The Problem with New Hartford’s Performing Arts Center

Once I visited a restaurant with someone who ran his own place. There were any number of things he found to complain about, and I felt badly for the server. My friend’s comments came from a position of knowledge (he wasn’t just being a pain in the ass.) He knew what could have/should have been better about our meal.

That’s how I feel when I go to a show and the tech is sloppy. I’ve tried in my own career to deliver stage lighting that enhances what is being presented. Done right, theater tech is practically invisible, accruing to the production itself. Done poorly, it detracts.

The New Hartford HS Performing Arts Center was recently constructed with public money. In many ways, it’s state of the art, and certainly a big improvement over what used to be. You wouldn’t know it to see a show there. For several years I’ve been ranting to anyone who will listen that the community and the performers deserve better.

New Hartford HS Performing Arts Center
New Hartford HS Performing Arts Center

The picture above is a good example. I’ve over-exposed it to show the lighting. First, what this picture should look like: if the choir is on risers at floor level, there should be enough lighting to cover the singers and the accompanist, not much more. The focus should be on the performers. In this picture, we see lights that extend six feet up the curtain behind them – there is even a mysterious squared-off light 12 feet above, in the center. (It’s a leftover special from the HS musical, back in March.) We also see the top shutter cuts of the lights are not even – they should be cut to just above the tops of the singer’s heads, or at the very least all cut the same way, parallel to the floor. Instead, some are angled, and at least two are not cut at all. Also note the different color on the right side of the picture (stage left) – for a choir, everyone should be in the same color light (mixing colors is a common technique, but it should be even). The worst thing is that the lights used for this scene are mounted on the back wall of the auditorium, and they illuminate many audience members in addition to the singers. It’s an uncomfortable thing to watch a show when you are in the light – and it’s not necessary. This choir should be lit from the front overhead position, and no audience members need to have their head and shoulders exposed.

You might say, “It’s only a high school. We can’t expect the teachers to know about theater tech.” Except the theater is served by a paid staff person, who was required to take a test on technical theater knowledge as part of the interview process. I know one of the candidates for the job; from his description of the test I presume he scored twice what the person who won the position did. I’ve repeatedly offered my own services, for free, over the past several years, to help the paid staff person and even work with students who might be interested in learning about stage lighting. Instead, an outside company is occasionally hired for sound and lighting (particularly for the middle school and high school musicals). Not only do the students not learn, but they and the community are provided with garbage, which many undoubtedly think is perfectly normal.

We have a state of the art theater. We have yet to see state of the art productions in it.

* Please note that my comments are in no way a reflection on the students or the quality of New Hartford’s music department.  I wrote this piece in advocacy, because I felt they were being poorly served by the current quality of stagecraft as relates specifically to lighting in this essay.  Updated 6/7/14