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Solon Center for the Arts wows community at open house

MORE PHOTOSKira Burkum, a fifth grader, takes the stage at the the Solon Center for the Arts auditorium to play a solo on the Steinway concert piano during an open house on Sunday, Jan. 15. (photo by Janet Nolte)

SOLON– The verdict is in and it’s unanimous: the Solon Community School District’s Center for the Arts is amazing.
Large numbers of community members, students and their families turned out to celebrate the official opening of the facility at an open house held on Sunday, Jan. 15. The school’s fine arts department and Solon Spotlight Music Boosters, a parent-run organization, collaborated to host the event.
“About four years ago we started taking tours of other theatres in the area and on the east side of Iowa, and it’s finally here. It’s unbelievable!” said Jessica Frerich, Solon’s high school drama director and middle school vocal music teacher.
“For the size of our school district we are incredibly fortunate to have a fine arts center of this capacity,” she said.
Teaching staff, administrators and volunteers were stationed throughout the building to welcome attendees as they toured the 806-seat auditorium and got an up close look at the 3,200-foot stage. The seating capacity of the new Center for the Arts is double that of the current auditorium at the middle school, and students will have the chance to work with high-tech, state-of-the-art sound and light systems.
At the center of the stage, a majestic, 9-foot Steinway concert piano received a steady stream of student musicians who stepped up to play solos and get a feel for what it will be like to perform in the new venue at more formal events.
For Frerich and her colleagues in the music department, the Steinway is a crown jewel of the new auditorium. “The reason the Steinway is so important is because it’s American-made and there’s nothing that sounds like it,” she said. “In this size facility, you really need a 9-foot piano to fill up the space.”
The purchase of the fully-restored, 1932 Steinway Model-D was made possible through fundraising efforts of the Spotlight group, which raised $40,000 in donations to match funds committed by the Solon district.
“Our school board was generous enough to meet us 50/50 for the Steinway piano, and in our grand piano campaign fundraiser we raised more funds that went above and beyond that,” said Frerich. “We were also able to get a Baldwin Grand Piano, which we have out in the lobby to showcase to the community as a big thank you,” she said.
Upon entering the spacious lobby at Sunday’s open house, visitors were greeted by the sound of student pianists playing the Baldwin, which could be seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows from outside the building. Frerich said the students were lined up to play by the band director, Desmond Cervantez, and his wife Kristi, who teaches many of them out of her home.
Just as it took a village of support from the school board and Solon’s broader community to pass a bond measure to build the new facility, it takes a dedicated cadre of instructors and volunteers who bring their talents to working behind the scenes of a performance as big as the much-anticipated “The Little Mermaid.” Based on Disney’s 1989 animated film, the musical will showcase the talents of students at every grade level. Frerich estimated there are about 70 students in the high school cast, with another 20 in the crew. Another 50 or so middle school and Lakeview students are also involved.
A rigorous rehearsal and production schedule is well underway to ensure that every performer and every set detail will be ready for the three shows to be presented Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 31 through April 2. Along with Frerich, who is in her fifth year as dramatic director of the yearly musical, high school vocal music instructor Joel Foreman directs and coordinates the vocals and instrumentals while Cervantez rehearses and directs the pit orchestra.
Frerich’s husband, Jeff, and Keith Düster serve as volunteer co-directors of the technical components such as set construction, rigging and helping students operate the lighting and sound systems. Costume director June Maiers, also a volunteer, works with a team of seamstresses to develop costumes that will help bring the show to life.
“It’s crunch time!” said Jeff Frerich.
Düster agreed. Now that the building is done, they can start working with students to figure out how best to use the many assets of the new facility.
“We have to get in here with the kids, learn how to run the equipment, how to do the technical aspects that we haven’t had before,” Düster said. “And then put on a great production because, of course, the longer you take to put the production on, the more hype builds up. So we’re really trying to step up and make that happen.”
“We have some very intelligent kids here. There’s several of them that are very good artists, who help with the painting and drawing and whatever we need,” said Jeff Frerich.
Both Frerich and Düster are excited about having a dedicated space behind the performance area for building larger set pieces. To this point, set construction has been done offsite and transported in pieces to the new building.
“We’re still working on the shop,” said Düster. “We’re getting another set of shop equipment we can use to teach the kids how to build scenery. It would be great if they could draw some scenery on a computer eventually, and just do that whole process.”
“A lot of the students here, they’ve never handled heavy machinery before, so we’ve got to teach them the correct way to do it,” said Jeff Frerich.
For Düster and Frerich, the new center offers a means of engaging students in multiple aspects of stagecraft, of giving them hands-on experience using equipment and tools to mount a modern theatrical production. And perhaps a reason to bring back some of the more traditional industrial arts into the school district.
“Jeff and I definitely saw an opportunity to say, ‘okay, we’re building things here,’” said Düster. “We know these aren’t things that will last forever, they’re temporary scenery, but the skills are the same. How do you read a drawing? How do you cut a board? How do you saw something?”
“My point is that you don’t have to be a performing arts student to come in here and run the fly rail, or to help with the tech, or to help hang lights,” he said. “Everybody can find a place and so that’s what we want to provide for the kids.”
The technical directors were impressed with the turnout at the open house and what that says about the community’s investment in educational opportunities for its kids.
“We’ve had a lot of people show up today,” said Düster. “The people in the community that step up and make things like this possible– not only the process of doing it, of saying we need to pass a bond– but that they even consider this important, the amount of times this has happened in Solon is amazing to me. People want the kids to have the best… so they can learn skills that they need.”
“How do say thank you for that?” Düster wondered aloud. “We’ve found our way. We try to make use of everything they provide.”
Between now and the late March premiere of “The Little Mermaid,” a number of choir and band concerts will be presented at the Center for the Arts. Check the Solon school district calendar for dates and details: http://www.solon.k12.ia.us/vnews/display.v/ART/52c5c98465d8a.