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Upscale theater meets small town charm

The Prizery has become a cultural hub of Southside Virginia enticing art-loving tourists

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  • The Prizery

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    This is fourth year in a row of the summer theatre series and has become a staple at The Prizery.

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 8:21 pm | Updated: 8:24 pm, Thu Feb 14, 2013.

SOUTH BOSTON — When entering The Prizery, the building still has the look and feel of an aging tobacco warehouse with some of the crop’s history — and the role it played in Halifax County — lining the walls with pictures, dates and information.

However, by just turning one corner of the hallway, guests are taken somewhere else entirely.

“You walk around the corner and you say ‘Oh my gosh’ and there is the theater space,” said Chris Jones, The Prizery’s artistic director. “People aren’t expecting to see that. That is the wow factor.”

The 250-seat Chastain Theatre is just part of the 38,000-square-foot building that is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places as part of the South Boston Historic Tobacco Warehouse District. The Prizery, which once served as a tobacco warehouse, is now a lively center for the arts attracting thousands of visitors from outside the area each year.

It is believed that the building was constructed in the late 1800s by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and it was of similar structure that it is today. The basement was used for manufacturing the 1,000 pound tobacco barrels where the tobacco was “prized” — pressed layer by layer into the hogshead barrels. The first floor was used for storage and the second floor was for pickups and drop offs and the top floor was for drying the tobacco.

But by the 1960s, Reynolds was leaving the tobacco business as the entire industry began to slow down. For several years the massive building sat empty until 2001, when millions of dollars of renovations were invested to bring life to the impressive facility.

And about $7 million later, The Prizery has become a cultural hub of Southside Virginia. The halls that were once filled with tobacco workers now house painters, actors and educators and the facility is a one-building welcome wagon for the town of South Boston.

The large four-story Italianate tower at one corner of the building is impossible to miss when turning the corner onto The Prizery’s lot off Main Street. The tower now is home to the welcome center, the theater, exhibit rooms, dance and lecture halls, classrooms and a banquet hall. Several nights a week the third floor will be filled with life — wedding receptions, corporate mixers and fundraising parties frequent the historic building.

But even with the out-of-town conferences and receptions the facility brings in, the biggest draw remains to be the theater. In the past three years, the Summer Theatre program — which recruits performers from all over the country — has brought in more than 12,000 patrons.

“Particularly in summer our numbers are really, really strong,” said Jones. “We are just another piece of that kind of grab for tourists in the region. The theater component is the heart of the building.”

Jones has worked with theaters and art communities in several different parts of the country, but Halifax County is his native soil and rejuvenating The Prizery has been his passion for the past several years. After being raised on a tobacco farm himself, Jones was hired when The Prizery re-opened in 2005 and has seen the place transform.

The biggest attendance he remembers for a show was for “Annie,” which brought its star all the way from New York and took place the first year the theater opened. But there have been a lot of shows to sell well — singer Ralph Stanley, Christian musician Sandy Patty, and some of the local Christmas concerts all had sold out shows. A visit from the Vienna Boys Choir sold out in two days.

Having a facility that brings in professional performers on a regular basis each year in a town with a little more than 8,000 people is a rarity community leaders are aware of.

“There are more cultural opportunities here than a lot of small towns like South Boston will have,” said Matt Leonard, the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority executive director, who helps to recruit businesses to the region.

He said it’s “unusual” for a place like Halifax County to have such a thriving performing arts scene and when trying to bring business to the region The Prizery is a crucial talking point. Leonard, a member of The Prizery’s board, often brings people to the facility.

“‘Wow’ is a word that is usually the first word out of their mouth,” said Leonard when he takes guests to the place.

The Prizery, he said, is able to bring in talent all over the country that the locals would not have access to otherwise and the building’s renovations help to revive South Boston’s downtown overall.

While more and more people headed away from downtown to go to Walmart several years ago, the historic downtown of South Boston has hovered around the new life of The Prizery as it had so many decades before. After a show, many guests will walk down the street to Bistro 1888, an upscale restaurant and bar that has won dozens of accolades in Virginia.

Jones said the restaurant will sometimes even stay open late if there is a show going on so people can have a cocktail to end their night. Guests will also frequent the restaurant Molasses Grill and many of the local stores in the quaint downtown area exemplifying a Southern small town.

About 10 percent of the patrons for every event at The Prizery come from outside the county. Nearby Virginia International Raceway, a resort for racing aficionados, advertises events at The Prizery.

“A lot of people are looking for things to do in the evenings and we list that as an option,” said Connie Nyholm, co-owner of VIR, which brings in hundreds of tourists by its own accord.

In Halifax County, which is home to around 35,000 people, most of the businesses try to work together to bring in guests. It is not uncommon to see a real estate agent taking prospective home-buyers through The Prizery to show off the city’s art scene.

Jones welcomes as many people possible to come take a tour of the building because he knows it will get a reaction, especially from people who have never been to the area before. He said South Boston has the charm of a small town life but brings in cultural aspects found in larger cities, which is appealing to a lot of visitors.

“We have the quiet of a small town and the amenities of a city as well,” said Jones, while walking through the backstage of the theater, where it’s not uncommon to find a local artists tooling away on a craft.

Only four people now work at The Prizery, which operates as a non-profit. A welcome center in the building serves as an information hub for Halifax County as well as paying tribute to the region’s rich tobacco heritage.

Even in the banquet hall on the third floor which is set up to accommodate a modern business’s technology there are displays of historic exhibits highlighting the Crossing of the Dan, one of the greatest historical victories of the American Revolution.

And with its location next to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, the educational component in the community is one Jones said they take very seriously, combining modern art and learning with building’s well-known history.

For information on shows, dates and room availability, visit www.prizery.com.

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