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Center stage: Curtain rises on new WHS auditorium

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

The new auditorium at Waccamaw High had yet to host its first production, but the facility was already drawing rave reviews from the students, faculty and staff. The facility – part of a $6.6 million renovation project – was the site of a Georgetown County School Board meeting on Tuesday, but it was the thought of a live performance that created a buzz on Wednesday.

“It’s so high-tech, we’re all freaking out,” said Jordan Clarke, a cast member of “Steel Magnolias”, which officially opened the auditorium on Wednesday night. “There is a lot to like. The sound system, the lighting, the seating, everything is much better than what we used to have. You can’t even compare this to what we had before.”

“The last concert we had in the old auditorium, we had to have all the lights on so we could see our music,” said Nicole Davis, a member of the concert band that will take to the stage on May 10. “We won’t have to do that anymore. We can have the kind of lighting that will make it feel like a real concert performance.”

Work on the auditorium started about 30 days late due to permit issues last fall, but the project was completed 15 days ahead of schedule. The next phase in the renovation will be the construction of the new media center in the old auditorium, which will be followed by converting the old media center into six classrooms.

The glass atrium that has been a feature of the school since it opened in 1990 will also be replaced.

“If everything goes well we could have it finished by the time school starts next fall,” said Waccamaw principal David Hammel. “To actually be ahead of schedule for a project this size is unheard of.”

The auditorium, which Hammel refers to as the Waccamaw High Performing Arts Center, features separate entrances from the front and rear and visitors will be welcomed by a large lobby with spacious hallways and restroom facilities.

Opening the doors to the performance area, patrons will be taken by the roughly 2,000-square-foot stage and stadium-style seating. Audience capacity is roughly 625, about double the size of the previous auditorium.

Two wide, carpeted aisles welcome visitors to their seats and between each row of seats is ample room for comfort and movement. The sound and lighting system is state-of-the-art and the lighting hoists that are in place serve to enhance the visibility of the performance. There is even aisle lighting that will make seating choices easier to discern during performances.

“We have a state-championship-caliber chorus and band and our drama group is equally outstanding,” Hammel said. “Now, we have a top-of-the-line facility in which they can perform. It’s a chance for them to shine.”

Anthony Gomez, the Spanish teacher at Waccamaw High, is involved in the Theatre of the Republic in Conway. He told the school board this week that the auditorium “is a theater person’s dream.”

He said afterward that he would talk to the theater group about creating a traveling production that could be staged at Waccamaw High as a way to expand its reach.

The Murrells Inlet Community Theater was also encouraged to consider the Waccamaw High auditorium while its performance space at the new Murrells Inlet Community Center is under construction.

June Jordan said the group is concerned their audience, used to the intimate setting of the former inlet schoolhouse, will be dwarfed by the new facility.

“We always had to worry about numbers on the old stage, because we didn’t want everyone to be on top of each other,” band director Chris Graham said. “And we always had to be careful about accommodating large percussion and wind instruments.

“On the stage we have now, we could probably fit an 80-piece band, maybe more. This is something that really helps the performing artists we have in our school. It lets them know that what they bring to our school and community is appreciated. They know they will be heard.”

The facility should also aid the school with its community outreach efforts. Waccamaw High will host a forum for the 7th Congressional District Republican candidates on May 22, and hopes are to add further local events and performances over time.

“It’s a wonderful addition to our community,” said Delores Blount, executive director of the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art. “It’s something that has been needed for a long time. You can hold performances there year-round. I’m sure there will be many groups who want to take advantage of that.”

The festival holds most of its events outdoors, under tents. It has used the Pawleys Island Community Church for some programs.

“We look forward to working with the local community,” Hammel said. “We want our auditorium to be a showplace, not only for our school and the Waccamaw Neck, but for all of Georgetown County.”

“Steel Magnolias” will be performed by the Waccamaw High Acting Troupe tonight at 7 p.m. and Friday at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $5, or $3 for students.

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