Since Carmel Unified School District unveiled the Bertie Bialek Elliott Performing Arts Center in March 2011, the theater has served as an incredible resource for students in the district. Used on many different occasions throughout the school year for assemblies, instrumental performances, drama productions and lectures, the 360-seat theater has been a hub for student activity and expression.
Ever since the theater was built, however, it has been under criticism in regards to its seating capacity. This restriction in seating has forced instrumental music teacher Brian Handley and choral teacher Tom Lehmkuhl to look at Sunset Theater as a possible venue for a few instrumental music shows throughout the year.
There had been talks of the $10.5 million theater for more than 10 years before the finished product. At the time, finding space for the facility was a problem, Handley reveals. District officials examined many different possibilities including the space where the Carmel Middle School Hilton-Bialek Habitat is currently. With the construction of the habitat, that space became unavailable for the theater use.
The former CHS library was located where the theater now is, and district officials said that bulldozing the library was not an option. For a while space was scarce and the project stalled. But when ideas for a new library arose, the plan fell into place as the library moved locations opening up the perfect space for the center. The project was able to forge forward as a space was finally allocated for the theater.
At this point, the group looked to create the building itself. The teacher leader on this project was Handley.
“According to data and predictions at the time of the project, the student body was supposed to decrease in population,” Handley explains.
Rather than a decrease from 700 students, however, the school experienced a sharp growth to 872 currently, per Linda Galuppo, the school registrar.
“Yes we can’t fit the whole student body in there, but you don’t build a 700-seat auditorium for one event a year,” Handley explains. “The Visual and Performing Arts show is the only event that the entire student body attends each year. All that space is extremely expensive and the building is as big as it can be. Any interior seating expansions would mean eliminating the black box theater, the TV production studio or the lobby which was a no deal.”
For context on the cost of a larger theater, Amy Funt, former Carmel Unified School District board member, brings up an example in Southern California during the Spring of 2015. Bonita Unified School District built a 700-seat performing arts center that was comparable to CHS’s very own. The major differences are in the seating size and the cost, at over $24.5 million.
“That’s more than the entire amount of CUSD’s bond,” Funt says, “which funded the theater at CHS as well as several other capital projects.”
With this in mind, Handley notes that he is open to move the district music festivals might be moved to Sunset Theater next year, which provides 718 seats. Per Lehmkuhl, the Choral District Festival has been at the Sunset Theater for as long as he has been part of the school, over four years. The band and orchestra groups are exploring options and the possibility as well.
“As we were building, we understood that we might have to bring the Winter Concert or District Festival back to Sunset Theater as capacity is often reached during that one concert,” Handley says.
The most recent 2016 Winter Concert was a success with an enormous crowd. And while the support for the students was evident, performers were unable to watch each other perform. Instead they were forced to sit backstage in the black box theater throughout the show.
For the vast majority of performances in the theater, the seating works very well as Handley points out. However, on rare occasions when the theater can not accommodate the growing audience, the Sunset Theater remains an option.
At the same time, storage space and backstage set space for productions is limited and the seating restrictions can provide obstacles at times. With this in mind, the Sunset Theater presents a possible venue for future CHS performances in an effort to provide a comfortable environment for audience members and students.