Recently, legendary R&B band Tower of Power belted out astonishing tunes in the new Hampden Academy Performing Arts Center. But that was after Barbra Streisand shook the place with her trademark soaring voice.
Well, they weren’t really there — at least, not yet. But the sound quality was good enough to make you think they were. And if the fine-arts teachers at HA have their way, national acts will soon be performing at what just might be one of the finest such centers at any Maine high school.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Patrick Michaud, band director and 26-year Hampden Academy veteran.
Heidi Corliss, choral director and fine-arts chair, who has taught at HA for 25 years, is the first to agree. Through last year, she was in a portable classroom with terrible acoustics nicknamed “The Outhouse” and known for the animals living underneath it and the bugs living in the ceiling.
“It is really nice to be in a space that’s made for what we are educating students for,” Corliss said. “We’re looking forward to performing [here].”
SAD 22 expects to draw tuition students from the surrounding area with the school’s many amenities, and this center is a key factor. For students considering fine-arts careers, there may be no better launching point.
“I think it’s going to draw a lot of students… who are particularly interested in theater and in performance, or even in the technical-design area of theater,” said Sharon Zolper, an English teacher, the drama coach, and a 9-year HA veteran. “The whole school is an attraction… but I think this [center] is like an added jewel in the crown, because not every school has such a wonderful performing-arts facility… I think, as time goes by, that [this] will… raise the profile of Hampden.”
The massive theater seats 900 (500 down, 400 in the balcony), but beyond its scope and beauty, it’s like night and day when compared to what it has replaced. Besides portable classrooms and other inefficient practice rooms, the previous Hampden Academy had a cafeteria known as “the old gym,” where a stage tacked on as an afterthought decades ago allowed performances in an arena with perhaps the worst seating, lighting, audio, and acoustics in the region. The new venue changes all of that, with comfortable seats, computer-controlled lighting, stunning audio, and acoustics like a big-time venue.
“I just can’t wait to put an ensemble on this stage and hear what they sound like,” Michaud said. “Waiting 26 years to be able to do this is going to be quite a moment for me.”
That will happen with a gala performance this Thanksgiving weekend, which will feature a choral piece written by David Madore, an HA alumnus. There will also be a three-movement musical composition by Terry White called “The Building of Traditions”; students will play the first movement, alumni and community members the second, and everyone will collaborate on the third.
“It’s very important to include our alumni in our first concert,” said Corliss. “Their success in this program has contributed to the community support for the arts… It’s very exciting as we look forward to that.”
Meanwhile, the fall children’s play, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” which will travel to elementary schools, will probably see a performance at the center. March will mean the annual spring performance, and starting next year the school will likely begin doing a musical every other year that involves theater, chorus, and band students.
“With our old space, we just couldn’t even think about putting on a major musical,” Corliss said. “There wasn’t enough space in the old gym.”
Backstage, the theater even has a “black box” room — a space suitable for rehearsals or small performances, or to be used as a green room for performers waiting to go on stage. There are even dressing rooms, which the old school didn’t have. Performers there had to split time using an English classroom.
The center was also designed with dual use in mind. In the balcony, a curtain closes to create a smaller, 400-seat venue suitable for lectures or small performances. A movie screen nearly the width of the theater can drop down for projection. The balcony isn’t acoustically separated from the lower auditorium, so you can’t do two things at once, but this helps create a smaller space for specific uses.
There’s plenty more behind the scenes. The stage rigging system is part automatic and part manual counterweights, to give students exposure to working both. The catwalk system allows students to safely hang lights, something they couldn’t do in the old school.
And the sound system is sure to blow everyone away. Thanks to the project coming in under budget, Canfield Systems was able to install an ever better sound system than expected.
“The sound system is probably the finest sound system anywhere in the state for any auditorium,” Michaud said. “It’s just stellar.”
All these features work together to make the center into a fine-arts game-changer. Michaud said the plan is to soon bring in nationally known acts, which hopefully will lead to mentoring opportunities for students who can learn from the professionals in real-world situations — whether for concerts, stage plays, or musical acts.
“It’s basically going to enhance everything we already do and just bring the arts to a much higher level of support and interest,” Michaud said. “This community has wanted this for a long time. I just can’t wait to see this place filled with people enjoying whatever event it may be.”
“I just feel very lucky to be here at this time, and to be a part of this whole vision coming to fruition,” said Zolper. “I think it’s going to be a thrilling experience for all of us.”
Corliss cited the increasing research supporting the importance of the arts for enhancing how students learn, and says that the center will benefit everyone.
“I really am thankful that our administration was so supportive in this,” she said, “as well as our community, so we can give these students the very best experience and set the example for many communities around us.”