The Art of Collaboration Columbia's new arts center is setting an example for other communities to follow.

February 16, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

By day, the large, sunny lobby is filled with students carrying musical instruments or notebooks, ambling to rehearsals or heading to art class. To the left, doors open to reveal a small theater filled with drama students practicing their lines. To the right, visual arts studios line a hallway. Straight ahead, a theater that seats 750 lies dark except for the stage -- where a youth orchestra rehearses vigorously.

Howard County community leaders hope that by night, the lobby and the adjoining theater will be filled not with high school students, but with members of the public -- who will have bought tickets for performances by groups ranging from professional dance companies to community music ensembles.

This is the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts, in Howard County's Wilde Lake High School. Its official opening will be celebrated Saturday at a fund-raising event featuring performances by the Columbia Pro Cantare (a 100-member choral group) and MOMIX (a New York dance company). In addition, two Wilde Lake alumnae -- Broadway actress Betsy True, and Oscar nominee Edward Norton, who is Rouse's grandson -- are scheduled to present a tribute to the late developer.

Built at a cost of $1.2 million, and touted as a national model for other communities, the center combines educational goals with community needs. It is intended to be a place for students to attend arts classes and to put on their own shows -- and a space equipped with adequate staging and enough seats for performances given by community arts organizations. Rather than compete with existing theaters, its mission is to support local arts groups, some of which cannot afford to perform in larger spaces.

As federal support for the arts dwindles, the Jim Rouse Theatre stands out as an example of what can be accomplished when communities pull together. It also represents an extraordinary collaborative effort between segments of the community that often may struggle to find common ground. "It was the process that was very important," says Sandra Trice Gray, vice president the Howard County Arts Council from 1988 to 1994. "It's rare that you see the government, the not-for-profit agencies and the business community coming together -- and we had all three."

Indeed, funding for the new center, which was coordinated by the Howard County Arts Council, came from sources as diverse as the state government and Columbia's Village Lock and Key. Contributions include:

$400,000 from the state;

$400,000 from the county;

$100,000 from the Columbia Foundation;

$54,000 from a consortium of local businesses that each contributed $2,000.

Attracting attention

Already the Howard County venture is attracting attention from around the country. Last October, the project was part of a presentation at the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, in Tampa, Fla. And the county arts council has gotten requests for information from Syracuse, N.Y.; Hershey, Pa.; and Bowie.

In Bowie, community leaders are planning a $5 million arts center that will be connected to Bowie High, says Gordon Stewart, president of the nonprofit Bowie Regional Arts Vision Association, and a recent visitor to the Columbia theater.

"It's a good model because it combines private and public moneys, it's a multi-use facility, and it's not just serving the school in the day, but serves the community at night," he says.

The Howard County arts center is designed to be both part of and apart from Wilde Lake High. Dressing rooms, dance and music studios, and a black-box instructional theater form the perimeter of an "arts wing" within the high school.

At the center is the large theater, furnished with a 40-by-48-foot stage. Two-thirds of the 750 seats are on the ground level and the remaining third are in a balcony. Theatergoers enter through an entrance that leads not to the rest of the high school, but directly to the high-ceiling lobby.

Down the hall are the band and choral practice rooms, two dressing rooms, a makeup room and a dance studio. During the day, natural light streams into the rehearsal rooms from windows placed high on the exterior walls.

The theater includes a welter of catwalks specifically designed for maximum safety and access to lighting systems. Safety was a concern because professional, community and student organizations all will use the facility, explains Walter Kunz Jr. of Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet architecture firm, which designed the building. The stage curtains also can be used to make the stage smaller and better suited for use by chamber music groups. In addition, the rows of seats are built for comfort ++ (in focus groups conducted by the arts council, padded seats emerged as a high priority), good sightlines and a feeling of intimacy.


A few amenities were cut to save money. There is no orchestra pit, nor is there fly space (an open area above the stage from which scenery can be raised and lowered).

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