Theaters/Performing Arts

All The World's A Stage

The Mapleton Arts Center (The MAC) in Denver, Colo.

Historically, the performing arts have not commanded the strong foothold in secondary education that they deserve. From choir to dance and orchestra, the enrichment that the performing arts adds to the middle- and high-school experience is undeniable. Mapleton Public Schools in Colorado is working to change this. The school district believes in the power of the performing arts and has always upheld it as a critical element of its educational programming. Even during the budget challenges of the Great Recession and beyond, Mapleton has never once trimmed its performing arts programs.

The Mapleton Arts Center exterior entrance 


The MAC’s design delivers an unmistakably bold presence within the community, serving as an icon and legacy building for the school district.

Boasting a robust performing arts program, including drama, orchestra, band, choir, color guard, mariachi and jazz, Mapleton has long reaped the benefits of prioritizing the arts in its schools. What’s materialized through this sustained investment is increased academic engagement among students, fostering students’ strong sense of purpose and confidence, and a strengthened community. Mapleton’s current performing arts students are the model of dedication. Beyond school-based programs, many middle-school and high-school students choose to ride the bus at 5:30 in the morning to participate in zero-hour performing arts programs. Such commitment and relentlessness call for recognition, celebration and fortification.

Given the history of performing arts excellence in Mapleton, the district has committed to investing even more heavily in these programs by planting a legacy performing arts center to serve as a district-wide icon. Named The Mapleton Arts Center (The MAC), the building supports nearly 1,000 students across the district involved in Mapleton’s performing arts programs. In addition, The MAC will become home to an entirely new offering for Mapleton students—The Performing Arts School on Broadway for 7th to 12th graders—opening this fall.

The goal was lofty: Deliver a state-of-the-art performing arts center tailored to the unique needs of secondary students. Together with design-build partner The Neenan Company, Mapleton sought to give local students an introduction to the Broadway experience. A performing arts center of this caliber is rarely seen in secondary public education and offers students a world-class trailblazing in the arts. The school pairs rigorous academics with performing arts to provide an educational approach rooted in innovation, imagination and intention, where students master geometry through stage and set design and study science through sound. All Mapleton students with a passion for the arts in any of its forms now have a home at The MAC: from singers and songwriters, to builders, engineers, creators, composers, directors, designers, makers, musicians, dancers, choreographers, scholars and innovators.

The features incorporated into the 45,000-square-foot performing arts building rival that of a professional theater:

  • Separate classrooms for each of its various programs, including band, dance, orchestra and choir. Each individual room provides a distinct feel, while maintaining a common thread to tie together the building and its purpose.
  • 900-seat auditorium for performances/large district-wide events.
  • Outdoor stage opening into the campus plaza for summer performances/events.
  • A plethora of practice space for students to hone their craft before graduating to the main stage, including a Blackbox theater, individual practice rooms and recording studio.
  • A catwalk, loading dock, dressing rooms, control room, storage and ticketing booth expose students to the back-of-house support services experience.
  • Professional-grade acoustics.
  • Separate student and public entries.
  • Large two-story lobby/auditorium entrance.
  • Administrative space onsite is critical to ensuring the academic and operational elements needed for a successful educational experience are incorporated into the performing arts programming.

As is the case of any project of this magnitude and scope, The MAC required a deep understanding of Mapleton’s existing performing arts program and the vision for the future, including its delivery model as well as student, faculty, staff and community needs.

The Mapleton Arts Center interior with ceiling high window walls 


The MAC’s lobby is designed for flexible use, to draw the community into the campus for event opportunities such as hosting an art gallery, or to provide students with space for impromptu performances.

Functionally, the building needed to serve dual purposes. Not only was a theater and event space necessary, but also a fully operational secondary school. Each space was designed to foster a safe and approachable environment for students to harness real-world skills to grow in the arts.

Essentially every space within the building is used for performance, so the quality of the sound was critical in the design and build process. To ensure this, Neenan consulted closely with an acoustician throughout the project. Acoustical considerations dictated the building’s overall shape and height, to deliver spacious rooms for maximum impact. The site constraints added to the project’s complexity, and the design team opted to stack classrooms in order to maximize the space available. Acoustics also determined the building’s layout, with painstaking care to strategically separate spaces and prevent sound from passing between classrooms, or into the auditorium.

Neenan integrated acoustical features thoughtfully, transforming them into design elements that enhanced the visual appeal of the building, in conjunction with its utility. For example, the design team selected acoustic wall treatments in distinct colors and shapes, arranged artfully along classroom walls to enhance the building’s aesthetic. Other acoustical features were downplayed in the building design. The sound-dampening elements along the auditorium walls were made black to better fade into the background.

Perhaps the most remarkable features of The MAC are its careful marriage of design and function. Neenan and Mapleton Public Schools delivered a design that ensures young performers’ voices would project throughout the entirety of the 900-seat theater, while keeping the space from feeling intimidating to a student. Focusing on the shape of the auditorium brought the final row of the theater situated as closely to the stage as possible, not only creating a more intimate setting, but also allowing every audience member to clearly see each performer on the stage. The large, two-story lobby and auditorium entrance leans into the Broadway aspect of the building and allows for flexible use of the space as a community hub beyond student performances. The carefully designed multi-use lobby is equipped to host a wide array of happenings, from art galleries to before- and after-performance gatherings, and breakout space for students during the school day.

The Mapleton Arts Center 900 seat auditorium 


The design team focused on the shape of the 900-seat auditorium, to provide an intimate environment aimed to make students feel comfortable, and not intimidated, in the space.

With budget adherence and project timelines paramount for a public school project, Neenan’s integrated design-build model made a performing arts center of this magnitude not only feasible, but also remarkable. With central management of the full design-build process, Mapleton’s vision was carried out through each detail of the building, every step of the way. Project leads across the architecture and construction teams collaborated seamlessly upfront, allowing the team to shift plans and budgets nimbly throughout the quick phases of the project.

What resulted from the fruitful collaboration of Mapleton Public Schools and The Neenan Company will be a catalyst to transform young performers’ lives for years to come. The MAC stands as an icon for what is possible when design and construction can be leveraged to strengthen communities, elevate the learning environment, and transform projects into spaces that give students a foundation to thrive.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.