Performing Arts Center: A Stagehand’s Plea

Jun 8th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature
Greensboro Performing Arts Center

Proposed GPAC, submitted by Coliseum director, Matt Brown (freelancing.)

I am a stagehand. I have worked backstage since the age of 16, and being 41 now, I believe I have a perspective that is both useful and educated concerning the Performing Arts Center debate that is currently brewing in the halls of City Council. And being a stagehand, what I have to say may not win me any awards with my colleagues. It is this: Do not put this issue on the ballot this fall.

Here’s why. A performing arts center is a unique building, one that must meet the needs of both local and travelling performances. No where else in architecture do you find buildings that must be so completely beholden to changing needs and requirements of its occupants. An operating room is always an operating room, a bedroom a bedroom, a bathroom a bathroom, etc. A stage must be able to be whatever the inhabitants desire it to be, and this is tricky. We have come up with ways to accomplish it, and those ways have improved over the years. One of the biggest problems with War Memorial Auditorium is that it simply hasn’t been able to keep up with the changing requirements of touring events over the years. We never envisioned, when it was built in the sixties, that the shows touring would bring 6 53′ trailers worth of equipment, as they now frequently do. Why is this important? Let me give you a concrete example.

The arena at the Coliseum has no easily usable loading docks and all the equipment must be rolled off the truck on narrow ramps, then down a wide, 75′ long ramp, then across a flat spot, then up another 35′ ramp before it is even in the arena. Every box, every case, with sometimes 20 trucks worth of gear per show. Why, the reader might ask, was it designed this way? The answer is beyond me, but my instinct tells me it was because no one anticipated when it was built that we would have so much stuff to bring. At the time, the road cases were small and easily wheeled into place, and a truck or perhaps two was the max. Today entire trucks are filled with cases of staging weighing a ton or more. And when we renovated it in the late 80’s, it was too late to do anything to improve the situation without over-budgeting the whole deal. Now we are stuck with a loading situation that is at best exhausting and at worst dangerous.

So when I see a proposal for a performing arts center in downtown Greensboro that is created over the course of a few months discussion, one that was originally suggested to replace the existing War Memorial Auditorium at the Coliseum complex, but appears to have been co-opted by a surge of downtown booster ism, I am skeptical to say the least. Just as building a performing arts center is a careful and tricky matter, so is building a consensus regarding the uses and best arrangements for the center to be successful. I believe that Durham accomplished those goals with DPAC. I haven’t done any research into the matter, but I would guess that their community engaged in more than a few of months discussion before pulling the trigger on it. I have grave concerns about the feasibility of a site downtown that isn’t immediately adjacent to enough parking to host all the traffic. No one wants to walk blocks in the rain in nice clothes. Any number of objections such as these can, and will, be raised by the opposition in order to defeat this ballot initiative, beyond the obvious one that someone, somewhere, is going to have to pay for all this stuff.

Unless. Unless we all take a step back and see this for what it is, an important, crucial part of our community arts system. Because I believe that we need a performing arts center to replace War Memorial. When a building outlives it’s usefulness, it ought to be remodeled or replaced, just as we just did with our new jail. And replaced with something that will meet the needs of the community for another 50 years, as War Memorial has done in it’s lifetime. So don’t put it on the ballot this year. Because I don’t honestly believe that we are ready with a plan that will convince the voters this fall that this is important enough to vote for. We will squander the opportunity by appearing to have jammed it down their throats. But if our leaders who want a performing arts center do the right thing, they will see that time is on their side. This of course provided we continue to look at what is best for Greensboro and come to a community decision about where and how it is to be built, instead of pressing forward blindly with too little information. Then, and only then, we might have a shot at getting what we truly need.


Jonathan Faw has worked backstage in venues ranging from dive bars to football stadiums since he was old enough to turn a C-wrench.  He currently specializes in large screen video projection for Astropod Unlimited, and travels extensively throughout the country.  He is a proud member of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees union (IATSE).

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One Comment to “Performing Arts Center: A Stagehand’s Plea”

  1. The issue has been complicated by Matt Brown's proposed design that appeared in last week's News & Record. Not only is the design totally uninspired and based on an old-school model (the same model that makes War Memorial Auditorium obsolete today). Most of those I talk to, wrinkle their nose at the bland, poorly placed compound.

    I certainly will NOT support a downtown performing arts center if it's based on Mr. Brown's current proposal. So, Mr. Faw may get his wish.

    There is a very large and publicly transparent committee to determine the viability of a downtown venue and this group hasn't even gotten to the feasibility stage. So Mr. Brown's ham-handed, tax-funded architectural plan is premature, to say the least, based on the meetings that I've attended.

    On the the other hand, based on listening to several professionals on the GPAC committee with experience in staging, booking and community support for arts centers, I'm optimistic that a CORRECTLY designed arts center downtown, in proximity to three other successful theaters (Carolina, Triad Stage, Broach) can be an economic boon.

    In the paradigm of new urbanism, walkability is a component of such projects, because counter to Mr. Faw's point, the City needs people walking from dispersed parking to the theater. Otherwise, you might as well place it on the Lee St. wasteland.

    But in reading this article, I don't see how a new downtown performing arts center built to current standards to attract touring theater and musical acts that we currently lose to other cities will do anything to diminish the role of stage hands.

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