Estancia High School’s drama department is gearing up for a spring production of the popular mystery “Clue,” pulling off another theatrical feat of magic in an age-worn facility that, despite its challenges, has graduated generations of comedians .
Drama students have been preparing since February for the final play, which runs Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Barbara Van Holt Theater. The 246-seat hall opened its doors in the 1960s under the management of Van Holt, who handed over the baton in 1996 to current director Pauline Maranian.
Maranian describes the space as an auditorium that has since been modified to accommodate productions, but still lacks many components of a full-fledged theater. Although officials have promised a new facility since his arrival, so far nothing has materialized.
“[Other schools] have state-of-the-art facilities on their campuses, with fly lofts and orchestra pits,” she said during a dress rehearsal Monday. “We have nowhere to go for the orchestra. We placed them in the aisles, but it was a fire hazard. We put them on stage, but the sound blows everything away.
“Everyone works hard, but our resources are different.”
Officials of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District have indeed striven for nearly two decades to bring a new performing arts complex to the Costa Mesa campus.
While such a project was to be built with funds from Measure F, a general obligation approved by voters in 2005, the money ran out, leaving Estancia the only high school not to have received an upgrade from the theater.
A design was eventually approved in 2019, and a site on the east side of campus occupied by a nearly one-acre senior lawn was selected by a project review board. However, the location has drawn criticism from students and community members, who say the lawn provides badly needed green space for the school.
The proposed resort — which has been priced from $27 million to $41 million — is also the subject of a lawsuit filed by the city of Costa Mesa, whose officials allege NMUSD failed to provided appropriate environmental and public review.
District leaders at a forum last Thursday sought feedback from community members on five different sites reviewed by the committee, expressing openness to the possibility of modifying the plan. However, relocating the theater could increase costs and further delay construction.
Maranian, who served on the project’s review committee, said the main lawn site seemed the most optimal precisely because of the problems with the other locations.
“We were supposed to innovate before COVID, and then there was the controversy,” she added. “Delaying it again means more time, we’re not going to have room.”
Amber Marroquin is a 2017 Estancia graduate who completed the drama program and earned a theater teaching degree at California State University, East Bay and directing “Clue.”
While she fondly remembers her time at the department and is proud of the theater’s heritage, she is also keenly aware of the challenges of producing shows at Estancia, especially compared to other campuses in Newport Mesa.
“When we were in high school, subconsciously it made us feel like we weren’t as important or as worthy when we had to work really hard on technology,” she said. “I love the intimacy of our theater, but most kids deserve to feel what it’s like to be on a big, big stage.”
If there is no backstage, large props should be kept at the theater entrances and carried inside during production. Seats were removed to accommodate a makeshift control booth designed by students and paid for by parents, while grants paid for lighting, sound equipment and a cyclorama backdrop.
The back wall of the theater isn’t technically a wall, but an accordion-style partition that separates the theater from the school hallway outside.
Sophomore Taylor Nash, who plays French maid Yvette in “Clue,” has attended productions at other Newport-Mesa schools and talked with friends about the many things they had that Estancia lacks. Still, she’s excited to be able to perform in person this semester.
“I remember joining the program and being scared because I didn’t know anyone. It’s so different now because these people are my best friends,” she said.
At a March 29 meeting of the NMUSD board of directors, Nash argued the loss of the senior lawn could be mitigated. A theater, on the other hand, is something that could serve generations of students.
“It’s hard to see students talking about it when they’re only talking about themselves and what they would like,” she said of the senior lawn defenders on Monday. “I would like them to think about the whole program and all the other programs that could benefit from it.
Estancia High School’s production of “Clue” runs through 7 p.m. Saturday, 2323 Placentia Ave. Tickets are available online, at sites.google.com/nmusd.us/ehsdrama/clue, and at the door. Student and presale tickets are $10, while general admission is $15 at the door.
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