At first, it was just a fantasy. As Anthony Rodriguez, artistic director and cofounder of Aurora Theatre, looked out of his office, he saw empty space and wondered what an expansion would look like. It’s taken some time — and hundreds of hours of conversations and planning with city administration since 2010 — but now that fantasy is about to become reality.
The Lawrenceville City Council voted on January 7 to move ahead with plans for a $31.1 million arts center in the downtown area, and Aurora Theatre will be the management agent for the future Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center. John Abbott, Todd Dolson and Jason Smith of Stephens and Wilkinson Architects designed the new facility and Carroll Daniel Construction will complete the project. Half of the funds for the new arts center will be raised by the city’s entertainment and arts partners; city leaders will unveil a demo of what the new facility will look like this spring and plan to finish the facility by the end of next year. Rodriguez and cofounder/associate producer Ann-Carol Pence are excited about the possibilities.
“We will program the spaces to include the widest variety of cultural arts events through four working venues, which will enable the entire campus to be utilized as an educational center,” says Pence. “The plan is to utilize the classrooms, practice rooms, rehearsal hall, studio and dressing rooms not only for artists, but for ongoing work force development.”
The new 59,500-square-foot facility will include a 500-seat theater, which will be earmarked for the company’s blockbuster musicals, as well as a cabaret theater that can be used for both indoor or outdoor events. The theaters are scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. The space will also include a new lobby, rehearsal space, a costume shop and a fly system that will allow for more theater magic.
Back in 1996, Rodriguez and Pence founded Aurora Theatre, starting off as a small troupe in Duluth. The early days saw lean attendance, but steadily the company caught on. The two eventually were able to move to downtown Lawrenceville in 2007 in their current venue. The company has long had a passion for producing musicals, classics and new ones, but the success of their world premiere Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale in 2012 seemed to push them into a different artistic league, leading to several award-winning, sold-out shows. The company currently hosts 80,000 patrons at 800 events each year.
They are aware that some people may feel that nothing is wrong with their current building, but they explain that it has its limits. The new space will give Aurora the opportunity to host companies of all disciplines throughout the year — ones they’ve previously been unable to find room for. Ballethnic Dance Company, Dance Canvas and Orchestra Noir are on their list of dream collaborators.
“We do have a great space, but we don’t have a proper orchestra for the musicians — and live music is one of our core beliefs,” says Rodriguez. “In this day and age where you can see anything on your phone, a lot of the work we do is to create spectacle that we are not currently able to do. We want to engage the next generation of theatergoers.”
Pending approval by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, Rodriguez is hopeful that the facility will also allow for a greater collaboration with Georgia Gwinnett College — Aurora’s educational partner for the last 11 years. Many of Aurora’s administrative, technical and backstage interns are GGC students.
Pence relishes that concept. “When we first came to Lawrenceville, and knew a college was going to open, we said it would be so great if we could be a college town,” Pence said. “Anthony went to UGA, and it’s always bustling up there. We do want vibrant people here, to be able to train the next generation of leaders so we can be the next Athens, Georgia.”
When Pence and Rodriguez put out a call for patrons and fans to show up for the final City Council vote wearing red shirts as a show of support, a large crowd filled the meeting room. “We went at 6:30 p.m. to welcome people, and when we hit the door, the room was full,” says Pence. “It was great to see so many people there excited. Some people came back over to Aurora to celebrate after.”
Lisa Sherman, the City of Lawrenceville’s chief communications officer, feels the new arts center will be huge for the area. “We have two major economic impact generators in our community — education and the arts — two industries we are trying to grow,” she says. “This expanding performing arts center will bring those together — education space for classes and expanded opportunities to bring professional theater to a community that has been embracing it for the last decade. We believe this will truly have a profound impact. We are the county seat of Gwinnett, and Gwinnett is a major economic engine for the state of Georgia as well as metro Atlanta.”
As the city manager of the City of Lawrenceville, Chuck Warbington has been aware of the discussion of a new arts center for a while. He’s been in the position for three years and says the entire community helped shape this initiative. In fact, residents and business owners alike offered input and had strong ideas of what they wanted to see.
“They wanted it to be traditional, not modern looking, and not overshadow the courthouse,” says Warbington. “So we took great strides in making the architectural view of it look like it fits into downtown.”
Looking to next year, he doesn’t expect any major changes. “It will be just like we have been operating the last 10 years. We have an agreement; Aurora has so many goals and shows they have to perform, and they have to do a lot of community projects with schools in addition to their professional shows. The only difference is that it will just be bigger.”
While the expansion is a major professional coup for Aurora Theatre, it’s also one that means a lot to Rodriguez and Pence personally.
“We can truly make this a place that lives on well past the time Ann-Carol and I are gone, that is part and parcel of our community and will reflect our community the way we have wanted it to,” says Rodriguez. “It is a testament to all the artists we’ve worked with before to be able to give them a richer palate to work with.”