“They literally gasped,” Scherer says. “It’s just such a large space, not just in comparison to Froelicher Theatre, but in general.”
After his preview of the building’s interior, Middle and Upper School Theater teacher Maclain Looper compared the Leach Center theater to ones he had performed in throughout the lower 48 states during a national tour of Annie Get Your Gun 20 years ago.
“I felt like I was walking into one of those big city theaters,” he says. “It is a grand space, and yet it also still feels intimate, so there are ways that actors can connect to the audience.”
It took only 12 months for The Leach Center to catapult CA’s capacity for gatherings, lectures, and performances from one century to another—from the late 1970s to 2021. Built to nestle among the centenarian campus cottonwood trees, there is nothing old-fashioned about the new performing arts center.
“This building is the most sophisticated on our campus because of all the audio-visual and theatrical equipment,” says Director of Operations Jesse Schumacher. “Everything that is needed to create a modern-day production has gone into this building.”
“As you enter the campus, your eye follows that building for a long time,” says Architect Andy Rockmore from SA+R. “For such a prominent location, it’s critical that it represents CA’s strong commitment to the arts for all students, in concert with CA’s unique natural landscape. It’s the crown jewel of CA. Everyone can see it from the road, and everyone will be able to enjoy it.”
It seems hard to believe, but it was less than a year ago—August 2020—when a small audience gathered on Firman Field to watch the demolition of Froelicher Theatre on a hot August afternoon. Within 10 months, the exterior of the new building was 90 percent complete, with the entire auditorium wrapped in a sandstone façade.
During the summer of 2021, the construction crews will put interior systems in place and finish painting and flooring. And if all goes as planned, the CA community will gather at the Leach Center on August 23 for the ribbon cutting. The first theatrical performance in the building, the Middle School play, Alice in Wonderland, will take place on October 29.
But don’t be deceived by the speed and efficiency with which the Leach Center has been built. Behind every successful construction project, there is a story, and this one includes a pandemic.
Steering clear of surprises
Anyone who has tried to do a home renovation project lately knows that the pandemic changed the availability—and price tag—for supplies. One of the toughest challenges that Schumacher faced in undertaking a major construction project during 2020-2021 was making sure he procured materials for the Leach Center project far enough in advance to keep the project from stalling.
“A lot of industries were negatively affected by COVID,” Schumacher says. “And sometimes those could come as a surprise.”
An example? Well, who would have guessed that there would be a sudden shortage of porcelain, making it difficult to buy porcelain toilets?
“Normally we would start buying what we need a couple of months before we need it,” Schumacher says. “But we learned to back up our planning by four months on almost every product.”
After West Coast fires last summer, Schumacher anticipated what anyone involved in construction has now discovered. There was an increase in demand for lumber, and the price skyrocketed. Schumacher bought and shipped lumber long before the CA project was ready for it.
But what do you do with a stash of toilets and lumber that you may not need for months? In some cases, vendors held on to the materials, but in other cases, Schumacher rented storage lockers—whatever it took to keep this project on time and on budget.
“I love the problem-solving part of my job,” Schumacher says. “We have really had a collaborative approach, working with Andy Rockmore from SA+R and the construction company, Fransen Pittman. Everybody came to the table with the attitude that we are always looking for solutions.”
Making new memories
Schumacher has a favorite part of the Leach Center—the “fly loft.”
“From the outside, it looks like a big box on the south side of the building,” he says. “It’s the section behind the stage where the scenery is dropping down—flying—from a stored area above the stage. There was a lot of technical craft needed to make that happen, and it was fun to learn.”
Middle and Upper School Theater teacher James Meehan shares Schumacher’s passion for what he calls “the fly.” And he’s looking forward to a full grid of LED lighting and sound that he says will be “spectacular.”
“I can see real opportunities for making great art in that theater,” Meehan says. “It’s going to be a special place for students to create and make memories.”
Katy Hills, Director of Visual and Performing Arts, acknowledges that faculty and students will face some challenges as they transition from Froelicher Theatre to the new building. “We loved Froelicher for its quirkiness,” she says. “But now we have a space where performers can stand on a stage and the work that our teachers, actors, and performers do together will feel professional.”
Members of the Class of 2021 will miss the opportunity to perform in the new space, but they proved that theater can go on even during a pandemic, as they brought plays to life in the Choir Room and on the steps of Schotters Music Center in 2021. And ultimately, the lessons taught by performing will live beyond the confines of any building—as best put by Senior Czarina Yuffa in her Senior Journal profile.
“Froelicher Theatre was torn down at the beginning of this school year, and that taught me a very valuable lesson: the thing that makes theater important to me is the community, not the place. CA’s theater community has welcomed me with open arms since the very beginning of Freshman year and has taught me to be the most genuine version of myself.”
Starting in August, the CA theater community will have a new home—long awaited, much anticipated, and ready to make its debut as a new star in the constellation of wonderful Colorado Academy buildings.