The construction dust is still settling at Sammamish High School, but tonight actors will wade through 12 tons of sand as they take the...

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The construction dust is still settling at Sammamish High School, but tonight actors will wade through 12 tons of sand as they take the stage for the first time in the school’s brand-new theater.

“Big Love,” a play set on the beaches of Italy, will be the first performance in the school’s $4.5 million performing-arts center, finished barely in time to host auditions in February.

Complete with the only full-scale theater fly loft in the Bellevue School District, a massive orchestra pit, a trapdoor system for the stage and 450 velvety seats, the venue is on a par with theaters built for professional performing-arts groups, say boosters.

It boasts acoustics designed by Cyril Harris, the acoustical consultant for Benaroya Hall in Seattle, and the lighting technology has been compared to that of the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

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So the entire production of “Big Love” radiates professionalism, a theatrical level difficult to attain in a typical school multipurpose room or gymnasium crammed with bleacher seats.

For the past two years, while construction was under way, those awkward venues have been all that drama teacher Lisa Morford, 35, and her students have had to work with. So for Morford, the director of “Big Love,” the moment the curtain rises over the 1,600-square-foot stage will be the fulfillment of a dream.

“Big Love”

“Big Love” opens today at 8 p.m., after a 7 p.m. Italian dinner and live music. Tickets are $16 for students and seniors, and $18 for adults.

Regular shows cost $10 for students and seniors and $12 for adults. Show times: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. May 13, 2 and 7: 30 p.m. May 14.

For reserved seating, call the box office at 425-456-7766.

Source: Lisa Morford, director

“It’s as if we’re coming out of exile and moving back home,” she said. “We finally have a space that equals the quality of our performance.”

Morford said she carefully selected “Big Love” as the first performance for the new space, wanting to match a modern play with a cutting-edge theater. She says the play, a tale of 50 sisters forced to marry 50 of their cousins, evokes the ultimate human emotion: love.

Including paying for the script rights, building the sets and designing the costumes, plus dance lessons, the production cost about $14,000 and is paid for from student-body funds, not the general school budget.

“We really tried to push its limits,” said Debbie Taber, 30, the technical director for “Big Love.” “I fell in love with the design possibilities.”

The fly loft, a system of cables to hoist set pieces above the stage, will facilitate the quick scene changes that the play demands. Most notable is a giant wedding cake that will be lowered to center stage.

“These are scenic elements we never would have been able to achieve before,” Morford said. Morford and her 20-member cast have spent about 15 hours a week over three months perfecting the production. Students produce the show entirely outside of the school day, in their free time.

“The [actors] are beside themselves,” said Morford. “They cannot wait to see a real audience in front of them.”

For lead actress Jeanette Riley, 18, who plays Thyona, the debut of the new theater will be an exciting way to end her Sammamish High School career. A senior, Riley plans to attend Northwestern University in Illinois in the fall to study journalism.

“It’s really a privilege,” Riley said of the chance to perform in “Big Love.”

Student costume designer and veteran actress Afton Pilkington, 18, is most excited about her work coming to life on stage in the form of vibrant wedding dresses. She said that the theater’s new costume shop and greenroom, complete with rows of lighted mirrors, make costume changes easier for the cast.

The new theater is part of Sammamish High’s $17 million modernization and improvement project, which also has included redesigning the library and classrooms. The money came from a $327 million bond issue approved by Bellevue School District voters in 2002.

The modernization at Sammamish is part of a trend at Eastside schools. Interlake High School, which last April shared its stage with Sammamish, is currently under construction and will open in September complete with a new auditorium. Newport High School and Bellevue High School will undergo similar renovations by 2009, said Bellevue School District Deputy Superintendent Karen Clark.

Morford said she predicts the new theater likely will attract a larger public audience to the school. “The kids all know that everyone in the community is wondering what this [new building] is, and come Friday night it will be revealed,” she said.

Lara Bain: 206-464-2112 or

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