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A new performing arts center for Torrey Pines High

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Drama teacher Marinee Payne hugs SDUHSD board member Joyce Dalessandro at the ribbon cutting for the new performing arts center at Torrey Pines.
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The new PAC at Torrey Pines.

On May 1, Torrey Pines High School performed the final act in a saga over 20 years in the making: a dramatic and emotional ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new performing arts center.

A performing arts center for Torrey Pines has long been a vision of the San Dieguito Union High School District board, fed by the unwavering determination of Marinee Payne.

Payne, the drama teacher at Torrey Pines for nearly three decades, has been carrying the dream of the performing arts center since she arrived. The project was put on hold many times over the years as plans changed and funding was sought. Thanks to the passage of the Prop AA bond in 2012, Payne was able to watch from her corner spot in the campus Black Box Theater as the dream became a reality. In 2017, old buildings were knocked down to make way for the new and she watched the craftsman and construction crews at work building the dream from the ground up.

“To every student in this space, every person who put their fingerprints on this building, to those students who came before, you are the dreams that stuff is made on,” Payne said, a nod to the Shakespeare quote she wears around her neck. “This is your building. This is your building to fulfill your dreams and your aspirations and to watch you soar higher and farther than you ever thought you could.”

Lending a sense of drama to the occasion—the ribbon across the steps of the new building was particularly stubborn and would not cut. Payne got help with the giant scissors from her friend Joyce Dalessandro, a member of the school board for 23 years and a former TPHS parent who has long advocated for a new performing arts center for the school. After the ribbon finally snipped and fell, everyone cheered and Dalessandro and Payne hugged.

The ribbon cutting was also a very special and emotional day for Principal Rob Coppo, a Torrey Pines High School alumni and veteran of the acting program. Several times during his comments he had to pause as he choked up with tears.

“As the former president of Torrey Pines Players, I am thrilled that our program is getting the upgrade it richly deserves. Without the arts program at Torrey Pines, I’m not standing in front of you today,” Coppo said. “I’m a living example of what the arts can do for people.”

Coppo recalled when drama classes were held in the lecture hall before moving into the campus’ Black Box Theater where magic was made for the next three decades. The performing arts center includes a brand new Black Box Theater in addition to the 350-seat proscenium theater—the old black box space will be converted to nutrition services, possibly housing a student-run cafe for culinary arts.

“Our theater program is positively impacted many thousands of lives over its four decades. We will not only have a new venue for our talented thespians but our incredible dance and music programs have brand new classrooms and get to share a new home for their performances,” Coppo said. “I know our dancers and musicians are eager to have a stage that they can call home.”

“A new tradition starts today and as future generations pass through these doors, the impact on their lives will be immeasurable.”

Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the large crowd of parents, students and other guests filed through the big glass front doors to check out the new center, many gasping at how large the proscenium theater space was. Payne stood on the stage and pointed out the many state-of-the-art details and led a tour into the theater’s back of house that includes a scene shop, green room and dressing rooms.

Inside the new dance room, teacher Sarah Kaye’s students worked on choreographing a new routine set to a Billie Eilish song, dancing in front of a picture window that looks out into the quad—the dance room no longer hidden in the corner of campus.

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Inside the new performing arts center.

The music building has seven practice rooms, ample storage and the south wall opens up to an amphitheater for additional outdoor performance space.

During the ceremony, proud Falcon dad and SDUHSD Chief Facilities Officer Mike Coy made sure to thank McCarthy Construction and Roesling Nokamura Terada Architects for their work on the facility.

“This is a beautiful building. Not only does it look great, it’s a performing arts center so it has to sound great,” said Coy, noting that they turned to John Sergio Fisher and Associates to perfect the acoustical engineering details.

Coy said he knew they had accomplished their goals when he walked into the new band room in April and heard the string orchestra playing. “I knew it would sound good but I had no idea it would sound that good, it was absolutely amazing, just spectacular,” Coy said. “The music teacher Amy Gelb told me now her students are hearing things in their music they never otherwise could hear. A room that was acoustically dead previously, is now alive.”

The first performance in the new center will be by the band on June 3 at 7 p.m. and Coy invited everyone to come support the music program in its new venue.

Although new to the district, Superintendent Robert Haley said he understood that the PAC was more than just a brick building, but something “special and magical.”

“When I look over at this building I see how much this community cares about its schools and making sure that the students in the schools have the very best,” Haley said. “For that, I’m very proud to be here as superintendent.”