PORTSMOUTH — Last month, Margie Brennan was excited to see the Portsmouth High School Drama Club’s production of “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s play about Elwood P. Dowd and his giant, unseen rabbit friend.
But when she settled into her seat halfway back in the PHS auditorium, she heard something over her right shoulder that was drowning out everything else happening on stage.
“There were two high schoolers sitting on the back wall to the far right and they were just talking and whispering,” said Ms. Brennan, noting the teens were speaking in a normal tone of voice. “It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but because of the sound I think everyone five rows ahead of me kept turning around because we could hear them but we couldn’t hear ‘Harvey.’ You could tell parents were getting really upset.”
Ms. Brennan, a Portsmouth resident who teaches sixth-grade science at Tiverton Middle School, said the auditorium’s sound system failed the week before the first show and drop-down microphones were used in a pinch. Still, audience members were complaining that they couldn’t hear the lines. The poor sound marred what was otherwise an excellent production, she said.
“I felt so bad for (director) Sheli Silveria. She worked so hard, and the kids did so well,” said Ms. Brennan.
The sound wasn’t the only problem during “Harvey,” as there’s another issue with the auditorium: Those wooden, fold-up seats haven’t been updated since the auditorium was first built more than 50 years ago.
“I came with my mother to ‘Harvey’ and we had to leave halfway through because she said she just couldn’t sit in those seats,” said Sue Cotta, a PHS graduate.
Now Ms. Brennan and Ms. Cotta are among those joining forces to raise money for major renovations of the PHS auditorium, including a new sound and lighting system and modern seating. Known as the Kate Grana Music and Arts Association, the group has begun seeking grants and fund-raising and expects to acquire 501(c)(3) nonprofit status by next month.
Ms. Cotta is the spouse of the late Kate Grana, a beloved Portsmouth music teacher, choral director and vocal coach for more than three decades. She died in May 2016.
“Whatever we put toward the auditorium it will be in memory of Kate,” Ms. Brennan said, adding the group hopes to get the finished “state-of-the-art community hub for drama and music” named after Ms. Grana. (Naming a section of the building after someone will need to come before the School Committee at a later date.)
The fact that so many people involved in theater arts and music in Portsmouth knew Ms. Grana will also help in fund-raising efforts, she said.
“Kate was such a uniter of people that once her name goes with it, everyone who knew her are going to come on board,” Ms. Cotta added. “I can feel the energy just percolating. People are saying, ‘Tell us what to do.’”
The group has the backing of the school district. On Dec. 12, the School Committee unanimously approved the organization’s request to begin fund-raising for the improvements. The first expenditure will be to hire an architect to complete a needs assessment on the auditorium.
“It’s a big-picture thing and I have no idea how to organize it; that’s why we’ll have the architect. Lighting and sound probably goes first and the seats, I’d imagine, go last,” said Ms. Cotta, adding that the auditorium will probably “be taken down to the studs” so it’s done right.
Seeking big grants
Acquiring nonprofit status is important because it will make it easier for the organization to seek grants, said Ms. Brennan, who has three theater children and is involved with the PHS Drama Boosters. When members of the Boosters applied for a $130,000 grant from van Beuren Charitable Foundation for lighting and sound, they were told the group “has no legs to stand on for grant-writing,” Ms. Brennan said.
Enter Maura Sheehan, an attorney and mother of two PHS theater students — her daughter Mary was also a voice student of Ms. Grana’s — who is applying for nonprofit status on behalf of the organization. She had connected with Ms. Cotta after Ms. Grana died.
“She was interested in starting a nonprofit in Kate’s memory and maybe naming the auditorium after Kate,” said Ms. Cotta.
When it’s officially a nonprofit, the organization will have a clear path to seek grants from not only the van Beuren Charitable Foundation but from The Feinstein Foundation, Rhode Island Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and other organizations. “There’s lots of grants available if you have an existing building and you need something redone,” said Ms. Cotta.
The group also intends to launch a Facebook page and set up a post office box for donations.
Familiar with problems
Jackie Shearman, a longtime member of the PHS Band Boosters who’s involved with the new group, agreed. “It should be done town-wide. Certainly anyone who has sat in those seats would throw in a $10 bill to help with that — staff, former students, town residents, people with deep pockets,” Ms. Shearman said.
She’s also well familiar with the room’s sound problems, recalling the time she went to see her granddaughter perform in a production of “12 Angry Men” four years ago.
“I came all three nights,” Ms. Shearman said. “The first night I sat two or three rows up. I have hearing aids and positioned myself, but I couldn’t hear a thing. So the second night, I sat with the script. ‘Oh, that’s what they’re talking about. Now I got it.’ By the third night, I was cool.”
Laurie Spaner, a 1984 PHS grad with professional theater experience, is a strong supporter of the project. For years she and her husband, Craig Spaner, have presented an annual variety show at PHS, “Broadway From Then 'til Now,” to raise money for the Robert A. Davidson Charitable Fund in honor of her late father.
But it was never an easy time at PHS, she said.
“The seats are brutal — some of them are broken — and we gave up on the sound system a long time ago,” said Ms. Spaner, who has brought in some of her own equipment to do shows there.
“Sound is difficult, and it’s also different than what it used to be back in the day,” she said. She recalled singing in “The Music Man” as a PHS student and having to project over the orchestra without microphones.
“It’s just out of date and doesn’t accommodate today’s technical needs. It’s a 1963 auditorium; it’s not even built to be used as a theater,” Ms. Spaner said.
Magnet for others?
When the renovations are complete — the group hopes to start work sometime in 2018 — other theater groups may be beating a path to Portsmouth High’s door, supporters said.
Ms. Brennan noted that the Newport Children’s Theatre, of which she’s an active member, is one such group that would love to have a base at PHS.
“We have a huge summer camp which we do in Bristol, but here is where we’d want to be,” she said.