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Brooklyn Paper: Broadway-inspired auditorium to give new life to Gravesend high school


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Students at a southern Brooklyn high school will soon have one of the best school auditoriums in the city when workers complete a $7.5 renovation of the sprawling space.

The renovations at Gravesend’s John Dewey High School will revive a performance space that’s known to be one of southern Brooklyn’s main stages, according to one theater educator.

“John Dewey High School — for everyone who comes from southern Brooklyn and grew up here — that was the stage to be on,” said Sara Steinweiss, a former theater teacher at New Utrecht High School who taught “Hamilton” star Anthony Ramos. “Thats where I did my first dance recital.”

Though the school’s auditorium has been largest in Brooklyn for years, the space has slipped into disrepair over the years, officials said.

The theater’s decline came amid a difficult period for John Dewey. Though in its earlier years, the school boasted a progressive pedagogy and was named by Newsweek as one of the country’s best high schools in 2008 and 2009, by the early 2010s, it faced falling enrollment, a rising drop-out rate, and funding cuts to its extracurricular programs. 

The school nearly closed about seven years ago, but area Councilman Mark Treyger and other school leaders worked to keep it alive, Treyger said. 

When I took office, John Dewey was going through a very tumultuous period. There was very low staff morale,” said Treyger, who funded the theater upgrades. “I remember visiting the Dewey campus, and I saw a building that needed a lot of love, investment, care, attention.”

The school has pulled out of its most difficult era under principal Connie Hamilton, who took the helm in 2015, but many of its facilities remain outdated, Treyger said.

To help modernize the space, Hamilton and her team began working with the local politician and former educator a couple of years ago to brainstorm infrastructural improvements, he said. The group put renovations of the auditorium and culinary kitchen at the top of the list.

The culinary kitchen received its $3 million in upgrades last year, but the school planned an even more ambitious renovation of the auditorium. 

“They gave us a vision and it was certainly ambitious in terms of cost,” Treyger said, adding that he wanted the auditorium to rival LaGuardia High School’s famously state-of-the-art space.

John Dewey’s theater will receive an air conditioning system, a new and improved stage, seating, lighting, dressing rooms, acoustic cushioning, and spaces that will be used for sound control, stage design, and music. 

The theater will also be ADA-compliant will be have state-of-the-art sound equipment that help people with hearing impairments by transmitting sound directly to hearing aids.

Steinweiss, who helped advise Treyger on the improvements, said the new auditorium won’t only serve as a performance space, but as a key educational asset.

“Most individuals who are not in education do not always view arts education with the importance it has,” she said, stressing the community-building and problem-solving skills theater teaches students. “It becomes so much more than ‘Oh you guys put on a play.’ You built a whole individual.”

Steinweiss added that she wishes she could have worked in an auditorium like John Dewey’s.

It’s every theater educator’s dream to perform on that stage and work in a space like this,” she said. 

Brooklyn Paper