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School auditorium gets personal touch

Cloquet school officials didn't even have to look outside the district boundaries to find a theater consultant for their high school auditorium project.

Cloquet resident John Justad owns 20/20 Theatrical, a company that specializes in theater design and equipment installation.

This time, however, Justad isn't the person installing rigging backstage or running lights from the back row. Rather, he is one of the most visible players in a process involving many different user groups — from band, choir and theater directors to administrators, teachers and coaches — who all use the auditorium in different ways. He is both liaison and translator.

"One of my primary duties was to distill all those ideas and hopes and dreams and criticisms and strengths into a set of goals for the design team," said Justad, explaining the design team includes the architect, the electrical engineer, the acoustical engineer and others involved in structural changes such as rigging.

It's been a unique experience for Justad because he is already so familiar with the area and the theater.

"I've been in this role in other theaters, but they haven't necessarily been where I've worked before, so I can do this with a fair amount of first-hand knowledge," he said, recalling the days when he worked with Julie Bartholdi at CHS. "It's easy to put together a wish list or a gripe list about anything. But to try and get that into focus for an architect or engineers to work with so they know what to design is the goal. And to know what to design for a specific facility in a given community is a little more challenging yet."

Justad is quick to point out the high school and its auditorium are well-built, even though they will be 50 years old in 2019. So while $1.3-$1.4 million might sound like a lot of money to spend on renovations, it will have to go a long way, he said.

The money — leftover from the main construction projects approved in the 2015 referendum — will be spent on projects both visible and invisible to the audience, Justad told Cloquet School Board members at the May 29 meeting.

Some of the "wow" factors that will be immediately noticeable include new seats, which will be wider to fit today's needs, wider aisles with better lighting, new sound-absorbing panels on the back wall and sound-diffusing cubes hanging off the ceiling and walls.

During an interview Monday, he pointed at the back wall, which is lined with vertical boards in front of some kind of sound-absorbing fabric.

"The plan is to remove and replace those with new sound-absorbing panels that will perform better and look different, a more updated look," he said, explaining that the acoustics in the auditorium are good, while the sound system is not.

"What some people perceive to be an acoustical problem isn't an acoustical problem — it's just they can't hear well," Justad said. A new sound system may not improve the appearance of the auditorium, but it will definitely improve the experience for listeners.

"It will be easier to hear the performances," he said. "That doesn't just mean louder; it means clearer."

Band and choral music in particular will be enhanced with a sound-reflecting system over the stage, basically a ceiling, that can be pulled up and out of the way with new rigging when the drama folks move in.

"That will be very noticeable when you come in to see a concert, both in the way it looks and moves the sound out to the audience," Justad said.

The stage will also be extended out about 10 feet at its longest point in three different sections.

Possible plans to dig a pit for the orchestra were eliminated, as estimates came in close to $500,000. Instead, the new sound system design will likely place the musicians in the band room, which could also help with the problem of the music sometimes overwhelming the actors' voices during the fall musical.

Justad explained that actors would be able to see the director via a video monitor attached to the balcony — how it's done at the newly renovated NorShor Theatre in Duluth.

"That (video link) technology is so much more affordable than it used to be," said Justad.

He explained that the musical director would communicate with the band director during rehearsals the same way. And, should a future director decide the musicians must go back in the pit, it would be relatively simple to remove one section of the stage and seat them there.

Other proposed improvements include:

• All the cables and ropes that move light, curtains, scenery and more backstage are worn out and will be replaced with materials that meet modern code.

• The house lights over the seats will be changed to LED lights, as will the stage lights. That will save the district 80-90 percent in energy costs and make the auditorium significantly brighter.

Superintendent Ken Scarbrough is pleased there is money to make improvements there.

"The auditorium has served us very well," Scarbrough said. "But it's old and it's in need of some major repair and renovation. We can make it a better place for people to come and see what's going on with our kids and their productions. Also, it's going to be much more user friendly for other kinds of uses, so we can just come in and flip on a mic or some lights."

In the meantime, Justad said the goal is to keep the auditorium as usable as possible during the school year, explaining that he's tried to break up the various projects into bite-sized pieces that can be completed independently of each other.

Of course, a lot of that will depend on contractor availability, he added. That's a big unknown right now, as the district has missed the window for a lot of the work to get done over summer break. Bids have yet to go out for the various project elements.

"The upside of that is, we aren't gutting it out," said Justad, who would really like to see everything done by December, but isn't sure everything will come together that quickly.

"My hope is we can start pigeonholing each section of work into appropriate time slots," he said. "What we don't want to do is come in and tear all the seats out and find we can't get new ones for three months."

Wider seats, wider aisles and increased handicapped-accessible seating will certainly mean fewer — not more — seats in the auditorium. While he acknowledges some residents are unhappy the 550-seat auditorium could lose up to 30 seats, that's the reality of the situation.

"This is the auditorium we have," Justad said. "Whatever criteria they used back in 1967-68 when they designed the building, this is the number of seats they decided on. We're not going to blow out walls or take space from classrooms.

"If people want a bigger auditorium, they would have to build one and that came up on a bond referendum a few years ago and didn't pass," he said. "We have to do the best with what we've got. And really, it's a very nice-sized auditorium — it just can't seat 800 people."