Students repair, rebuild Skyview's theater lighting systems

2012-10-09T00:00:00Z 2014-08-25T09:35:42Z Students repair, rebuild Skyview's theater lighting systemsBy ZACH BENOIT The Billings Gazette

There's a pretty big difference between saying "I had to" do something and "I got to" do something.

The former sounds like a forlorn kid getting dragged off to an unwanted trumpet lesson while the latter is something that same kid would excitedly say about helping a paleontologist dig for dinosaur bones.

To hear Skyview High sophomore Spencer Cornish and 2012 graduate Brendan Bellows talk about their efforts to repair and rebuild the school's theater lighting system, it's awfully clear that they fall into the "I got to" category.

"There was a lot of missed sleep getting this up," Spencer said. "But it's not like it was a chore. It's just infectious work."

The pair spent the summer putting the finishing touches — mostly a cooling system — on the redesigned lighting system, which was installed in 1987 but hadn't been kept up for years.

The project actually started more than four years ago when Bellows — now a Montana State University freshman studying electrical engineering — came to Skyview as a freshman.

He'd learned that the system needed a lot of work and that while plans to fix it up existed, there wasn't any money to get it done. So, Bellows took the project upon himself.

He started with the main control system, housed in a small room above the theater and learned that the light boards should work, but didn't. A little more exploration revealed that a small explosion happened in the unit, limiting what the lights could do.

"There were two flavors for the lights," Bellows explained. "You had on, and you had off."

With the help of a few electrical engineers, he tested the system and eventually repaired the power supply.

That process took a few years of rebuilding and repairing. At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, at teacher told him that Spencer, then an incoming freshman with an interest in computer programming and electronics, might be interested in helping.

"Brendan said, 'Come up to the theater," Spencer said. "From the first time I came in, I was pretty much hooked."

They were able to trace the root of the problem not to the equipment itself, but to its maintenance. Bellows estimated that the cooling system hadn't been kept up much for six or seven years before he took it over, which led to the control system overheating.

So the replaced the fans that cool the main system, thanks partially to an unexpected source. Spencer was volunteering at St. Vincent Healthcare this summer and mentioned the problem to some of the folks there.

"St. V's offered to buy four new ones for us, right there, and give them to us," he said.

They immediately noticed a difference, with the fans keeping the equipment cooler.

"We knew that in order to prolong the work we'd done, we had to fix the cooling system," Bellows said. "The heat probably made the fans run a lot and they didn't oil them. They broke down, and that's probably the whole problem there."

They also cleaned the catwalks where many of the lights point down across the theater and labeled and organized each part and process, allowing others to make replacements if they're not around.

"If, say, a light's burned out, they created a Google doc for me, numbered with prices and everything," Skyview Principal Deb Black said. "If they’re not around, the organization helps so much. It just almost brought tears to my eyes."

Both of the teenagers said the project isn't one that just anybody would take up. Such a labor is one about which the workers must be passionate, and that's something they both have in common.

"As a kid, whenever I'd go to a show someplace like the Alberta Bair, I spent more time figuring out how to make the lights and the sound work than I did watching the show," Bellows said.

For Black, it means she won't have to worry whether everything will run smoothly during shows and that she can be confident the equipment is up to snuff. Community events, including dance recitals and Big Sky State Games competitions, are held there, in addition to school productions.

"I feel very confident that the show will go on," she said.

For Spencer and Bellows, the work continues. While Bellows now lives in Bozeman, he plans to make occasional trips back to check on the progress and with Spencer trained in its upkeep, the pair expects everything to run smoothly.

They've even created a users manual of sorts that makes recommendations on future improvements and plan to train another student — Spencer's younger brother — to take over in a few years.

"If you work hard enough, you can make it look like you have the best, top-of-the-line equipment," Bellows said. "It allows people to pay attention to the art on stage rather than a lack of tech."

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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