Current and future Valley High School students who have dreamed of performing music, theater, dance, or other artistic endeavors on a big stage can experience that privilege now that Valley has unveiled its impressive $15 million Performing Arts Center replete with superfluity that rivals many professional theaters in Iowa.
The curtain rose on the Valley High School Performing Arts Center on Nov. 16, 2014, at a special program and celebration in which elementary, junior high and high school students performed before a packed audience consisting of parents, district staff members and the public. The event not only signaled the opening of the crown jewel, but the completion of a $66 million three-phase construction project at Valley that began in 2011.
In addition to the construction of the new performance center, key components of the project included new science labs and a FEMA-standard storm shelter; family consumer science classrooms and a cafeteria in the new three-story addition; and updated special education, multimedia, journalism and radio classrooms.
“Valley has always focused on excellence in the four A’s — academics, arts, activities and athletics,” says David Maxwell, associate principal at Valley. “This new facility is a wonderful new home for our performing arts classes and students, which provides excellent acoustics and is aesthetically beautiful.
“Our students now have a top-tier facility in which to perform and hone their crafts. Everyone who has experienced the new Performing Arts Center comments on how much better performances sound and patrons are able to identify specific instruments in the midst of a performance.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to our district leaders and community for recognizing the importance of an arts education in our schools and for making the Performing Arts Center possible,” says Stacy Hansen, Valley drama director. “I’m very blessed to be in a culture and community where the arts are truly valued. There has always been a huge tradition of excellence in the arts at Valley.”
The center’s performance space boasts several levels and balconies that house 1,136 cushioned seats: an increase of nearly 400 seats compared to the school’s old auditorium. Other amenities include a 42-foot by 100-foot stage area complete with a 50-foot by 24-foot proscenium opening that is part of the stage in front of the curtain; a 40-foot by 12-foot motorized orchestra pit that includes a mechanical lift system that can be raised or lowered for additional stage space; professional sound and lighting systems, each with their own operating “bird nest” in one of the balconies; and a large acoustic shell with eight rotating walls of wooden panels with which its operators can precisely control the room’s acoustics. Even the lobby, which includes a ticket office, can be used as an events space.
Backstage, or nearby, the center includes rehearsal and green rooms; 74 linear feet of makeup room counter/mirror space; climate-controlled music rooms for instrument storage; classrooms; a scene shop that includes a dust collecting system for wood working; and ample wing space to allow for scenery and other changes, not to mention casts and crews.
“This gives us the tools we need to educate students as more and more is expected of them,” says Hansen. “In the drama department, this opens up huge doors for our program.”
A homecoming for its manager
As excited as Valley’s staff, students and administrators are about the arrival of the new Performing Arts Center, there is an even deeper sense of appreciation for the venue among alumni who remember the days of performing at the school’s old auditorium and sharing limited performance and rehearsal space, something future generations of Valley students won’t have to worry about.
“The best reactions are from our alumni who were involved in the arts,” says Hansen. “They are happy for the students.”
Perhaps no other Valley alumni is happier about the opening of the Performing Arts Center than its first manager, 24-year-old Amanda Pichler.
“I feel like I have come full circle,” says Pichler, who graduated from Valley in 2008 before attaining her bachelor’s degree in theater and master’s degree in education from Brenau University. “This place is amazing.”
Pichler had just completed her college graduate work last summer when she started looking for her first job and learned about the new Performing Arts Center being built at Valley. When she was offered the job, she said that it felt like a homecoming to her.
“They were looking for a manager who was willing to work 24 hours, seven days a week, and I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It just felt right,” says Pichler, who was one of Hansen’s students in the drama department during her days as a student at Valley.
On any given day, Pichler can be seen scurrying from one end of the center to the other, juggling multiple tasks. As its manager, she not only serves as a technical director and has to understand how everything operates — from the rotating sound panels, to the soundboard, to the ticket office — but she is also responsible for the booking, organization and promotion of events.
For now, the Performing Arts Center is being used exclusively by the district’s students — from elementary to high school — who have scheduled a multitude of performances including band concerts and plays. It will soon open its doors to students from other districts, too, and by the end of the summer it will be available to outside promoters.
One of the first big events that it will host is scheduled for Feb 7 when students from 120 schools will compete at the IHSSA large-group, state speech contest.
“We’re looking forward to that and having students from big schools and small schools come here for the first time to see the Performing Arts Center,” says Pichler. “It’s a big deal because they get to see that artists have power and that they have a voice.”
Pichler started her job in early September, which gave her the time she needed to learn how the center operates before it opened last fall. Even though she is an experienced performer and specializes in lighting design, there still was quite a bit for her to learn. To complicate matters, as the center’s first manager she was unable to rely on the help of a predecessor and she wasn’t able to move into her office until November.
“Fortunately, though, when I need advice there are people I can ask,” she says. “Stacy Hansen and Phil Peters have been a big help. I’ve also reached out to other people in Waukee and at the Civic Center. Some days are harder than others to figure out, but it gets figured out.”
Pichler relies on some of the staff at the Civic Center, for example, to set up the center’s elaborate sound panels. It’s a process that takes about three hours to complete.
“We simply don’t have the manpower or the know-how yet,” she says. “We’re fortunate that the Civic Center and local theater union workers step up to help us out.”
The center’s manager plans to lend a helping hand of her own to Valley students, assisting them with design sets, lighting and sound production.
“I’m looking forward to doing that,” she says.
Pichler says that she is also anxiously anticipating working with outside promoters who already have been calling her to reserve the center for music and dance productions.
“School officials decided before we opened that we would not consider working with outside promoters until July 1. District events come first,” she says.
Maxwell says that he is anxious for the public to experience the center for the first time.
“What gives me the most satisfaction is the fact this is a facility not only for the students of Valley High School, but for the community of West Des Moines,” he says.
Pichler enjoys seeing and hearing the reaction of people who step into the Performing Arts Center for the first time.
“They usually stop for a moment because they can’t believe it’s at a high school,” she says. “Then we tell them about the classrooms and backstage and rehearsal space and they’re really impressed. That’s what makes it a center, it’s not just about the performance space.”
For Pichler and the students who have the privilege to hone their craft at a professional venue like the Performing Arts Center, it is a powerful motivator to ascend to excellence in the arts, whether it is demonstrated by music, drama, speech, art or dance.
“It’s been packed houses so far and we expect that to continue,” says Pichler. “It’s one of the many reasons why I love my job.”