A theater for all: McAfee rentals encourage community enrichment

October 29, 2018 — by Connie Liang

Sitting on the outskirts of the campus, the McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center lies dormant during most school days, only used by large gatherings of the student body on select occasions such as course selection presentations.

It is during the afternoons and evenings, however, that the building tends to come alive. Brimming with community members gathering eagerly in the packed hallways, the 569-seat McAfee Theater regularly hosts performances and seminars for a long list of organizations — providing art and cultural enrichment one rental at a time.

Flanked on both sides by restrooms, the McAfee’s main entrance opens into the front lobby, featuring a concession stand and a control booth right behind. Inside the double doors, the sloped steps and seats lead to the orchestra pit and then the stage itself. Farther back, behind the stage, a hallway runs between two dressing rooms, a green room and two exits.

School faculty and community members dreamed of a cutting-edge theater in the years before the McAfee’s 2006 opening. The previous theater, which is now known as the Thermond Drama Center, had outgrown its space in the building that also houses the cafeteria.

“It had been a long time discussion of how to find the funding and all the things that go into building a new center,” said Benjamin Brotzman, who serves as coordinator for the McAfee.

The McAfee opened after the family of Eric McAfee, a local entrepreneur and venture capitalist, contributed a final chunk of $1 million. The rest of the funding came from a Measure B bond passed in 1998 and from donations made by over 1,200 families — some of whom are honored with engravings on seat armrests. The final project cost around $8.6 million.

Initially, the theater catered mostly to students, specifically those involved in the music and drama programs. However, it wasn’t long before the community caught on to the possibilities of a modern auditorium and a newly emerged interest in rentals took ground.

“People from all over the Bay Area want to use the space because it’s a good location, somewhat central to a lot of different areas and a good price structure based on similar theaters,” Brotzman said. “And people just really like working here.”

This certainly was the case with Usha Srinivasan, mother of sophomore Urmila Vudali and founder and president of the non-profit Sangram Arts. In early October, Srinivasan coordinated the Saratoga Mosaic event, a dance performance featuring traditional dances ranging from the Chinese Fan dance to the Indian Ghoomar to the Mexican Folklorico.

Srinivasan thinks the local demographic reality of immigrant minorities coming here often results in certain ethnic groups clustering together to form “cultural silos.”

“It’s natural but it’s not optimal because it represents a missed opportunity for us to mingle and enjoy the rich diversity that’s only possible in a place like America,” Srinivasan said.

She hopes that events like the Saratoga Mosaic can unite people of different backgrounds under one multi-cultural performance. In a small town like Saratoga, where the high school forms the heart of the community, the McAfee is the optimal place to do just that, Srinivasan said.

“We’re using the art as a way to break down those silos and allow people to come together in a very non threatening, enjoyable way,” Srinivasan said.

Srinivasan isn’t the only renter to have found that the McAfee perfectly suits their needs. Among others, the theater has hosted famous artists like the pianist Lang Lang, professionals like DreamWorks animator and story artist Rob Koo as well as renowned authors like Stanford historian David Kennedy.

On a lesser-known scale, the Saratoga Symphony, Saratoga Community Band, San Jose Wind Symphony and Steinway Society of the Bay Area are all local music organizations that regularly utilize the facility — and for a good reason, as online reviewers have pointed out.

The McAfee, which has its own Google Reviews page, has amassed an average 4.7 star rating from a total of 67 reviews, many of which praise the audio and lighting team and state-of-the-art maintenance.

Google local guide Patricia Hendricks commented that the McAfee Center embodied “a very nice, intimate performance and art center with excellent acoustics” while fellow Google guide Robert George said that the theater “makes [him] want to come back for other performances.”

In fact, the McAfee has proved immensely popular with organizations looking for an affordable yet high-quality venue: it’s either rented out or used by the school almost every Saturday and Sunday of the year, resulting in Brotzman rarely taking “weekends on the weekend.”

“We’re just so full,” Brotzman said. “I’ve rented the whole space already for the year and I’ve probably turned down 10 to 15 groups because there are no available dates.”

The rental procedure consists mostly of check transactions and paperwork. After an initial deposit of $500, organizations are required to submit a $42 application fee, a completed Facility Use Application, a signed McAfee Center House Policies Agreement and a copied General Liability Insurance document. Hourly rental rates range from $200 for nonprofit organizations to $250 for those of for profit.

Brotzman believes, ultimately, that it’s the theater’s top-notch equipment and spirit of community that compels organizations looking for a venue to return again and again to the McAfee.

“I think the McAfee is crucial in that we have a fantastic place to see our youth creating and performing their art,” Brotzman said. “Art brings people together and the youth brings families and friends together, and I think that a mixture of those two make the McAfee really important.”