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THE HEART OF THEATRE ALLIANCE

by Lenise Willis

Photo Credit: Jenny L. Viars, Dancing Lemur Photography

From publicly crying to traipsing on stage scantily clad, the art of acting calls for its practitioners to bare it all. It’s one reason why artistic professionals become so close, perhaps closer than family. Theatre Alliance, with its loyal audience, staff and annual average of 200 volunteers, is one such theatre family that proves it takes a village to raise a child.

“We exist because of our regulars — donors and audience members,” said Jamie Lawson, Theatre Alliance Artistic Director. “We have audience members who are so wonderful about attending shows with which they aren’t familiar. The same goes for our performers, who are willing to give any show I throw their way a shot. An artistic director is very lucky to have this combination.”

Actor Michael Ackerman, who just completed TA’s last show Boeing Boeing, says the TA staff is supportive and “like a big family.”

“They’re seriously committed,” he said about the staff. “Whenever there’s a fundraising event or a big project that needs to get done, like the renovation of the theater last year or the relocation of their scene shop, people come out of the woodwork to pitch in. And the onstage volunteers are just as helpful. When I was in Rocky Horror Show last fall, I was terribly insecure about the singing and dancing. But I got a lot of encouragement from my castmates and TA regulars.”

“Theatre Alliance is a safe place to both perform and just to be a person,” added Ann Davis-Rowe, who volunteers to write the theatre’s press releases. “I like to put what I can do to use for a theater that does so much for the community. I may not be able to design sets or costumes or write sound or lighting cues, but I can knock out a press release and communicate through social media.

“TA is a great place to be a performer, as well. I have made a career out of being third-girl-from-the-left, but at TA, I’ve gotten to work outside my comfort zone, and the confidence I’ve gained is priceless.”

The loyal staff of volunteers and audience members has kept the theatre going for more than three decades. But their loyalty doesn’t stop at attendance. The regular audience itself is one of the best advocates for the theatre, and shows are often spread by word of mouth. Even Yes! Weekly gets regular emails from audience members commenting on the theatre’s shows and showing support for its staff and productions. It’s not often that people stand up for what they believe in any more, but TA supporters tend to go above and beyond.

The first volunteer

Not only does Theatre Alliance stay in operation thanks to its volunteers, but even the theatre itself was born from extracurricular interests when it was founded in 1983 by director Fred Gorelick. Gorelick had been teaching advanced acting classes at the then-Little Theatre of Winston Salem (now Twin City Stage) and began orchestrating productions to showcase his students’ work to the public. His energetic enthusiasm and dedication eventually led to the development of Theatre Alliance, which Gorelick turned into an official non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation—as it has since remained. The theatre’s first production was The Royal Family performed at the Reynolda House.

Eventually Gorelick left Winston-Salem, and Theatre Alliance was tossed around to different volunteer directors until now Artistic Director Jamie Lawson, a previous guest director for TA, was asked to take the reins in the new Millennium, managing guest directors, as well as directing shows on his own.

It was in this decade when the theatre began to gain momentum and build its loyal audience and staff of volunteers.

“There is a lot of competition for an audience,” Lawson said. “Many people in the community theatre don’t view it as such, but it is very competitive — not only for audiences, but for talent to pull off your shows. We are all drawing from the same pool of viewers and performers. Fortunately, there are many incredibly talented people in the Triad. Another huge challenge is generating attendance. It is hard to get people to leave the comfort of their homes in this Netflix digital age, so we have to continue to seek ways to make audiences want to come.”

Now, in its more than 30 years of operation, the theatre has produced an eclectic mix of shows, from the unconventional When Pigs Fly, to the classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“One of my favorite shows was one we just completed, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. The energy in the room was electric every single performance. The last 20 minutes of that show are incredible, and as someone involved with the production, the high the audience felt was completely reciprocal with those of us on and offstage.”

Homes for the productions included the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the Augsburg Community Center, Wake Forest University and SECCA, until TA moved into its own home for its 25th birthday in 2008, cementing its location on the corner of Reynolda and Northwest Boulevard.

Recently, the theatre was renovated from an 88-seat house to a 120-seat house.

“I would attribute the theatre’s success to a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people and to our dedicated audiences and loyal donors,” Lawson said. “Without our volunteers and donors we would cease tomorrow; it’s really that simple. I get a lot of praise for ‘running the theater,’ but in reality, I choose the seasons that the Board votes on, and then I direct the shows. Everything else from accounting to stocking the Snickers bars is the credit of our tireless volunteers.”

The theatre’s success can be seen not just in its loyal customer base, but also in its list of accolades, including being named Best Local Performing Theatre for the last six consecutive years by Smitty’s Notes Reader Survey and Best Live Theatre Venue four times by Winston-Salem Journal Reader’s Choice.

No rest for the creative

Lawson began performing at the young age of eight, debuting in church productions. “I was perhaps the most nervous lamb in the Nativity,” he said. “Along with that nervousness, though, was an excitement and an energy that was indescribable, unless you have experienced it for yourself. I have had a love-hate relationship with theatre ever since” The love must have won out after high school because he went on to major in Theatre Arts and English Communication at High Point University. He puts his arts degree to use directing musical, comedies and dramas at Theatre Alliance, but only in his spare time. His fulltime job is as a supervisor for Replacements, Ltd., where he manages inventory control and customer service returns.

“I would have a difficult time not having theater in my life,” Lawson said about his creative outlet.

“It is incredibly difficult to manage a full time job and run a theatre company that produces at least 12 mainstage shows a year—not gonna lie,” he continued. “It truly is my life, much to the chagrin of my partner, Gray. Unless you’ve been involved in one, you have no idea the time commitment to put on a show.

“I am constantly staging shows in my mind. When I’m not trying to figure out a way to make that character’s entrance or death scene ‘artistic,’ I’m thinking about the shows for next season. I can’t turn off my brain, unfortunately. Also, unfortunately, for our terrific volunteers, I don’t like much downtime.”

Oddly enough, he says if he could do it all over again, he would actually study nursing. “I love to help people and to make them feel better,” he said. “I love life and I want others to feel the same. Indi rectly, I hope that comes through in the shows I choose and how I stage them, as well as my interaction with our patrons.”

And it certainly does. To date, Lawson has directed close to 275 productions, giving a speech before each one, introducing himself, the theatre, the rules of the house – and most importantly sharing his infectious enthusiasm for the show. It wouldn’t be surprising if part of the reason why Theatre Alliance has such a loyal audience is out of their love to hear Lawson speak so energetically about his craft. It’s hard not to like Lawson. His personality is simply joyful.

“TA means the world to me,” Lawson said. “It reinforces so many positive aspects of my life. We provide opportunities for all people to learn and to grow and to express themselves creatively, without discrimination or limitation of their sex, race, creed, religion or physical disability. I am so proud of that, and I’m not sorry if that sounds like a commercial. ‘People are people,’ as the song says, and everyone deserves the chance to feel wonderful and that they can be a part of something special—something bigger than themselves. It is glorious. TA means being able to give back to the community that supports us.”

In addition to its mainstage productions, the theatre performs several stage readings in their By the Book series, which raises funds for local charities like Make-A Wish, The Shepherds Center, Ronald Mc- Donald House and Samaritan Ministries.

The theatre is also known for pushing the envelope and using productions to raise awareness for gay rights, AIDS and other social issues.

“We have the opportunity to help people feel,” Lawson said. “How incredible is that? We do our best to make them laugh, to make them cry, to make them see aspects of the human experience that they don’t see on a daily basis, because it is ‘happening’ to someone else, for better or for worse. Live theatre is immersive; it is cathartic.”

The future of Theatre Alliance

To remain competitive in the arts scene and to keep up with the growing demands of their loyal customers, Theatre Alliance has established a four-year plan, which Lawson says will be announced after the start of this fall season.

“I can’t go into too many details,” he said. “It is very exciting, though. I hope we can see it to fruition.”

In addition to their plans for the future, the theatre has also recently established the Jamie Lawson Endowment Fund for Winston Salem Theatre Alliance with the Arts Forever Fund.

“It’s another step we are making to ensure that the organization outlives us,” Lawson said. “We think the arts are vital to our community to encourage individuality, to increase peace and harmony, to foster creativity, and to provide a safe haven for anyone who needs the respite performing art provides, whether onstage or in the audience.”

It’s because of that mission that Lawson is also determined to keep ticket prices affordable and productions accessible to all who want to attend.

“No one should be denied live theater because they can’t afford it,” he said. “I would encourage anyone who wants to come but doesn’t have the means to contact us. We can have people usher or volunteer some to earn tickets. Or, in the case of youth, we offer a set number of free tickets to introduce and engage the younger crowd in the joys of a live theatrical production. It makes a lasting impression on young people. I have seen it time and again. Many thanks to former Artistic Director Michael Huie. This position changed my life, and in turn, I am determined to use it to help change the lives of others.”

Their next season, Ablaze!, will begin September 16 with the Tony Awardwinning musical Chicago, a well-known comedy set in the roaring 20s.

“We try to truly have something for everyone,” Lawson said, “from family-friendly fare, like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, to Silence! The Musical, a very-R-rated, very funny parody of The Silence of the Lambs film and one of the more adult-oriented shows we will have done to date. (It runs in October.)” Other, more obscure shows to look forward to this season include Zanna Don’t!, a musical comedy set in a high school where almost everyone is gay. When the students write a provocative show, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” about the military, it sparks a connection between a young man and woman who fall in love. That’s when Zanna, a magical and musical fairy, enters the scene and waves his wand to bring true love to all.

“Part of the reason (TA is successful) is because a TA season is always eclectic and frequently daring,” Ackerman said. “Sure, they do guaranteed crowd-pleasers like Little Mermaid and their upcoming production of Chicago, but then they also do stuff like Martin Sherman’s Bent or Neil LaBute’s Bash. Hard-hitting stuff that challenges the audience, makes them think.” !

WANNA go?

Theatre Alliance, located at 1047 W. Northwest Blvd., Winston-Salem, opens for its new season September 10 (starting with staged readings). For tickets or more information call 336-723-7777 or wstheatrealliance.org.

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