Education Matters: Saint Stephen’s

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Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School and its Future Performing Arts Building

When asked why now’s the time for Saint Stephen’s to build a new performing arts center, head of school Dr. Jan Pullen says, “We’ve had this on our master site plan since I became head in 2003 and this is the culmination of that entire plan.” Like many facility projects at Saint Stephen’s in recent years – including the Moore Athletic Complex and Marine Science Center – this building will have a huge impact on the west Bradenton campus and its 720+ students. Dr. Pullen admits that “we have children of all grade levels who are extremely talented, creative, and innovative. In the past, we’ve had spaces that have been modified to serve as a stage or venue, but we’ve never really had a space that could truly showcase our students’ talent.” This new building will change all of that.
The plan calls for the creation of a performing arts hall with a raised stage and main floor that serves as a seating area. At maximum capacity, it’ll hold about 800 seats, and the openness of the floor plan allows for different configurations, including a 450-seat setup with tables. The venue will also be ideal for plays, band concerts, speaker series, receptions, dances, and a variety of other events. While the Neel Auditorium at State College of Florida is now used to hold Saint Stephen’s graduations, having it on campus will be ideal and more impactful for the graduates and their families.
“We’re fortunate to have been gifted with land from Christ Episcopal Church for this new building,” says Dr. Pullen. All the church requires in return for giving a 67,000-square-foot parcel off Fourth Avenue West (between 41st and 42nd Streets) is the construction of a 3,500-square-foot building that will become a new thrift shop and food pantry. This agreement paved the way for the performing arts center, since Saint Stephen’s 35-acre campus had no more room for growth.

$6 million Stephen’s

The next step was to annex the land for the thrift shop and food pantry into the City of Bradenton, then to select an architect and builder. That’s where the process is at the moment. Once the exact square footage and cost are decided, the school will begin a capital campaign to raise the estimated $6 million. “I’ve been part of almost every building on campus now,” says Dr. Pullen about her 30 years at the school, including 15 as head, “whether that’s renovating or building. I’m excited to be part of this new project too.” The dream situation is to finish fundraising within a year, and then take one year to complete the actual construction. This would have the new multi-use facility up and running for fall 2019.
Jeannine Elisha, who took over the school’s theater program four years ago, says that this building will be a game-changer. “The entire school will be impacted, whether they’re watching or performing. Being part of live theater performances is an invaluable experience.” The performing arts are a big part of the Saint Stephen’s experience. From pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, students learn how to get up in front of others and speak, sing, or dance. Those experiences instill confidence and allow students to tap into their creative side. Elisha also teaches students strategies on how to relax and tap into other parts of themselves or get into character. “It makes them more well-rounded. Being able to go on stage and stand with confidence, including improvising your way through a situation, is a skill that everyone should have.”
Elisha also points out that all seniors are required to give a senior speech. These are presented every Tuesday and Friday at chapel where the entire upper school faculty and students serve as audience members. The seniors write the speeches on their own, then go before the senior committee (consisting of a few faculty members and a chaplain) to get feedback. They then give the revised speech in front of the whole group. The topics vary, ranging from life at Saint Stephen’s to a challenge they’ve had to overcome to just a thank-you note or celebration of differences. “They last 3 to 5 minutes,” explains Elisha, “and they’re very entertaining. It’s also wonderful that the freshmen and sophomores get to hear them, too.”

For now, Elisha’s been doing what she can for students to have a good theater experience. Last year, they had an improv show in the fall, then the middle and upper schools performed “Lion King Junior,” and they held an adorable production of “Peter Pan Junior” that included a pirate ship. A Ringling College of Art and Design professor and alumnus helped build sets and paint murals, offering some instruction to the students as they worked. But Elisha can’t wait for the students to have the freedom of working on a real stage, managing a full array of theater lights, and learning the technical aspects of putting on a show. Putting on a play in a classroom or having a band concert in the gymnasium simply isn’t the same.

Elisha is so proud of the performances they’ve done that she wishes they could’ve put an ad in the paper and invited everyone to come. The reality is that they didn’t have the space. When they ran “The Little Mermaid,” a production that featured 43 students, the event sold out and they had to turn people away. The space only held room for 100 audience members. With the new performing arts center, that won’t be a problem anymore!
“I need the extra room,” says Elisha. “The students want to be on stage. As a teacher/director, I try to maintain the integrity of the story, but the students want so badly to be involved. So I find roles for as many as I can. Even if I have to create them.”
Dr. Pullen says, “If I could wiggle my nose, I’d have the new building up now!” But considering the level of interest from the faculty, students, families, and community, the reality of this much-needed building might come sooner than anyone expects. Ryan G. Van Cleave

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