Today we’d like to introduce you to Ann-Carol Pence.
Ann-Carol, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am a piano player by trade, for which I undeniably credit my mother. She always wanted to play the piano but her parents could not afford piano lessons. When I was 3, my mom enrolled me in “music kindergarten.” She moved me into piano lessons when I started kindergarten before I could even read. I got my first church job at 12 years old, playing for our church services during the summer. That inspired my mother and my piano teacher to expand my skillset. I began taking organ lessons and soon assumed the position as organist. The ability to accompany became my life passion. I played for all my high school musicals, my high school chorus, and my high school jazz band. Behind the piano was really where I felt special.
I had such a passion for music but I didn’t want to be a music teacher, so I went to James Madison University to become a schoolteacher. Practically, all of my family are educators. It is such an inspiring profession, but it just wasn’t for me. So upon graduation, a friend said there were music opportunities in Atlanta so, I headed south to “take a break” and play piano until I found myself. That was the best decision I ever made. I came to Atlanta in 1987 for a visit, immediately got a church job and started music directing and playing for theatre.
Fast forward to 1995. When I turned 30, I decided to retire from the business. I had experienced many wonderful opportunities all over the nation – theatre jobs galore, musical direction for Holland America Cruise Lines and Heartstrings, a national tour for the healing of AIDS. You name it, I did it. I was on the road all the time and I wanted a more stable life. This time while I was finding myself, I took a job at a collection agency. It was the first traditional day job I had ever had. I am so thankful in retrospect for the many lessons it taught me, about teamwork, about showing up and being a leader and about being competitive.
In 1996, a new theatre had opened in in a converted hardware store in Duluth, Ga. I was hired to music direct a Christmas show in Aurora Theatre’s inaugural season that had not been written called CHRISTMAS CANTEEN. I was still at the collection agency doing very well financially but CANTEEN provided me with a creative outlet I had been missing. Anthony Rodriguez, my partner and spouse, was working for Stage Right Entertainment, building Aurora’s sets. He had been cast in a show called THE BOYS NEXT DOOR at Aurora that same season. It was literally fate that presented us this opportunity to be part of Aurora Theatre in its first season.
Aurora’s original owners saw little hope in this suburban town being able to support a theatre. In one season, they had run out of resources and run out of hope. They were ready to close the theatre. Anthony and I saw the untapped potential. Anthony took over as the Managing Director (which was actually the Marketing Director, the Box Office Manager, and Technical Director.) I still had my corporate job so we had time to restructure the organization. In one season, we transitioned Aurora from a failing for-profit company into a non-profit organization. We formed a board of directors and got to know all the mayor and council. We became part of the local business community who introduced us to a lot of community leaders. Then we made a huge shift. We sold our condo in Buckhead and bought a house in Duluth, 3 minutes from where we worked. We felt in our hearts, we wouldn’t change this community without “going all in.”
A year later, I quit my day job (gulp). At a significant pay cut, I was now working full-time at Aurora, alongside a group of dedicated folks who believed that Gwinnett deserved a professional theatre. A decade later, we were looking to expand our facility. Although we had hoped to stay in Duluth, The City of Lawrenceville recognized the positive economic impact the arts have on its community and invited us to serve as the cornerstone for their revitalization plans, thanks to developer Emory Morsberger and an incredible Mayor and City Council. In a unique partnership between city government, private development and a non-profit charity, the City of Lawrenceville purchased a 100-year-old church and together with we transformed the space into a $7.5 million theatre complex, which opened in May of 2007. Now, Aurora Theatre houses 2 performance spaces, employs 17 full-time staff members, a paid apprentice company and over 100 professional artists each season. We boast 5,000 season ticket holders, we produce over 800 events annually and entertains 80,000 visitors. I literally cannot believe how abundant our lives are.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
There have been 3 big bumps in the road that I still remember so vividly:
The first big struggle was the search for a permanent home. We only began our search because Duluth was redeveloping its downtown area. We had been involved in the master planning. We knew the building where Aurora Theatre was renting would be destroyed. Although Duluth was always trying to make a place for Aurora, the theatre was always a sticking point. Anthony & I began looking at other cities to relocate. Norcross and Buford both had buildings that were appealing, but finances were always a huge consideration. Life changes so fast. Anthony had a 20-minute meeting with Emory Morsberger, sent one of his staff members to a show and the following Monday we were meeting with Lawrenceville leaders. Ironically, David Still, now a city council member in Lawrenceville, was the person who came to see THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS. That weekend changed our lives.
The second hurdle was working with city government in the midst of building the new Aurora. The building was grossly overbid, Materials like copper skyrocketed. This worried a lot of city officials. The theatre opening was pushed back. We didn’t have a place to perform. We had closed the theatre in Duluth. The city graciously agreed to let us perform for on them unfinished top floor of City Hall while the theatre was being finished. A new mayor had just been elected. I can remember Anthony and I being at the new Aurora, walking through the space and hearing 2 people say “It’s too late to stop it now.” Those are the days, I steeled myself to how afraid I was. I said a lot of prayers, Anthony was always calm and collected though. We relied on the relationships we made with the board, the city and the loyal patrons we had created and pressed on. We knew if we could get the space open, that everything would change.
The third struggle was the recession. We watched theatres cutting back programming. By then, we had hired a Director of Sales and Marketing and we started looking for new ways to create income. We booked any and every show we could charge for. It worked!!!! Most importantly, we now have an incredible business model to show for it. Children’s Playhouse, Ghost Tours, Comedy Nights, Learning Library, concerts. We were doing it all. We have learned that creating a consistent stream of entertainment that appeals to the widest variety of people is the best way to diversify our audience.
So, as you know, we’re impressed with Aurora Theatre – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I am the Co-Founder and Associate Producer of Aurora Theatre. About to embark on our 23rd season, Aurora Theatre is the only professional theatre in Gwinnett County, With 5000 subscribers, 800 annual ticketed events, 80,000 visitors, we are the second largest professional theatre in the state of Georgia. Our theatre is located in the center of Gwinnett County, the most diverse county in the Southeast.
I am most proud that the entire staff of Aurora believes it is our responsibility to make Aurora a welcome place for every visitor. Although that sounds easy, to make every person feel welcome, we have to aggressively acknowledge that most of our region is still run by people who look different than us. Anthony is a first generation American (his family fled Cuba in the early 60’s). I am undeniably a strong and loud southern woman. That gives us a unique perspective. We embrace that as 2 people who have been awarded a modicum of success, we have the unique opportunity to provide artistic opportunities to those who may feel tragically underserved as artists. We mentor a highly diverse Apprentice Company. We are mentoring more female artists. We make it a top priority to produce female and Latinx authors. It is exciting work. We look to those organizations all over the country who are innovative leaders and who challenge us to reflect our community both on and offstage.
I am most proud of Aurora’s Artist Statement’s principles that we all aspire to:
We dream big.
We think fast.
We work hard.
We take blame.
We share credit.
We collaborate fully.
And above all, we hold each other high.
This, our version of the “Third Idea”, is the art of story that happens when we all contribute to the best of our ability.
40% of our audience comes from outside Gwinnett County, and artists drive a long way and commit to an arduous rehearsal and performance schedule to be a part of the work we are creating. Sometimes, it’s for the crowd pleasers like MAMMA MIA or MARY POPPINS. Other times, it’s an explosive drama like THE MOUNTAINTOP or CLYBOURNE PARK.
Now, we are on the brink of a campus expansion. That doesn’t happen without creating a huge amount of trust within our community. The community can be the community we live in, the community we serve, the community of artists we employ. But, it is also important to create trust with our city leaders, our county leaders, our educational leaders and our business leaders. If we are always present and we create a culture of radical friendliness, we, as arts leaders, can indeed change a community.
Doing all this with the love of my life is sublime. I could not ask for a more incredible life.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We are on the brink of a campus expansion. Our new performing arts center will encompass the entire city block we currently sit on. The venue will include a 500-seat theatre with a fly loft and an orchestra pit, a cabaret theatre that will seat 150, classrooms and shop space. We will have an actual rehearsal hall. After 22 years without one, I can’t express how exciting the rehearsal hall will be. We rehearsed one huge number for MAMMA MIA in the lobby because the stage was not ready and there was no place to rehearse 24 people.
These new spaces complement our current space which is home to our 250-seat Mainstage Theatre and 90-seat studio theatre. The City of Lawrenceville is continuing their profound commitment to provide “cultural infrastructure” so that we, as a successful professional arts organization, can do what we do best – provide valuable high quality programming for our community.
- Season Tickets range from $80 – $230 with the higher prices including a small donation to Aurora Theatre
- Single Tickets for plays start at $20
- Single Tickets for musicals start at $30
- Children’s Playhouse and Learning Library tickets are ALWAYS $7 or less
- Address: Aurora Theatre FREE Parking Deck
153 Crogan Street
Lawrenceville, GA 30046
- Website: auroratheatre.com
- Phone: 678-226-6222
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Bartelski, LION KING JR Summer Camp, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME David DeVries, Julissa Sabino, The cast of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, IN THE HEIGHTS starring Diego Klock Perez, with Lilliangina Quinones, Julissa Sabino, India Tyree