Staff members at the Academy Center of the Arts can describe where they were on Dec. 6, 2018 — the night the Academy of Music Theatre reopened its doors for the first time in 60 years.
They also can describe the whirlwind of activity leading up to the momentous night.
There was little time to enjoy their achievement then, and in some ways, they still have yet to fully bask in their accomplishment.
Last month, they quietly celebrated the one-year anniversary of the theater’s reopening.
While there was no specific event or fanfare to mark the occasion — the Academy spent December hosting multiple holiday events — the anniversary was on everyone’s minds.
“It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been a year,” Executive Director Geoffrey Kershner says, calling it surreal. “There’s aspects of the year that feel like it has gone tremendously fast. I can’t believe it’s over.”
Setting the stageThough they never showed it, the staff at the Academy went through some dark days during the restoration of the historic theater.
“There was a huge part of this that was a leap of faith,” says Kershner, who joined the arts organization as its executive director in 2015. “It’s a group leap of faith ... and I think the hardest thing when you’re leading a leap of faith is the moment when you have your doubts.”
The workload grew. Staff members left. Public opinion, both for and against the project, constantly surrounded the organization.
And, of course, there was the pressure that comes with receiving millions of dollars to fund the restoration.
“I can remember these two or three moments of sitting in my car before I came into the building and looking at the theater and saying, ‘You’re not going to break me,’” Kershner says with a soft chuckle. “I had those moments, but it was defiant. It wasn’t giving up.”
Kershner’s leap of faith landed him on solid ground. The fundraising campaign reached its goal in 2016, and the building came together.
From the outside, the change appeared as a steady drip. Earth was moved, foundation laid and, eventually, a new building took up space on Main Street. Scaffolding went up on the theater, and when it came down, the Academy was a different color.
It was an entirely different experience watching the change from within the organization.
“You would walk in one day, and there would be scaffolding all the way up to the roof,” says Brittany Griffith, the Academy’s director of communications and marketing, who has been with the organization for 2 ½ years. “And then the next day, there’d be an entire balcony painted with new wood laid down for the floor. And then the next day, you’d have seats.”
Even after the construction crew left, and the theater announced its opening lineup, the fear never truly went away. Instead, it coalesced into a single, terrible thought: what if no one came to opening night?
But come they did.
The legendary Mavis Staples performed to a theater packed to capacity on Dec. 6, 2018. Three other events during the weeklong celebration also sold out.
“That first night after everybody left, we did a champagne toast onstage with the entire staff,” says Griffith. “... That was the moment where we got to celebrate that together and feel it together.”
Curtain upThe crowds have continued to show up throughout this inaugural year of programming.
Every event brought with it a new lesson in running the newly renovated theater, which is “twice the size of what we’ve normally served in the Warehouse Theatre,” Programming Manager Corey Wilson says, referring to what was once the Academy’s main performance space.
Housed in the Academy’s Arts & Education Building on Commerce Street, the Warehouse Theatre, along with the galleries located next to the historic theater on Main Street, make up the Academy’s campus.
“It’s just kind of learning what works and what doesn’t,” Wilson says of programming for the multiple spaces.
Another of those lessons was finding ways to combine audience interests with the Academy’s mission of offering diverse programming that serves all demographics in the community.
“We have people from all backgrounds and things and interests coming into the venue,” says Wilson, “and I think it’s important for them to be able to see themselves reflected onstage as well in the programming we’re choosing.”
Cirque-Tacular’s Art of Circus, which completely sold out in May, and November’s tribute band Best of the Eagles proved to be surprise favorites among patrons, illustrating that Lynchburg theater-goers have interests that cover the artistic spectrum.
While the Academy’s staff can’t fully assess the accomplishments made during this first year until they crunch the numbers for their 2020 Annual Report, which should be released in February, what they’ve seen so far is promising.
During the first three months following the theater’s reopening, the Academy produced 12 nights of in-house events. Griffith says it produced 45 nights of events over the last three months of the year. The theater was also made available to groups, including the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra, the Charlottesville Ballet and Alluvion Stage Company, among many others.
Griffith also estimates the organization has doubled its community impact through events as well as education and outreach programs.
“The theater provides us the opportunity to reach more people,” adds Kershner.
One of the biggest examples of this occurred in April, says Kershner, when Opera on the James, a resident company of the Academy, performed “La Traviata” in the historic theater, while North Mississippi Allstars rocked out the Warehouse Theatre and both galleries held exhibitions.
“While it was putting our staff to the limit in terms of like all hands on deck, I think it was really cool that we were able to pull off essentially four different events ... at the same time,” says Wilson. “When we talk about diversity of programming — that was a true example of it.”
Diversity in programming will once again to be at the forefront in 2020.
So far, the Academy has announced an appearance by New York Times bestselling author and comedian David Sedaris this April as well as performances by acts ranging from magician Mike Super to nouveau cirque troupe Flipe Fabrique to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Live, which is based on the popular PBS Kids TV show.
The Academy also is hard at work on more education and outreach initiatives, including a new program with the Lynchburg Regional Juvenile Detention Center, which they hope to launch sometime this year. The tentative plan, says Kelly Posenauer, the Academy’s director of education, is to send instructors into the facility to teach classes and workshops, starting with pottery. Eventually, she adds, they hope to expand it to incorporate music.
Says Kershner: “This fits into the category of really feeling that nobody should be excluded from arts engagement or community.”
What is this feeling?While the Academy hosted everyone from Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn to Ladies of Laughter to Ira Glass over the last 12 months, the moments that meant the most to the staff are the ones that hit closer to home.
A week after Staples performed, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played to a sold-out crowd. Yet, it wasn’t the concert that resonated with the staff; it was the sound check that was opened up to around 500 area music students earlier that day, says Griffith.
The Encore Youth Theatre Camp production of “Newsies” in July — the first time an Encore production was performed in the historic theater — was another one of those moments. It was so special that several alumni of the Encore program reached out to Posenauer saying they also wanted to experience performing on that stage.
Their request has now become a full-fledged production of “Chicago” — a callback to when the Academy staged the murderous musical at the Warehouse Theatre in 2011, she says.
“Over the years, so many students just completely flourish on that stage,” says Posenauer, whose first week at the Academy coincided with the topping off of the theater’s fly tower in 2008. “... To be able to see some of these students again on our stage is really neat.”
That’s not the only full-circle moment Posenauer managed to arrange for this particular production, which opens in June.
The late Nan Kordos, wife of former Academy of Fine Arts Executive Director Richard Kordos, directed the Warehouse production, and Nan and Richard Kordos’ daughter, Melora Kordos, will direct this one, says Posenauer.
A year after the reopening, the emotions are still sinking in, often coming in waves during the lull between events.
It’s happened a few times for Kershner in recent weeks, first when he found an old Academy strategic plan while cleaning his office and again when he came across a letter from his predecessor, David Jenkins.
Even with the existence of tangible objects that evoke memories, Kershner says he feels it the most when he experiences the theater with his 2 ½-year-old son, Theo.
In November, Theo saw his first full theatrical production at the Academy, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Christmas Show.”
“He watched the whole thing, and we have a picture of him clapping and looking over at me,” says Kershner.
Just four years into his tenure at the Academy, Kershner has already seen the organization’s greatest project in the last half-century come to fruition.
Watching his son fall in love with the magic of that stage is now what keeps him striving for greater heights and inspiring his staff to continue leaping with him.
“In many ways, seeing that through my son’s eyes is something I want to make sure that we’re doing for as many kids in the community as possible.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @by EmmaSchkloven.