St. Louis Prep School Gets Dream Auditorium

by Kevin M. Mitchell

The interior of the Siefert Auditorium in the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts
The interior of the Siefert Auditorium in the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts
Atlanta Rigging gave Chaminade College Prep a rigging system that offered maximum opportunities and safety

Every theatre space has its own unique challenges,” says Sarah Armstrong. “Our gymatorium’s challenge was trying to make the space and its equipment work for us.”

As director of drama and theatre at Chaminade College Prep School in St. Louis, Armstrong now has a new “problem” — an embarrassment of riches in the form of the new Skip Viragh Center for the Arts. “Our new theatres inspire us to learn how to work with new technology and to create something as beautiful as the space that surrounds us.”



Completed in time for the 2011–2012 season, the new 80,000-square foot building features the 1,000-seat Siefert Auditorium and a 150-seat black box theatre. There’s also a large scene shop and music classrooms and rehearsal rooms—quite a step up from the 1930s-era facility that they were in previously.

The space will be used for concerts and lectures and the Chaminade Drama Department hosts a minimum of three main stage productions every year: two full-stage production plays and an annual musical. It’s so new they are exploring other options, including selectively renting it out. This summer a popular St. Louis theatre company, Stages, which is still trying to build their PAC facility, will use the space for their production of The Jungle Book.


Logistics & Orange Vests

David Piccola, senior project manager of Parnelli Award-winning Atlanta Rigging, came to this project with a lot of legit theatre experience (and is currently working with several other Missouri theatres for their rigging needs). Working with SECOA installing their rigging systems, he says he was pleased to contribute to this new $7.4 million PAC. “It’s an absolutely beautiful space,” he says. “I put a lot of theatres in everywhere and this is one of the nicest I’ve gotten to work on, especially at the high school level.”

It features 34 single linesets, nine of which are winch driven. All are operated from the stage floor. All loft blocks are underhung. Piccola was responsible for the 27 counterweight sets, four electric sets, counterweight assists, three OS counterweight assists, T-wall, cable reel, FOH hand winch, Target V, seven DH sets, track, orchestra shell, pit filler and curtains.

“This job was no different from any other install in terms of it being difficult to picture what the room will exactly look like when it’s done,” Piccola says. “When I get there, it’s a dirt floor and people walking around in orange vests. What we at Atlanta Rigging do is straddle that line between construction and entertainment. I build entertainment within a construction world.”

When he goes into a project like this, he says he likes to stress the word “intent.” “What is it? What are we trying to achieve here? At the end of the day if the install doesn’t work, then it’s because you have not achieved your intent. The biggest obstacle we face is communicating to the other trades and general contractors what we intend to do in terms of a final functional space. It’s not just another building—it’s something important to the community.”

Piccola notes the theatre and music department educators were pleased with the final product. “We dealt with them extensively on fine-tuning the theatre to their needs. We ended up with an increased trim height from downstage because one of the teachers was concerned that it would confuse the technical crew because as it was no pipe ever ended in the same location so there was no good reference.” Once the construction was complete, he went back and had technicians hand-clean each of the batten pipes “so that when they walked into that room for the unveiling, they experienced a clean, beautiful system.”


The counterweight assist line sets backstage at the Siefert Auditorium
The counterweight assist line sets backstage at the Siefert Auditorium

From Drawing to Reality

“The counterweight assist system is very similar to a traditional counterweight system,” explains Jamin O’Malley, who was SECOA’s project manager on the new theatre. Instead of a hand operating rope and floor block, the lineset has a motor in the rigging pit that controls a chain and drive cable around the headblock. Each of the counterweight assist motors is controlled electronically.

“Originally the contract drawings called for seven package hoists but as the bidding process progressed, SECOA proposed the cost-saving opportunity of a motorized counterweight assisted system which could accomplish what they needed.” Two more counterweight assist winches were later added when the school purchased a large Barco ILite 6 BK LED video wall that they wanted to move upstage or downstage between three different linesets.

All nine counterweight assisted linesets are connected and controlled by one touchscreen console on stage, but also can be controlled locally. “Each motor has a SECOA Target V controller, which are all networked to a master touch screen on stage,” O’Malley says.

Safety is always a factor, especially at high schools, and he states that this can be a safer option than a traditional manual counterweight system. “Due to the motor’s capacity, a lineset can technically be operated safely even when out of balance.” If there were a 1,000-pound piece of scenery hanging over the stage and only 500 pounds on the arbor, a 500-pound capacity winch would compensate for the “missing” 500 pounds of balance weight, something that can’t be done and would spell danger with a traditional system.

A motorized lineset also helps when working with extremely heavy loads. O’Malley says that this option was critical in regard to the SECOA Maestro orchestra shell system as one of the three shell ceilings they installed weighs upwards of 3,600 pounds alone. But with a counterweight assist motor, it’s a matter of hitting a button to move the ceiling into position.

“We also have a house light batten that is hand-winch operated and a full track and curtain package for both the main stage and black box theatres. There’s also a SECOA Stage 100 Pit Filler system that features single sided platform construction and two optional elevations, " adds O'Malley.

In addition to the main stage, Chaminade also has a flexible black box performing area that sports some nifty rigging features. There’s a masking curtain that’s hung on a 40-foot long track that is hand operated and the entire track and soft goods can be moved from four-feet away from the wall to create cross-over space or right up against the wall for acoustics and masking. The lights and the rigging above it would bring envy to many other area schools.

Chaminade went with the Schuler Shook Theater consulting firm with project head Paul Whitaker at the helm. For lighting they went with mostly ETC Source 4s and 24 Color Kinetics ColorBlasts 12TR units, 10 Chroma-Q ColorForce striplights, six three-circuit Zip Strips from Altman and two Lycian Super Arc followspots. They went with Sennheiser microphones and an Allen & Heath iLive T112 Digital mixer. EV speakers are used throughout the building including the classrooms.

“Now that the theatres are our classrooms we get to play and put into action the lessons taught,” says Armstrong. “We become co-creators. And with all the new technology I am finding that the students are actually teaching me.”

“I was happy to be part of it because I believe it’s now a really special place for the community,” Piccola says.