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Aurora Sets the Stage for Top-Tier Entertainment in the Heart of Gwinnett

First established in a converted hardware store in 1996, the Aurora Theatre is in its 24th season and has become recognized as a leader in the arts regionally and beyond. Situated in downtown Lawrenceville, the thriving theatre employs nearly 300 artists each year, bringing first-rate musicals and plays, comedy nights, ghost tours and a thriving summer camp program to arts lovers of every age.

Co-founders Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence have brought their unique talents together to lead a team of 20 full-time employees, 13 paid apprentices on a full- year contract, and literally hundreds of part-time and contract employees. With a new campus expansion underway, Aurora continues to fulfill its mission of creating a new generation of theatre-goers.

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Born in New York City to parents who had immigrated from Cuba, Anthony Rodriguez says had he been born into a different family, the dream that became Aurora might have seemed impossible. Having grown up in a country with a repressive regime, his parents wanted Anthony and his two brothers to grow up where they could do work that they loved. His father was in the hotel business so the family moved frequently, eventually living in neighboring DeKalb County where Rodriguez attended Marist High School and benefitted from exposure to Atlanta’s arts community before attending the University of Georgia.

“I’ve always been a bit of a class clown and a bit of a performer,” says Rodriguez. “When I really thought about what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. I was leaning heavily towards law, but I made the choice that I really wanted to perform.” Though his mother and father did not live to see their son’s dream come to full fruition, they did see the beginnings of his success in the arts. He credits their support with giving him the confidence to believe in the dream that became Aurora.

Rodriguez also recognizes the contribution of college professors Dr. August Staub and Dr. Stanley Longman, who were early supporters of his career in the arts. He cites their encouragement as major contributors to his development as a leader in the arts. Staub attended opening of Aurora’s first showing of “Camelot” in its Lawrenceville location shortly before his death, and Longman still attends the theater and sends in an annual donation.

Anthony’s partner in life and business for 24 years, Ann-Carol Pence, has been a constant friend and inspiration. The two had known each other for years when he performed in a show she was music directing. Last year, the couple traveled to Greece together and someday they would love to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but they also find inspiration closer to home.

The people the couple works with every day have been our teachers, says Rodriguez. “They teach me every day that we can lead by being compassionate, that we will still succeed because we’re compassionate.”

Creating a New Generation of Theatergoers One Person at a Time

Rodriguez calls the founding of Aurora “essentially a lucky accident.” Both he and Ann- Carol had worked for a theater in Duluth on the verge of closing. The two believed in the future of the arts in the county and in 1999 decided to buy out the assets and form a nonprofit.

“When we started in Duluth, there was no professional theatre in the county,” recalls Pence. Many peers and critics said it wouldn’t work. Now virtually every city has a public arts program of some sort. “I would like to think that we have been a part of raising the conversation and seeing the economic development of the arts,” says Rodriguez.

From the start, Rodriguez and Pence rallied a team of performers around a vision to create a new generation of theatre-goers. While Aurora does provide children’s programming, the mission is not focused exclusively on the younger generation. Instead, Aurora hopes to reach people of all ages who have not previously been exposed to traditional theatre.

“We grew the theatre one person at a time,” Rodriguez says. “Somebody liked the theatre and they told other people to go see a show. To this day, relationship-building is part of who we are. It’s what we do.”

Early discussions around Duluth’s revitalization plans had given Rodriguez a sense of what could be accomplished. “We started looking for a place where we could create that.” He talked with then County Commission Chair Wayne Hill, a season ticket holder, about the possibilities and learned from Hill that Emory Morsberger had purchased property in downtown Lawrenceville. He set up a meeting to discuss his vision for the arts in Gwinnett.

“I thought it was the worst meeting of my life,” Rodriguez admits. “It must have gone better than I thought.” Within days, Aurora’s team met with a team from the City of Lawrenceville. When Aurora first moved to the county seat in 2006, the building that would become the theatre’s home wasn’t finished, so a temporary facility was built on top of Lawrenceville’s City Hall. Aurora did one show at Central Gwinnett High School and two more in this space—each meeting with success from the troupe’s loyal fan base.

“We had a following here, and we worked very diligently to keep that following intact,” says Rodriguez. From its opening showing of “Camelot” in Lawrenceville, interest from the community continued to grow. Over time Aurora expanded its offerings. By budget size, Gwinnett’s leading theatre is now the second largest nonprofit professional theatre in the state, second only to the Alliance. Aurora’s $3 million budget includes expanded education initiatives, to include year-round camps and classes to introduce audiences of every age to theater and the arts. In addition to its main stage, a studio theater was added to accommodate smaller performances geared toward a younger demographic. Comedy nights and Spanish-language shows programming are mainstays.

From smaller productions that draw students from nearby Georgia Gwinnett College to runaway successes on the main stage like “Mamma Mia” and “Les Misérables,” Aurora’s audience has grown right alongside Lawrenceville’s downtown area. Though most musical performances at Aurora currently seat more than 10,000, Rodriguez vividly recalls the day he took the whole staff to lunch when half that many tickets were sold for “A Chorus Line.”

Seeing his dream become a reality was incredibly overwhelming and emotional, says Rodriguez. “We’d never been able to dream that big. That’s sort of the work we do. We dream and then we create it for others to see.”

Still, the crew never lost sight of its roots and continues to build its following one person at a time. The Aurora team places a high value on every aspect of the total customer experience, maintaining a robust relationship with restaurant partners, providing covered parking and keeping restrooms clean and well-maintained.

Building Community Support and Leading Conversations That Matter

Leading the thriving arts organization is immensely rewarding but remains a challenge. “When you are a nonprofit and only 60 percent of your revenue comes from ticket sales, we are out there working day in and day out to attract donors and sponsors and to keep them engaged with the organization,” says Rodriguez. “Without that, we couldn’t survive.”

“There were years if we weren’t making money, I would just stop my paychecks altogether,” remembers Rodriguez. Ann-Carol came on as a full-time employee, serving as associate producer and resident musical director, only after the theatre was self-sustaining. The support from the city and larger Gwinnett community has made Aurora’s steady success possible, says Rodriguez.

“Our patrons are second to none, and our sponsors are dedicated to what we mean not just to the city of Lawrenceville but to the county as a whole,” he says. Now, nearly 40 percent of patrons come to Aurora from outside of the county and the organization attracts theatre-goers from all over the region. “Working with the City of Lawrenceville was wonderful. They understand the value we bring to the community and to the life of the downtown square.”

Rodriguez and Pence see each show is its own living, breathing thing. Risk is inherent in the theatre business. “On paper, I can look at something and think this is going to be amazing. But I can be completely wrong. It’s a huge risk every time we plan a show. We’re going to choose something that the staff believes speaks not just to artistic quality and what we want to present but also resonates with a conversation the community may want to have.”

Aurora recently finished a successful run of Karen Zacarías’s “Native Gardens,” a play that features two neighbor couples in a DC suburb, an older white couple in a beautiful home and a young Latino couple living in a fixer-upper. “The way Karen wrote that play was ingenious. She didn’t land on the side of either party being right. Each couple got super entrenched in either what they had or what they felt they deserved.”

Rodriguez values the fact that the shared experience of the theater affords the community an opportunity to talk about whatever the subject matter or theme of that the play was through the lens of a shared experience. “These are things we might not otherwise discuss so civilly in a different situation,” he says. “We do our fair share of entertaining, but part of our mission as an organization granted 501c3 status is to educate the community. We take that very seriously.”

While there are highs and lows, Rodriguez takes each show for what it is and what it brings to the audience. Each show exists for just six or seven weeks. When it concludes, sets are torn down and Rodriguez and his team consider what can be learned. And then they move on to what’s next. As they say in theater, the show must go on.

The Power of the Music of the Night

Rodriguez and Pence are innovators, and Aurora is known for its penchant of pushing the boundaries of regional theatre. Theaters across the nation, for example, have very few musicians on staff full-time. Often, hiring musicians for a show is an afterthought. Not so at Aurora, which puts the music front and center.

“We’re including music as a part of that form of expression from the very beginning,” says Pence, who is musical director for Aurora’s productions. Unlike other arts organizations that use prerecorded music, Aurora has always had a commitment to live music. “We make sure we have young professional musicians entering market peppered in with longtime pros with a variety of ages, ethnicities, and gender. We use musicals as another way to create a new generation of theatre-goers and theatre-leaders.”

Pence started playing piano at age 3 and landed her first church musician job at age 12. She played for musicals in high school and college, where she majored in elementary education. As associate producer, Pence did all the personal casting at Aurora for many years. “Now we have a company manager who does this and an associate artistic director who takes an active role in directing and casting our shows,” she says.

Pence credits many long-term employees for their dedication in making Aurora better. “We know that the right thing to do is to ensure that our apprentices don’t just learn to sing and dance but learn to be leaders,” she says. Pence and Rodriguez challenge other companies and small businesses in Gwinnett to provide a pathway to leadership for their employees. The two envision an Artist’s House on the new campus that would allow them to bring authors in and hope to hire additional staff to teach children’s camps.

In the meantime, Aurora’s recent stage reading and sold-out performances of “Men with Money” received rave reviews from the AJC. In addition, the theatre is creating new work that may go to Broadway in the future, says Pence.

A New Performing Arts Complex

By all accounts, the theatre’s campus expansion and Lawrenceville’s new Performing Arts Complex is sure to be met with thunderous applause and the gratitude of arts lovers in Gwinnett for decades to come. Aurora will continue to manage the facility, which is owned by the city. The new building is set to be completed in the fall of 2020 and includes a new cabaret space seating 150 at tables and a 500-seat grand theater.

When the theatre first contracted with the city, they agreed to 200 events. They now host 800 events, serving 80,000 patrons each year. The theatre is bursting at the seams. “We do a show at night, then change the set and the next morning children see a show with educational partners,” says Pence. “The new campus will allow us to spread out our programming so that we can expand into more schools and bring in more children.”

The new complex and other downtown redevelopment efforts are sure to facilitate continued growth for the arts in Gwinnett. Rodriguez believes Aurora’s close relationship with Georgia Gwinnett College will also grow. Five to ten years down the road, he envisions a budget in the $5 to $6-million-dollar range. “It’s going to be an interesting evolution,” Rodriguez says. “We’re not perfect. We’re not going to please everyone. The best we can do is to put together the greatest art we can. Hopefully, it will resonate with our community and be held up as valuable. It’s about doing things that engage citizens with the theatre. This is the way we’re going to create a legacy.”

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