El Cerrito High School may have a superb performing arts space, but it doesn't have a performing arts program to match.
"The school hasn't really utilized the theater as much as we could," says senior Ian Billings. "The drama department isn't that strong."
Last year, what should have been three theater classes were rolled into one, he said. The student production was more a series of skits, "three quote-unquote shows," he says, performed in the afternoon.
Years ago, El Cerrito High was known for its theater and music programs. "When I went to school there, there was tons," Mark Streshinsky, artistic director of Berkeley West Edge Opera, recalls. "They did two plays a year, there was an orchestra and a band. I was in all that. There is nothing like that today."
Principal Jason Reimann blames that familiar foe, strapped budgets for public education in general, with cutbacks especially brutal on arts education. "We have fewer sections of theater and less music than we used to have," he says. "We don't have a chorus anymore."
Reimann says the theater was designed to serve both the school and the wider community. He's happy to see it used by the opera, and hopes to see other performing arts companies there as well. "We really do want the school to be an integral part of the community," he says. But he would also like to see greater use of it for student productions if funding can be increased.
"We have had some student plays there, but only during school day," he says, "not the large productions we have had in the past."
Streshinsky hopes the opera can provide some arts education. Several students have taken part in its productions, including senior Ian, who worked backstage on two operas. Today he's looking for a college program that focus both on engineering and the technical side of theater.
"It's kind of strange. I'd never considered myself a theater person in any regard until the theater opened," Ian says. "I thought, 'This is fun.' I never expected I'd be interested in theater whatsoever."