Anthony Rodriguez’s friends remember it vividly, but he doesn’t. When they remind him his post-college plans included opening a theater company, he laughs because he has no recollection of that.
Despite a shaky memory, that alleged statement has proved prophetic. As president, CEO and co-founder (alongside associate producer Ann-Carol Pence) of Aurora Theatre, Rodriguez has just opened the company’s new $35 million Lawrenceville Arts Center. Aurora’s first production in the 500-seat Grand Theatre will be the annual audience favorite Christmas Canteen musical, opening Friday for a run through December 23.
Owned by the city of Lawrenceville but operated by Aurora, the downtown center was scheduled to open in 2020, but Covid pushed back the debut. Because it was considered essential work, construction continued during the pandemic, albeit slower than expected. It’s complete now, save for small touches here and there.
Some streaming work and outdoor gigs aside, the pandemic also forced Aurora to halt productions. Those were highly stressful times, Rodriguez recalls, but there was a silver lining. “What Covid did give us was the right timing,” he says. “If the Center had opened when it was scheduled, I don’t know where we would be. We would not have been able to do a grand opening.”
Rodriguez and Pence, who’ve been partners in real life for 26 years, were happy to show off the new center during late October public tours. Doing so left the two proud and a bit dazed.
“Overwhelming was an understatement. It was a culmination of so many things that probably should never happen,” says Rodriguez, 57. “Cities don’t partner with small professional theaters. They might build one theater but they don’t go out of their way to build two — and they don’t go out of their way to create a management agreement under which this operates.”
Envisioned by the design firm Stevens & Wilkinson, the 59,500-square-foot complex has, in addition to the state-of-the-art mainstage with a fly loft and automated orchestra pit, a Cabaret Theater with a courtyard event space, public areas, rehearsal space, a green room and a costume shop. Aurora will keep its old building, now renamed the Bobby Sikes Fine Arts Center, running as well.
It’s a far cry from the company’s first space — a smallish converted hardware store in Duluth. After attending the University of Georgia, Rodriguez moved around some before coming to Atlanta in 1996, where he performed locally, including at what was then known as Aurora Theatre. The original owners were going to close the company, and Rodriguez and Pence thought that was an unwise idea. They pulled together some colleagues in Duluth, formed the company as a non-profit, bought the assets and went from there.
That was 1999 and their first production as owners was Oliver! Pence kept her day job so the two could get by financially, and Rodriguez was the theater’s only employee at the beginning. Wearing multiple hats was the norm. “I built the scenery. I sold tickets and hung lighting. I did as much by myself as I could. We had to send out mail, buy lists and I’d speak at everything — every Rotary and Kiwanis club in Gwinnett County.”
He became a member of the Duluth Merchants Association to try to generate sponsorships. “We literally built this theater one person at a time. One relationship at a time. One experience at a time.”
As they eyed growth, Rodriguez and Pence began looking at who other theater companies were hiring. They brought in Rachel May (now co-founder and producing artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre) to direct Catfish Moon and Freddie Ashley (now artistic director of Actor’s Express) to helm Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo. One of the early productions that got attention was Floyd Collins. A preview story ran on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution section front, and people noticed. “That was a turning point, a time when people said, ‘We need to pay attention,’” Rodriguez says.
Around that time, the city of Duluth had been looking to redevelop its downtown. Although Rodriguez and Pence wanted to be involved, the parties couldn’t agree on a space or a deal.
“I looked around and (developer) Emory Morsberger and I found the city of Lawrenceville,” Rodriguez recalls. “We met, and he owned a bunch of property and he put us in touch with the mayor and council. He told me he’d sell the property to Lawrenceville as long as we worked with Aurora to create entertainment. From there, it was off to the races.”
Aurora Theatre relocated to Lawrenceville in 2007 and grew into one of the largest theater companies in the region, as well as one eager to embrace new work.
Over the years, Rodriguez would look out his office window and fantasize about what it would be like to expand even more. Unfortunately other nearby buildings stood in his way — literally. He put the thought aside until one day he glanced outside and noticed that the neighboring Universal Joint had posted a For Sale sign. Matters moved quickly from there. Rodriguez called the mayor; the city eventually worked with a Peach Street Credit Union building on the corner; and by 2016 Rodriguez and new city manager Chuck Warbington had begun discussions “in earnest” about how an expansion would work.
The city of Lawrenceville has given Aurora free programming rein as “cultural arts experts,” according to Pence, and works with the company to mix in the city’s own events at the new center. While Lawrenceville invested heavily in the complex, Aurora raised more than $5 million, not a small amount for an arts nonprofit, to contribute to the project.
Five years after he approached the city, operating now in fancier, more advanced digs is obviously satisfying for Rodriguez and Pence. Yet just as appealing is the prospect of forming other community partnerships, especially with groups without their own homes, over time.
One of Pence’s long-held goals has been for Aurora to launch a show that later winds up on Broadway. The new building makes it “palpably the first time that we can see us originate a show that will go to (another) regional market and then New York,” Pence said.
Just as important, though, for Rodriguez and Pence is to continue to take risks and program for all audience members. Rodriguez, one of only a handful of Latino theater artistic directors in the country, calls Gwinnett the most diverse county in the South. Aurora’s audience is not always as varied as the community, but he nonetheless feels it’s vital to program for everyone.
“There are stories we must tell, stories we must represent in the community, and we have done that. If we don’t start those conversations, we’ll never know if we are reaching community members who need a space. I believe we are the place that can tell these stories.”
Several Aurora productions over the years have gotten patrons talking, such as the LGBT-themed Men With Money, The Mountaintop and Clybourne Park. Even the Pulitzer Prize-wining Wit yielded questions from a few audience members.
“Some people did not want to see that pain onstage. Some of the messaging we got from other shows was that, ‘You need to entertain us, and that is not entertaining us.’ I said, that is not my job. My job is to be an entity of education for this community. In doing the shows we do, I believe I have bridged some gaps or built some bridges to understanding. If building bridges and understanding is a risk, I will take it every time.”
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.