March 2023
Committing to Connection with the Community
Refitting Ruth Street Theatre at Prescott High

Many longtime Prescott residents have seen some great productions at the Ruth Street Theatre at Prescott High School. With its 700 seats it  decades and functioned as a rental event space for over a decade. The building hosts the finearts facilities for PHS, including the theatrearts, visual-arts and music departments.

Now, through the efforts of PUSD Superintendent Joe Howard and PHS theatre-events manager Amy Van Winkle, and with generous support from the school board, long-overdue renovations are taking place that will bring the Ruth Street Theatre technologically up to date, boosting the school’s theater-arts program and creating a more inviting space for community and outside events. Editor Steven Ayres, a longtime theatre pro, and I met with Howard and Van Winkle for a tour.

First, budget

In 2008 the state legislature cut all the soft-capital funds, used for building repairs and book purchases, from Arizona’s public schools, and stopped allocating inflation-adjustment funds for ten years, reducing much needed funding by $15 million over the period. In districts that couldn’t pass bonds or overrides, some schools didn’t survive. Without capital maintenance funding, many school buildings weren’t touched for 20-30 years. Funding has now recovered — to 2008 levels. Yes, you read that right, don’t get me started.

PUSD has kept its schools running and managed to raise funds for upgrades like the theatre by selling off buildings it no longer needed. The theatre had not seen substantial improvement since the 1990s, which severely impaired its value as an event space. The sound system had been cobbled together over 30 years, the flooring was worn, and the lighting inadequate. Speaking of both Ruth Street and the Hendricks Auditorium at Mile High Middle School, Howard said, “We have these great facilities and we don’t have the capacity to work with the community. We don’t have the people who live it and breathe it every day, especially from the lens of how we’re bringing the community and our students together. That’s what Amy’s bringing to the table here.”

Next, commitment

Van Winkle retired last year after teaching K-12 music for 35 years in our local public schools. She has a passion for the performing arts and public education, along with too much energy to sit back and act retired. After brainstorming on how to get some upgrades done on the theatre, she and Howard went to the school board last year to present the project, asking for an addition to the maintenance and operations budget. The board approved funding to hire Van Winkle to help steer the project.

The goal is to bring the theatre into the current millennium and restore its value as an educational facility. Some students who experienced the PHS theatre-arts program when it had a state-of-the-art technical system are now performers, designers and teachers at places like the Herberger Theatre and on Broadway.

When the project’s three phases are complete, the school will serve not only as an appealing venue for events, but also provide valuable stage training for students. “The appeal of the remodel is that you’re doing something good for the performers, but also for the kids. When you come in with your ensemble, the kids are going to be running your sound and your lights, making sure the stage is set for you. Here’s a community-connection activity,” says Van Winkle.

Rapid progress, more to come

The renovation’s first phase is already done, with new carpeting, new paint and seating repairs completed in the auditorium, all accomplished during this last fall. Funding for the second phase is secured, and will cover a complete upgrade of the sound system down to wireless performer microphones. Phase 3 will focus on a new professional lighting system. Still on the wish list are upgrades for the ticketing office and new fencing outside to improve traffic flow and accessibility.

Apart from ongoing use by district schools, the theatre will host the Margot Fontaine Academy of Ballet in a gala performance on May 13. Howard and Van Winkle hope to plan a grand reopening in the fall this year, and you’ll see advance coverage of that in these pages.

After our tour, Steven said, “Probably the most important experiences of my life were in joining a theatrical community when I was 14 and training in a company of people who really knew what they were doing. It was the kids that created the esprit de corps so necessary to understanding leadership and teamwork. I think it’s among the best things you can do for kids.”

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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