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Epworth strikes a chord for the performing arts

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


If ever the power of artistic endeavour needed to be measured, the official unveiling of Epworth School’s new Performing Arts Centre (PAC) would have served the purpose. The unveiling invoked thunderous applause.

Meticulously planned, the occasion had the blessing of the weather gods for the presentation of Fusion: Under an African Sky, an eminently appropriate theme on an unseasonably sultry October 2019 evening. The proceedings exceeded expectations. Framed by the gracious grandeur of the PAC, the school’s artistic abundance was a joy to behold, almost as much as the imaginative cuisine that was served and was inspired by the nation’s diverse culinary culture.

A dream come true

Arguably the top facility of its kind in KwaZulu-Natal, the purpose-built PAC is a statement of space and light, an architectural marvel that seamlessly blends into the Art Deco style of Epworth School, located in Pietermaritzburg. The school had wanted to erect a theatre for some time, primarily as a venue to stage the school’s dramatic productions. This developed into a plan for an integrated performing art space to serve the whole school. At its essence, the vision celebrates the disciplines of music, drama and dance, and struck a chord with David Orr, head of music for the whole school and head of culture in the high school. ‘I believe Epworth’s advocacy of the arts sets it apart as an educational institution that actively incorporates the various disciplines in the curriculum, as part of the holistic learning experience,’ says Orr. Perhaps more telling, as far as Orr is concerned, is that an embrace of the arts is a vote for creativity and its spirit of discovery and joy. ‘It’s the arts, in its various manifestations, that stimulates creativity, the very quality that we’re told is what will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.’

A valuable needs analysis delivered results

The Haley Hall and its fortuitous location close to the school’s other heartbeat, the chapel, was identified as a suitable site for the centre. With the help of FGG Architects, a wishlist was compressed into a needs analysis, and a project plan for a new, state-of-the-art performing arts centre emerged. Underpinned by a multipurpose functionality, the first part of the project saw Haley Hall being transformed into the centrepiece of an airy space that extends onto wide verandas on either side. A large part of the centre is newly constructed, including an upstairs floor that houses most of the music rooms, offices and even a ‘Juliet balcony’ overlooking the dance studio. The centre also boasts a number of innovative architectural features, such as abundant natural light and the adoption of passive technologies that do not rely on air conditioning for heating and cooling. While the double glazing allows for insulation against the elements, it is also an effective means of soundproofing, as is the substantial carpet pile. Other innovations may escape the untrained eye, such as the skew walls of the music rooms, a function of acoustics to mitigate the bouncing of sound.

Constant collaboration

None of the rooms are exclusively the domain of a single discipline, in what is a fluid transition from rehearsal to performance space, says Orr. ‘Innovation enabled us to design the ensemble room as a rehearsal space; but by turning the built-in seating 180 degrees, it is transformed into a performance venue.’ The theme of mutability finds resonance in the interplay and cross-pollination of all the artistic disciplines within the building that houses the visual arts, less than 100 metres away. And another cornerstone is an embedded appreciation of the arts, starting with the Grade RR pupils, who are taught piano in what amounts to the first roll of a classic domino effect. ‘Children in Grades 1 to 4 are taught an instrument as part of the curriculum, and the Grade 3s are given a violin to take home and practise to their heart’s content.’ Already, Epworth boasts two choirs in both the prep and high schools, no fewer than five marimba bands, a prep ensemble, a jazz band and a string ensemble. A host of full-time and part-time teachers and instructors provide instruction in a context unburdened by the prescripts of hierarchy and seniority. ‘I love seeing a plan come together, and few things are more gratifying than the young children being inspired by watching what the older ones are doing, thanks to the collaborative layout of the centre,’ says Orr.

Inclusion also important

The notion of inclusion is also evident in the school’s deeply entrenched drama and dance culture. Dramatic arts is offered as a Grade 12 subject and three dance companies operate in the high school: the LiveArt Dance Company, the Junior Dance Company and the Senior Dance Company. Weekly drama classes are offered in Grade R to Grade 7, much of it coordinated by prep school drama teacher Sandra Henning, who has 24 years of professional stage experience. ‘Drama is about group work, and I love how it fosters behavioural change, confidence and creativity,’ she says. For Henning, access to the PAC is the proverbial cherry on top. ‘It’s a superlative performing space that encourages learning in all aspects, even the backstage arts of lighting and sound,’ she says. Dance instructor and LiveArt Dance Company coach, Bonwa Mbontsi, shares Henning’s sentiments, and says the facilities are conducive to learning and creativity, irrespective of level and experience, in all grades. ‘It’s state-of-the-art, beautiful and amazing to move in,’ he says.

A space for everyone

The PAC architects also created a community around the art space, courtesy of a coffee shop overlooking an outdoor amphitheatre in the park-like surrounds of Epworth. ‘We’re very proud of the beautifully connecting spaces that complement each other and nurture the spirit of creativity,’ says Orr. For that reason alone, the school is keen to become an epicentre for all things artistic. ‘We’re very excited about the new possibilities the facilities offer and the way in which they will help us connect more broadly with the Pietermaritzburg community and beyond,’ says head of school, Laura Bekker.

Derek Alberts is an independent journalist.

Category: Autumn 2020

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