Some students had to perform in the dark because of poor lighting capabilities on the Grady auditorium stage.

By Clare S. Richie

The Grady High School Foundation has launched a $50,000 capital campaign to renovate the outdated and failing light and sound systems in its Vincent Murray Auditorium.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity with an incredible group of kids and faculty to teach at the top levels of theater, production, technology, entertainment – but we don’t have the tools to do it as we would like to and as industry demands,” said John Brandhorst, who wears many hats – Grady art teacher/art department chair, Grady Go Team faculty member, and Grady Foundation vice chair.

The Midtown school currently operates the busiest theater and performance program in the city at 40 percent of technical capacity.

The auditorium is in constant use as a performance space for theater, band and chorus, as a classroom for AP Human Geography, for parent information sessions, for Atlanta City Council and Atlanta Public Schools (APS) community meetings, as a place for CNN to film, and much more.

“It’s become a nexus for all kinds of community engagement,” Brandhorst said.

However, 2004 renovations at Grady High School did not include updates to all the systems this workhorse relies on for light and sound.

For example, the 1984 dimmer rack, which controls the lighting, is obsolete and operating at half of the 96 dimmers’ capacity. “Little by little, the dimmer pods are becoming corroded or are failing – so we’re losing channels by the week – and we cannot get new coils to replace them,” Brandhorst said. The light system still accepts floppy disks.

North Atlanta High School’s technical apparatus, which has been compared to The Alliance Theater, in addition to dimmers, has hundreds of lights. Grady is down to 40 lights.

And Grady’s sound system is also obsolete. The auditorium soundboard doesn’t accept USB drives, so students and faculty can’t interface with computers. It also lacks a functioning intercom system so the back stage and front stage booth can’t communicate. Contemporary systems are run with software and iPads.

“At Grady, all of our tech is student run, which inspires many students to pursue professional theater,” Grady student Roshan Anita explained. “We do not let our outdated systems hold us back, however, we do not properly prepare many of our technicians for professional theater.”

Grady faculty and parents have asked APS to renovate these systems for several years. “If you have the best actors and the best set in the world but you can’t hear them or see them, then all your hard work is lost,” said parent Stephanie Szalkowski.

APS’ solution is a few more years down the road.

According to APS Chief Operations Officer Larry Hoskins, under the district’s SPLOST 2017 Program, Grady will receive a new classroom addition and building renovations, estimated to cost $33 million. The auditorium lighting and sound systems will be upgraded as a part of the investment but is not likely to be completed until 2020 or 2021.

Outdated lighting needs to be replaced at Grady.

When asked what happens if the Grady auditorium lighting and sound systems fail prior to construction completion, Hoskins said, “We will repair the systems.” But repair isn’t a viable option when parts are obsolete.

“We can’t wait,” Brandhorst said. “We are looking at imminent system failure.”

So, the Grady High School Foundation has decided to take matters into its own hands.

“The Grady High School Foundation is ready to address needs not met by APS – school wide big ticket items,” Elizabeth Rogan, Grady HS Foundation Chair and parent, said.

Parents created the foundation in 1997 to serve Grady students, faculty, and community. The nonprofit supports reading, writing, and math centers, student scholarships, and Advanced Placement Faculty professional development, primarily using funds donated by the Atlanta Boys’ High Alumni Association.

By tapping into alumni, the community, and other groups that use the auditorium, the foundation seeks to raise enough for this infrastructure project plus additional funds to support technology, curriculum and other unmet needs.

Plans are also in the works for a 70th Anniversary Gala in 2017 to raise funds that will benefit the entire school.

“I have attended so many musical and theatrical events from the students at Springdale Park, Inman, Mary Lin, Morningside, Hope-Hill, and Grady in this performing facility,” said Interim Principal Dr. Betsy Brockman. “Effective sound and lighting systems are a basic need for the thousands of students, parents, and teachers who use this venue on a continual basis. Our students cannot wait for three years; we appreciate the financial support of the Grady Cluster in this campaign.”

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.