SAN TAN VALLEY — They say a true actor can make the world his or her stage. And sure, good theater can be found anywhere. But it sure does help when that stage is as grand as possible.
The drama students at Combs High School over the years have had to make do with performing their work in the school library. While this has served as an adequate home, since the space can be arranged to fit pretty much any situation, there was always too much of an “elementary school” feel to it. The students, and their teacher, wanted something different.
Now, they have it. Last month, Combs unveiled its new performing arts center, the first of its kind in San Tan Valley. The auditorium seats 500 people and has much of the latest technology to implement lighting and stagecraft that can propel drama students into the industry.
All of these things were previously experienced only through slideshows and videos shown in Nick Smith’s class, to give them a sense of what it takes to put on a play in a real theater. Now, they get to experience it for themselves.
“It’s a steep learning curve for them,” Smith said. “But it’s going so well, honestly.”
When Smith joined the faculty five years ago, he immediately started dreaming about what could happen if a theater would become a reality. Brenda Mayberry, the principal at the time, said he was the first consistent drama teacher the school has had, so he could start forming the program in his own vision.
But to get that elusive theater built, a bond issue would need to be passed. This would be no small undertaking in a community as conservative as San Tan Valley. So he convinced the students to buy into the process, joining him as they went door-to-door to share the vision for how the bond money would be used. Against the odds, it eventually passed.
Over the past year, it slowly started to sink in that the theater was going to become a reality, as the massive, 25,000-square-foot structure with a balcony rose up from the ground. Smith said when he finally got the key and was able to move stuff in, including for the new black box theater, it actually felt real.
“I kept telling them when we were in the library that there’s just a feeling you get from being on this big of a stage in front of this many chairs that changes the way you perform,” Smith said. “They didn’t understand it at the time, but now they’re starting to get it.”
Of course, the performing arts center isn’t just for drama. There is also a full dance studio for those students to get their work in before performing on the stage, and the music students are also taking advantage of the space and its pristine acoustics.
The instructors for those three programs were able to work together to make sure everyone got what they needed out of the construction, and Smith said the process has created a much stronger fine arts department.
Zander Sager, a sophomore who has already risen to the rank of stage manager, said trying to put on a play in the library was hectic and unorganized, often counterproductive to how they wanted to run. He remembers having only eight lights to work with, and then he had to give four of those lights to the middle school program.
Now, he’s got a whole big room for set design, which smoothly runs into the stage, and more lights than he could ever imagine.
“This is absolutely more than I could ever dream happening, especially for a theater company this small,” Sager said. “It’s absolutely everything I ever wished for.”
There are still challenges, some of which he didn’t have as a stage manager in the library. For example, it’s a lot more difficult to keep an eye on everybody to make sure they are where they need to be, since it’s such a large facility with more hiding places.
But there’s no time for slacking. Just weeks after the students first stepped foot in the theater, they are putting on their first production, “The Music Man.” There will be four performances of the musical, with 7 p.m. showings from February through March 2 and a 2 p.m. matinee on March 2.
To successfully put on the musical, students are going to have to get very comfortable with the lighting and sound mechanics, as well as stage marking. It’s a tough challenge, but one the drama program is thrilled to even have the chance to take on.
“We were just adapting to the space as we were getting into ‘Music Man,’ so it did overwhelm us a little bit,” Sager said. “We’re a little bit behind because of that, but of course we’re going to get on track.”