One beautiful summer day in 2019, the City of Lawrenceville celebrated its groundbreaking of a $31-million arts facility located downtown and just across the street from the Gwinnett County Historic Courthouse. It was a thrilling moment and the culmination of 12 years of dreaming, planning, approvals and dedication to the city’s Aurora Theatre, which would call the new Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center facility home.
2020 tried its hardest to stop the project and although it delayed it, construction continues and the city and theater company look forward to opening the doors this fall.
When it does, Gwinnett’s only professional theater and the second-largest professional theater company in Georgia will find a way to bring live theater back to the masses after more than a year of closures and restrictions.
“This is a legacy project [that will be] built from a million dreams held by our community for an arts home where all are welcome,” says Aurora Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director and Co-Founder Anthony Rodriguez.
Adds Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, “The new performing arts center, combined with the restaurants, shops and public gathering spaces that are already here, will give folks even more reasons to visit.”
A THEATRICAL VISION
When Rodriguez and Associate Producer Ann-Carol Pence co-founded the Aurora Theatre in 1996, they wanted to provide professional theater to residents of Gwinnett County. Converting a former hardware store into a theatre in Duluth, the 200-seat non-profit theater launched with a production of Camelot and 120 season subscribers. “We wanted folks to be able to see great art without having to travel more than an hour to get home at night,” says Rodriquez.
Performing in the City of Duluth for 10 years and “elevating the arts community of North Georgia,” it wasn’t long before the City of Lawrenceville invited the theatre to join them as it worked to revitalize its downtown. The City purchased a 100-year-old church that the Theatre was able to transform into a theatre complex with two performance spaces.
Costing $7.5 million, the Aurora Theatre opened its new com-plex in the spring of 2007, going on to produce more than 850 events a year. It has also gone on to receive numerous accolades, including Best Theatre Company, Best Inclusive Programming, Excellence in the Arts and the Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities.
Says Rodriquez, “Our vision was always more than just producing musicals and plays. We wanted to be a gathering space for the cultural arts. Even in our early years, we adorned our walls with art for sale and welcomed comedy, cabaret, jazz nights, dance converts — you name it, we were producing it!”
And the Aurora Theatre, as a non-profit, gives back to the community with educational theatre programs, apprenticeships for college grads, and the Aurora Academy and Conservatory for students to have the opportunity to work with professionals. As the first Latino and arts leader to serve as Chair of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Rodriguez headed the creation of Teatro Aurora, a Spanish-language theatre company that highlights the Latino culture and heritage. Aurora’s summer outdoor concert series, Musicals by Moonlight, and other music-driven initiatives are Pence’s area of expertise. The co-founder is the musical director and first created music for Aurora in 1996’s very first Christmas Canteen production.
“Christmas Canteen is a musical revue that both celebrates the holidays and honors those serving in the military. Now after 25 seasons, the show is a holiday tradition,” says Rodriquez of the show he and Pence are most proud. “This year, because of Covid, we took Canteen to the Bowl at Sugar Hill, an outdoor venue where we socially distanced 500 patrons each night (in the luxurious 2,000-seat amphitheater). This was no easy feat and we are so grateful to Mayor Steve Edwards, who welcomed us with open arms so that we could continue our traditional even in the most challenging of times.
”It’s all of these programs, paired with Cabaret and Comedy musical and stand-up evening theatre, that has the little-theatre-that-could busting at the seams. Discussions to expand the theatre space began almost as soon as it relocated in 2007.
“Anthony looked out from his office and started to dream,” Pence says. “The remainder of the block was rife for expansion.” The duo reached out to the City of Lawrenceville with David Still, now mayor, helping them secure the entire block that will become the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
The new 56,000-square-foot space will house a 500-seat theater, cabaret, indoor and outdoor civic spaces, and rooms for educational programming and offices. Although Covid shut down Georgia in early 2020, construction and expansion were able to continue as the project is funded almost entirely with government bonds, although $5 million does come from philanthropic donors and foundation grants. “We are profoundly grateful for the investment Lawrenceville is making in us,” adds Rodriquez.
“The completion and grand opening of this facility will be a visual representation of Lawrenceville’s commitment to the arts,” says Still. “A 15-year partnership with Aurora Theatre and many years of hard work on the part of numerous determined individuals have delivered a one-of-a-kind project placing Lawrenceville in the spotlight as an arts-centered community.”
Added Pence, “Art is vital to nourishing the community. Its need is even more apparent under the circumstances we are all facing. We are grateful that the construction on the campus expansion never stopped, creating jobs and bringing hope for the future of our country.“I sincerely hope this innovative partnership between our non-profit organization and the City of Lawrenceville will serve as a model for other cities across the nation,” she continues.
The pandemic did affect the facility, however. The City of Lawrenceville approved an additional $4 million for facility upgrades to help create a safer environment with hands-free devices, improvements for air quality, and sanitizing equipment for patrons, performers and staff.“The City of Lawrenceville believes in the power of art as a force multiplier that can transform community, and as the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center prepares to open, the region will see that vision tangibly expressed … none of this would be possible without what is truly a remarkable and unprecedented partnership with the city that should serve as a model for communities nationwide,” says Pence.
As to be expected with Covid or construction, the opening day is constantly changing. “Originally, LPAC was scheduled to open in November of 2020 and we had dreams of christening the complex with Cinderella,” says Rodriquez. “In an effort to get Aurora back to our former numbers, our Covid plan was open the courtyard for shows in early spring of this year, which unfortunately did not happen. We are performing to limited capacity inside our current space but taking a number of comedy nights and cabarets down the street to Ironshield Brewing while the courtyard is being completed.”
Slated to open mid-July (fingers crossed), the cabaret space will follow and then (god-willing) the 500-seat Grand Stage will open in mid-October, most likely to host Christmas Canteen. A new drama and Cinderella will follow, with the close of the 2021-22 season being a comedy called Swindlers. It has yet to be determined just how the new performing arts center will celebrate its grand opening but Rodriquez and Pence are looking into a variety of options. “For now, we are concentrating on how we can consistently activate the courtyard space, pro-viding programming every single weekend,” says Rodriquez of summer plans. “Look for a live staging of Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, lots of bands, more comedy and more cabarets.”
For as the saying goes, the show must go on.
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