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Thursday, October 02, 2014, 6:03 a.m.
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School’s arts center celebrates two years

By Tammy Keith

This article was published March 30, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Russellville High School’s The Center for the Arts includes an 1,875-seat performance hall with excellent acoustics, said Brad Coffman, band director. Liverpool Legends, a Beatles tribute band, will perform at the center Tuesday. More information is available at www.russellvillecenter.net.

RUSSELLVILLE — No one probably appreciates The Center for the Arts at Russellville High School more than the students who performed in the former dilapidated theater.

Russellville High School senior Hannah Hines, 18, said she was in the last show performed in Gardner Auditorium, the school’s former theater space.

“The catwalk where we hung the lights was basically a plank of wood,” she said. “It was an old gym, so the stage was gym-floor hardwood. It had wax that we’d peel off. It was condemned right after we got the new facility.”

Russellville High School’s The Center for the Arts opened April 15, 2012. The approximately $19 million facility was funded by a 6.9-mill property-tax increase, approved in 2007 by district patrons.

Hines said Annie Get Your Gun, the first performance in the new center two years ago, “was incredible.”

“The lights were one of the most amazing things,” she said. “In Gardner, you didn’t have the ability to hang flashing lights.”

“We had actual dressing rooms instead of changing in a room with a grand piano in it,” Hines said. “You could walk around without the floor creaking.”

Hines mentioned the talents of Daniel Stahl, technical director for the facility, as a big plus.

Tori Thomas, 17, also a senior at Russellville High School, said that when plays were held in Gardner, “you felt like you were performing in an old, dank place.”

The Center for the Arts, which some students call the PAC (performance arts center), was a whole new world, students said.

“It was like performing in a professional place; it felt like a totally different show,” Thomas said.

Stephanie Schultze, a performance teacher who directs most of the shows, said she was thrilled when the new facility came to fruition.

The logistics were a problem, for one, with the old facility.

“[Gardner Auditorium was] not even on campus — we’d have to end our school day and get the kids across town,” she said.

Schultze, who has been in the district for eight years, has memories of Gardner: the students sitting and peeling wax off the old floor as she gave notes, the “scary” electrical wiring, and then there were those ugly mustard-yellow curtains.

She said The Center for the Arts changed attitudes as well as atmosphere.

“It is amazing to see what the facility has done for the program, and the kids and the community,” Schultze said. “It just makes it an authenticity — and I hate to use the word ‘respect,’ because I hope we had respect when we performed at Gardner — but theater is facility, so we have some in-house respect now just because we’re able to do theater in this amazing facility.”

Wendy Sparks, operations manager for the center, moved to Russellville about five years ago from Texas.

The high school’s performing-arts facility was under construction.

“I just got lucky and applied for it, and it just worked out,” Sparks said.

“My background is performing arts and events for the Marshall Regional Art Council,” she said.

“It’s becoming so common lately for schools to jump on this idea of having this kind of facility.”

Sparks said the facility directly benefits Russellville students by giving them a place to have band, choir and theatrical productions, as well as graduations and talent shows.

“It takes them out of the cafeteria, out of the gym, and puts them in an actual performance hall,” she said.

“We open it up to the public, … not just provide entertainment, but a lot of the local businesses, as well as statewide, can come in and rent our facility,” Sparks said.

Performances have included Third Day and NewSong, she said.

“Thousands” of people came to see the school’s production of Beauty and the Beast, Sparks said.

The 130,000-square-foot center includes an 1,875-seat theater, plus a 150-seat black-box theater, Sparks said.

“The [black-box] performance area is very versatile — everything from intimate dinner theaters, different types of meetings … can go on in there,” Sparks said.

The space includes four dressing rooms and a makeup room, she said.

Sparks said the facility has made it possible for students to get familiar with all aspects of theater.

“We’re also able now to offer students who don’t want to perform, to be on-stage — we have technical-theater classes for students to learn costuming, … all the things that happen backstage.

“They’re getting actual on-the-job training in high school,” Sparks said.

Thomas said getting to perform in the new facility helped define her career goals.

“I think it definitely helped me,” Thomas said. “There’s just something about being in a huge theater with tons of people in it — it kind of ignites a spark in you.”

She said she plans to attend St. Louis University and major in theater.

Schultze said her students are rehearsing for the spring production, Little Women, which will be performed April 24-29.

Thomas will play the lead, Jo March.

Liverpool Legends, a Beatles Tribute Band, will perform Tuesday at the center.

Brad Coffman, a Russellville High School band director, said about 40 of the almost 200 band members will perform with Liverpool Legends. The production is presented by Louise Harrison, sister of the late George Harrison of The Beatles.

The group allows schools to get a portion of the ticket sales back, he said, through its Help Keep the Music Alive program.

Coffman said “the acoustics are great” in The Center for the Arts.

“It’s a top-notch facility,” Coffman said. “We’ve had people come in from all over Arkansas and this part of the country to model [the building] and get ideas for building projects.”

Sparks said her goal is to have more “top-name entertainers” perform in the facility.

“This summer, we are extremely excited to have the Miss Arkansas Teen Pageant,” she said.

Schultze said the old theater offers fond memories for many of the students and staff.

“Looking back, we’re filled with joy over the memories,because when we put up a show in there, it gave us such a feeling of accomplishment,” she said.

Schultze wouldn’t want to go back to the old place, though.

The last play held in Gardner had an appropriate title: You Have the Right to Remain Dead.

More information on the center or its productions can be found at www.russellvillecenter.net.

Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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