of that.”