Now that the final structural beams have been put in place, Aurora Theatre and the city of Lawrenceville are ready to move to the next phase of the new Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center. The Aurora team and city leaders recently held a topping out ceremony, then invited the press to see the work in progress.
The 56,000–square–foot facility is a considerable expansion for Aurora, the second–largest professional theater company in Georgia and Gwinnett County’s only professional performing arts company. The $35 million arts center will include a 500–seat theater, a 150–seat cabaret area, indoor and outdoor civic spaces, space for educational programming and offices, rehearsal space and an outdoor courtyard that can hold 200. Georgia Gwinnett College will use the cabaret space and classrooms for its media arts program.
The city of Lawrenceville approved an additional $4 million in October for COVID-era upgrades. That money will be used to help improve air quality in the new and existing facilities plus touchless doorway handles and bathroom urinals and sinks.
The arts center was scheduled to open at the end of this year but completion is now expected in late May or early June. “Construction was considered an essential service so it didn’t really stop,” says Aurora cofounder and producing artistic director Anthony Rodriguez. “It put us a little behind, which was kind of better for us. At one point there were estimates that the building was going to be done by the end of this year — and what would we do with it?”
When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, Rodriguez says he thought it would end shortly and envisioned an instantaneous bounce back. “We thought we’d kick off a new season in September or October, but we realized we can’t do this anymore to our artists, our staff and patrons. We said, ‘Let’s scrap everything and let the environment dictate what we can do.'” Aurora set an estimate as to when it might return to full indoor productions, realizing it may have to re-evaluate as time goes by. “Do we have to continue to figure out how to move forward? I wish I had a crystal ball.”
Rodriguez hopes that the company will be at capacity by fall 2021 and is planning some test events beforehand. Full–scale productions likely won’t happen until next October. “We want to give whatever vaccines that are coming down the pike time,” he says. Aurora would rather wait until it can fill the 500–seat house instead of having a socially distanced 200.
Aurora has been streaming shows this fall and performing outdoors. It will stage an outdoor version of its popular Christmas Canteen at the Bowl at Sugar Hill (this Friday–Sunday only); an in-person run of Rodriguez’s well-known one–man A Christmas Carol (December 16–23) with social distancing and a maximum audience of 75; and stream a reprise of the one–man This Wonderful Life, with Jeremy Aggers (December 17–January 1).
Rodriguez says he hopes the outdoor courtyard will be done by April, so the company can do more live events. Despite having the new facility, Aurora plans to produce about the same number of shows.
The new arts center was designed to be more comfortable and flexible for performers, with more bars, space and an outdoor gathering place for theatergoers. With four performing spaces, Rodriguez foresees leasing space to other companies via partnerships. “We cannot produce ourselves out of the financial hole that COVID has put us in,” he says. “That is not possible, and there is no math on Earth that will make that possible.”
Rodriguez says he’s also open to hosting weddings and parties. A colleague — Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Chris Coleman (who cofounded Atlanta’s Actor’s Express) convinced him of the benefits. “He said there is no greater way to bind the community to your space than to invite them to your facility for a significant event, a birthday or anniversary party.”
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