BWW Interview: A Groundbreaking Conversation With Aurora Theatre's Ann-Carol Pence, Anthony Rodriguez, and Al Stilo
By Josephine Tuso-Key
Photo Credit Casey Gardner
On Thursday, June 13th at 11:00 AM the citizens of Lawrenceville, Georgia along with many elected officials of the city, county of Gwinnett, and state gathered to witness an auspicious occasion: the much-anticipated groundbreaking of the $31 million Aurora Theater expansion. This event commemorates the construction of a 56,000-foot performing arts center which will include a 500-seat venue, a more intimate cabaret space, classrooms,
and an indoor-outdoor civic area.
Broadway World recently had a conversation with Anthony Rodriguez, Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director, Ann-Carol Pence Co-Founder and Associate Producer, and Al Stilo, Director of Sales and Marketing, where they shared their vision for the arts as acommunity builder in Gwinnett County. Aurora Theatre will soon begin their 24th season.From their humble beginnings in a converted hardware store, to their current space in Lawrenceville that they opened in 2007, here is what they had to say.
BWW: What was the vision you had for the theater?
ANTHONY: Twenty-four years ago, we were just trying to operate day-to-day. As we grew, and certainly after we moved to historic Lawrenceville into this new facility in 2007, we realized we could dream as big as possible. With this new chapter, we are doing that.
ANN-CAROL: From the moment we got here, we literally could see how Aurora could be. When you're in the county seat of a place that has become majority non-white, you recognize how important it is to represent how culturally rich our community is, and that drives creating a community gathering space. I remember Anthony looking out his window on the day we opened the new place. He said, "What is the next thing we can accomplish?"
We were sitting in our first capital campaign meeting when one of our donors said, "What are we going to do with the extra?" We had never heard this before. We've never been anything but scrappy-- so to hear for the first time from people who were born and raised in Gwinnett saying, "This is a big new idea and we love this big new idea";-- that lets you know, that what you are creating is innovative and game changing. Don't get me wrong, we have a tremendous amount of support for what we are creating, but ultimately I believe if arts organizations are able to articulate a vision, give factual data about what arts bring to a community, and present a case for support, this should not be revolutionary. It should be reason for investment. With that being said, theater is for the young. Anthony and I founded this company when we were 30. When you are 30, you commit 18 hours every day to work toward something. Al has been in sales since he was 20. He is the best salesman in the state if you ask me. He is also extremely competitive, so we just give him stuff to sell and he gets in the trenches and sells it.
BWW: And how long has Al been with you?
AL: This is my 15th year. It's interesting because when I came on board, I came from a much larger organization. I was with Georgia Shakespeare Festival and at the time, which was a theater with a budget that was probably triple that of the Aurora. People were surprised when I left, but I saw the potential of what Aurora could create. Gwinnett was a very underserved community in terms of the arts and we had a lot of potential. That was something that drew me to the organization. We have taken the responsibility to serve this region very seriously. We serve a large populace, one that doesn't have nearly the opportunities for arts experiences that some of our neighbors to the south and west have.
ANN-CAROL: I find there aren't the opportunities because we don't have the funding. We aren't in Fulton County or the City of Atlanta, where funding is an important part of their budget. Georgia Council for the Arts is one of the lowest arts budgets in the nation which confounds me. How can we, as the state of Georgia, bring $9.5 BILLION dollars into the state with our television and film industries but still be so low in arts investment? Arts is driving Georgia. There was a great article in Forbes Magazine recently -- Anthony just found it and I'm so grooving on it. It states that arts creates a larger economic impact than agriculture or transportation. The article speaks about the business of creating art. We, as arts leaders, keep using and it is still disputed. I understand the fear, especially in small towns. Today, at our groundbreaking, there were a lot of people here supporting that. What I am more impressed with, is the hard work we have put in to create an inclusive environment is paying off. We looked out at a crowd of people and saw every age group, every cultural heritage, every religion, every sexual identity all beaming. That's what we dreamed of from the time we opened this theater. So many elected leaders there to celebrate. That is another milestone. When state, county and city leaders of both political parties are all in attendance, that changes the conversation. We become an investment worthy of support. The three people sitting in this room always knew that. It has been our dream and today we saw it.
BWW: The Aurora has always been good about bringing people together and making
everyone feel at home.
ANN-CAROL: That's our goal, to make people feel at home.
BWW: What was the first show you performed?
ANN-CAROL: The first show we performed here in Lawrenceville was CAMELOT. Our first capital campaign we called "Building the Castle Campaign" CAMELOT embodies the idea of that perfect place. Plus, I knew Anthony would make a great King Arthur, and I was right. Much like the world John F. Kennedy envisioned, and that Jacqueline Kennedy tried desperately to preserve, we believe that our community can strive to be a perfect kingdom. King Arthur has this great scene where he wants to create a new order of chivalry. He says, "A new order where might is only used for right! To improve instead of to destroy." He wants to invite everybody to this large round table, where there is no head, where everybody's voice is important. We were so much smaller 24 years ago, but I just always believed we can help create a better community, where everybody is valued. To look at Lawrenceville 12 years later, it didn't take that long for us to find our CAMELOT.
BWW: When will the building be completed?
ANTHONY: The timeline the construction team has set would have us opening in August of 2020. It's fast, we'll see how that goes, but that's what we're shooting for.
BWW: Once the new space opens what will programming look like?
ANTHONY: It's going to allow us to create new and different partnerships with groups that might not have a theater of their own and need a space to perform, Our particular season won't drastically change in scope. We will move our big blockbuster musicals into the 500-seat theatre. Our plays will stay in the 250-seat space we use now, as will CHRISTMAS CANTEEN. That will allow us to use that bigger space to host holiday programming -Nutcracker, Black Nativity, we can use the new space to the best of its ability. There's going to be a variety of programming in all our spaces and the multiple spaces allow for a lot of flexibility. Currently, we produce so much of our own original programming that it's almost impossible for us to work with groups that might need space.
BWW: Would you consider having musical groups perform concerts?
ANTHONY: You can look forward to concert evenings similar to the ones we produced this summer such as NEWSIES and, IN THE HEIGHTS as well as cabaret evenings that will get our audiences involved and engaged with the canon of musical theater. There may very well be musical groups as well.
AL: There's a lot of opportunities for traditional jazz and things like that from the southeast, and we might also have room for organizations like Atlanta Chamber Players to present a concert in the 250-seat theater once or twice a year. Once the building is completed, we're going to be able to find great partners to be able to offer patrons a wide variety of entertainment options.
ANN-CAROL: One thing I love about UGA is that it Athens has been the birthplace of
famous rock bands such as R.E.M and B-52s. I think those artists are waiting to be
discovered. The cabaret space can be like Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. That's the thing. When you're creating innovative spaces, like Al said, people aren't going to be able to imagine what can be done here until we begin using the spaces in creative ways. Christian Magby just wrote an original musical which was just performed in our our Studio this past Monday. They performed a staged reading with a full band. The very next day, I was contacted by another artist who has written a hip-hop musical that has already gotten backing for. You have to create the model, and then the model gets emulated. I don't even think we can imagine what's going to be in every spaced just yet, but we do know we want an international array of performers in every space. We also want to grow this theater for young audiences, who should be integrally connected to all of our programming. We currently entertain 15,000 school children during the school year. Just imagine once we open the expanded complex. We can focus our energies on the next generation. There is measurable data that shows that introducing arts to children changes graduation rates, access to higher education, future success. We are in a county that desperately needs us. I cannot wait until the day our blockbuster musicals will finally feel like you going to the Fox,
with audiences sitting right up front.
BWW: There was some speculation that the new theater would bring in Broadway
ANN-CAROL: We won't be big enough for that. We have two great presenting venues in Atlanta, The Fox and Cobb Energy Center are equipped to house Broadway tours. We won't have enough seats to attract national tours. We are leaning toward a new musical model of what can we create that you will see on Broadway in 5 years. What would MEN WITH MONEY have looked like if we had a Broadway backer on the scene? I think we will see that. There's no doubt that Justin Anderson is a national caliber director who calls Atlanta home. Shows like RIDE THE CYCLONE at the Alliance are amazing to me. It was a show I was not familiar with. It had an Off-Broadway pedigree and we, as Atlanta audiences, were treated to a spectacular production.
AL: During the recession when theaters were struggling to survive, we had a big decision to make because we were feeling the financial crunch. One of the things we learned is you have to be a place for your community. We expanded programming and reached out to areas in the community and found things that appealed to different people in the community. Culturally, we expanded on that concept. We tried to be a very welcoming space for different cultures. With the new buildings including community space, that is going to fuel our success.
ANTHONY: We've worked on that model to bring that element to the project. We will have a main courtyard where our community can gather for whatever purpose. People may want to stop and have lunch in the middle of the day and hang out there. We're trying to create a space where people want to be whether they've bought a ticket to an event or not. Because that way this theater will be here for generations to come. If we are not part of the community and the community doesn't have ownership, we haven't done our job. We won't be here 10, 15, 20, 100 years if we don't plan for it now. It is their theater in their city.
ANN CAROL: I appreciate that you wanted to have a conversation vs. a typical arts article. That's how we demonstrate we are one person at a time changing this community. One thing Anthony said in his speech. Al's been with us a long time; he's an unsung hero. The three of us joke about "Who are our lifers?"; Like Brokeback Mountain--"I can't quit you". We get frustrated. We will have a challenge we can't figure out and Al always say, "We're just one audience away from that part of our community, so let's serve it up." Days like today, we share joy; we've been celebrating; we've been friends for 25 years and this is a big milestone for us. To see so many young people buy into that. When you see the picture of our staff and board, you notice the difference. Our apprentice program has changed our
organization. The staff is young and hungry, ready to take on a challenge.
AL: I think of Aurora like a parent; there are certain things you do for your kids, and when you see it come to fruition, it makes you happier than things you do for yourself. We sat through a groundbreaking 13 years ago, and saw a building come together and we've seen, not what it's done for us, but what it's done for the people who come here. How it's had an impact on their lives is very moving to us. It's touched our souls in ways that have been profound and beautiful. Going through the process today and not knowing how the building is going to affect or change people's lives, but knowing that it's going to be great just fills us with the joy of possibility.
ANN CAROL: We also have to thank Emory Morsberger for the reason we're here. You cannot write our history, without Emory, He owned this church (which is now the theater) and the livery stables which is now our parking deck. He sold them to the city of Lawrenceville for the price he paid for them. He sold them, not with hope that there would be a theater, but he said, "I will sell this property to you at the price I paid for them if you make a place for Aurora Theatre. "That's literally why we are here. We were so much smaller then. For example, at the first groundbreaking, the City of Lawrenceville told us to take care of everything. We organized it from beginning to end. Today, was a county-wide celebration, of which we were glad to be a small part.
Aurora has a variety of programming available including plays, musicals, the NEWSIES concert show in Suwanee Town Center Park this Saturday evening, Comedy Nights, Ghost Tours, Children's Camps, and more. Visit https://www.auroratheatre.com/ to see all the entertainment they have to offer.