MCHS theater lighting rig during testing showing five broken lights out of nine total (Photo: Rosemary Cromwell, The Puma Prensa)
By Rosemary Cromwell, editor and Jon Donohue, editor
The theater lights in the Maria Carrillo High School Performing Arts Center have been in dire need of fixing since 2017. The lighting board and wiring systems have all been in place since 1996 without any major upgrades, and the broken lighting causes dark spots on the stage during performances, making it hard to see performers and distracting the audience. After multiple attempts from Denise Elia-Yen, MCHS Theater and Film Program Director, to raise awareness of the issue to the Santa Rosa City Schools board, the first phase of the repair plans has been approved by them. Currently, no timeline for repairs has been made because drawings are still being worked on by a design team, according to Erik Oden, SRCS Director of Maintenance and Operations.
“The Board approved an architect to have drawings done to update the stage and house lighting, including aisle lights. That process is happening now. We have met and are working directly with the teachers who use the PAC [Performing Arts Center] and the administrators,” said Oden in an email to The Puma Prensa. The update will include a new and more efficient system with LED lights and a new control board. Once the drawings and specifications are complete, they will go to bid, according to Oden.
Elia-Yen has attempted to raise awareness of these issues since she was hired at MCHS in 2017. “The first issue that I learned of was that the house lights, which are above the audience space, were going out one by one. They have since been fixed, but may also be tied to the upcoming upgrade. Next, the aisle lights were not working after several attempts to fix them. Last, the theatrical stage lights were going out one by one. Despite installing new instruments, or lamps within those instruments, they were going out, too,” said Elia-Yen.
When asked about the impact of the lights on the performances, Elia-Yen responded, “You will see a pattern of repeated flickering among the lights that do turn on. This would interrupt and distract performers and audience members during shows, assemblies, and very much during our Senior Awards Night last spring. There were massive shadows across all of our performers, including actors, singers, dancers, and musicians in their concerts and shows. Patrons could not see the faces of the performers as entire rows of lights had gone out.”
“I think a lot of times it is money. I think they are aware that all the other theaters in town have the same issues. I also think that for a while there were people we were dealing with at the district office who were not as helpful as the person that is now in the position,” said choir teacher and Visual and Performing Arts Department Chair Gail Bowers when asked why she thought the project took a long time to start.
Bowers has attempted to raise awareness for years as well. “There was a person we were dealing with that was probably supposed to get the message to him, but I think that was not being successfully done,” said Bowers.
Bowers added, “Ms. Yen should get all the credit for it. I called it poking the bear. She [Elia-Yen ] just kept bothering it, bothering it, bothering it. I think that is why we are now getting their attention, and the fact that we have pretty vocal parents at this school that are there with us when we need them.”
After years of problems, Elia-Yen stated that she is “ecstatic.” “There is a team of architects, engineers, and electricians working on this project. It will take time for the job to be completed, but there is momentum we have not experienced before,” she said. It is a great relief to Elia-Yen and other students in the theater program that the lights and electrical system are finally being fixed.
Bowers and Elia-Yen both notice and appreciate the push Oden has made to improve the electrical system and theater lights. “We continued to reach out [to the district about the issues with the lights] and then all the sudden we were being contacted by him, instead of who we had been dealing with, and then it just elevated. It’s like, [Oden was saying] ‘I am gonna take care of you, this is ridiculous,’” said Bowers.
“You have to deal with the fact that they could fail any minute,” said Basil Weber, MCHS senior. Weber has been involved with stagecraft and the theater since the 2019-2020 school year. They stated that the lights flicker on and off on their own during rehearsals, concerts, and performances. “I don’t know what the hell we’re gonna do,” said Weber, when talking about the upcoming December dance show. In regards to the lights and electrical system being fixed, Weber said that they are “relieved but anxious.” They are mostly worried about not being given the repair timetable and having to scramble to work the repairs and evaluations into their schedule, as well as how the repair process will impact future shows.
While certain theater students still have concerns about the project, the general opinion on students in the performing arts is relief and hope that the project is finally being done. The lights have been an issue impacting and harming the performances in the theater, so many are pleased to see the program get the proper attention to further improve it. “I think the person that is in charge now, Erik Oden, is the reason that something is finally happening,” said Bowers.
Elia-Yen agreed, saying, “The right people are in charge, and I look forward to choosing shows that allow students to experience the full scope of modern theatrical lighting.”