Lynchburg-area theater community built on love, not rivalry

Lynchburg-area theater community built on love, not rivalry

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During his first few years running the theater department at Jefferson Forest High School, Spence White borrowed spotlights from Patricia Emmert and Larry Hart, directors of Amherst County and Heritage high schools’ respective theater departments.

Liberty Christian Academy theater teacher Ray Jones has lent the school’s “High School Musical” costumes to many companies in the area and borrowed outfits from Michelle Velasteugi, who runs Rustburg High School’s drama department, in return.

These kinds of actions are common in the Lynchburg-area high school theater community.

Theater teachers from the various high school programs — as well as middle schools, like Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation — regularly band together to ensure every show goes off without a hitch.

They frequently lend each other supplies, offer advice and encourage their students to see each other’s shows, along with other productions in the community.

Heritage and Glass actually performed a show together in 2018, with a cast of actors from both schools.

These relationships stretch beyond school walls and cross county lines is based on respect and a mutual love of inspiring students through the arts.

“Nobody [else] can fully appreciate the gravity of the many hats that we wear because we don’t just teach,” says Megan Emanuel, director of Brookville High School’s theater program. “We’re directing or choreographing. We do our own sets; we do our own makeup, our own costumes. We all do so much, and I think we’re the only ones who really understand all that we do.”

The camaraderie among high school theater programs even extends to competitions.”

Last month, Brookville and Jefferson Forest each competed in the Virginia High School League’s State Theatre Festival in Albemarle County.

Winning a competition like this is the equivalent of bringing home a state football championship, just with fewer helmets and more jazz hands.

“It’s a huge deal to get to states,” Emanuel says. “... It takes a lot of work. You’ve got to get through districts and then regionals.”

Because the schools competed in two different divisions, they were set to perform at completely different times. The Jefferson Forest group came up early to watch Brookville’s students perform, and Brookville stayed late to cheer on JF.

This, says Emanuel, was extra special because audiences at high school theater competitions are rather small, especially on a Tuesday, when this particular competition took place.

“Just knowing that the Jefferson Forest students were there and pulling for us was a great feeling,” she says.

Brookville placed third, putting them out of the running to represent the state at the upcoming Southeastern Theatre Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

Despite the bitterness of the loss, Emanuel and her students stuck around to watch Jefferson Forest, whose students ended up winning their division.

“Brookville parents were coming up to our kids [before the performance], saying, ‘Bring one home for our local theater,’” White says.

This isn’t the only example of support around competitions.

In 2018, Heritage was set to represent the state at the Southeastern Theatre Conference, which was being held in Mobile, Alabama, that year. Hart needed $20,000 to get his team there, and so he organized a benefit performance to help raise the funds. To help make the night bigger and better, Dunbar Middle, E.C. Glass and Brookville joined Heritage in performing at the event, which Hart says raised several thousand dollars.

The attitude behind all of this caring and sharing is a simple one.

“If I bought all my stuff that I have — which is thousands of pieces of costumes and thousands of pieces of props — if I kept that all to myself, what’s the purpose of it?” says Velastegui. “It’s sitting in a closet or in a basement, and I want it to be used. ... I love watching the shows and seeing there’s that and there’s this.”

Young performers start experiencing this camaraderie inside and outside the classroom as they perform together in various summer theater camps and attend each other’s shows, often at the encouragement of their teachers.

But it doesn’t end there. Lynchburg theater organizations — from collegiate programs to community groups to professional companies — all participate in the give and take of this artistic ecosystem.

“The better off any of these community groups are, the stronger we are,” says Geoffrey Kershner, who founded Endstation Theatre Company, but left to lead the Academy Center of the Arts as its executive director in 2015.

When Dustin Williams started Appomattox-based Wolfbane Productions in 2008, the company’s first three shows were staged at Heritage. Instead of requiring Williams to rent the space, which would have been unaffordable for the fledgling company, Hart negotiated a deal: the school received a small portion of Wolfbane’s ticket sales and some of its students worked on the production side of the show.

Now, Wolfbane offers internship opportunities for local students, and part of the reason behind this is Williams’ desire to pay forward the generosity that Hart showed them.

“I don’t know if he knows how much he did,” he says. “... Larry, in those first three years, really gave us the opportunity to just do what we love and then realize there was an audience for it.”

The family-friendly Masterworx Community Theater (also run by Velastegui but based in Lynchburg) and Sweet Briar College are often loaning costumes and props. Others, like the Academy, also lend out technical equipment.

Last month, when Renaissance Theatre Company’s brand new smoke machine fizzled out two nights before the opening of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” the theater borrowed one from Glass, says Tom Nowell, executive director of the longstanding community theater company in downtown Lynchburg.

Renaissance also contributes its fair share as well, and not just in props or costumes.

Endstation was still based in Amherst, in residency at Sweet Briar, during the derecho of 2012. The storm left the college without power, putting the company’s apprentices, who were being housed there, in a bind. In response, Nowell invited them to camp out in Renaissance’s lobby.

“We had their whole company sleeping in the theater while we weren’t doing anything,” he says. “They set up their costume machines, and they were making costumes and doing other things too for about three or four days.”

Companies, whether directly or indirectly, share ideas as well.

Endstation, Kershner says, was one of if not the first to do site-specific theater in the area. Now, Wolfbane, Poplar Forest and Rogue Productions, which started in 2017, all produce theater in non-traditional spaces.

Artists in the community don’t consider this to be stealing; when one organization takes a risk, others often follow.

This keeps the local theater scene evolving and the audiences growing. And although there is a limited theater-going audience, there’s still enough for everyone to go around.

“We have a lot of people say, ‘I was over at the Academy yesterday, so I’m coming to your show today,’” says Nowell. “That’s not unusual.”

Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.

Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.

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