Aurora Theatre’s new performing arts center prepares to open in pandemic

11/24/2020 —  Lawrenceville, Georgia — Aurora Theatre co-founders Ann-Carol Pence (left) and Anthony Rodriguez (right) participate in a tour at the construction site for the expansion of the Aurora Theater in downtown Lawrenceville, Tuesday, November 24, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/24/2020 — Lawrenceville, Georgia — Aurora Theatre co-founders Ann-Carol Pence (left) and Anthony Rodriguez (right) participate in a tour at the construction site for the expansion of the Aurora Theater in downtown Lawrenceville, Tuesday, November 24, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Aurora Theatre could start holding in-person performances again as soon as this spring.

It will look a little different, of course, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of its newly expanded downtown Lawrenceville performance space.

The Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center broke ground in June 2019, and the $35 million expansion project is expected to be complete by mid-May. Once finished, the performing arts center will have at least 650 additional seats — 500 in the largest theater, with tiered seating and an orchestra pit, and about 150 in a smaller cabaret theater.

An outdoor performance space will not have permanent seating, but can accommodate at least 200 people, co-founder Anthony Rodriguez said. The existing theater seats 250 people in the former First United Methodist Church that’s been Aurora Theatre’s home since 2004.

The Arts Center will be a complex including the existing Aurora Theater, the building currently under construction and an “art alley” with a large courtyard that can double as an outdoor performance space.

An outdoor courtyard was always in the plans, but CARES Act funds obtained through the city of Lawrenceville allowed for it to become a full-fledged performance space, including a fabric draped ceiling and stage lighting, Rodriguez said. It will be able to seat about 200 people in a socially distanced manner and could open as soon as late April, senior project manager Mike Sims said.

More than $2 million in CARES Act funding helped expand the outdoor area and add other health and safety measures inside the Arts Center expansion and the existing Aurora Theatre. Once construction is complete, there will be state-of-the art filters in the ventilation system, touchless bathroom fixtures and plexiglass barriers at ticket counters.

“We didn’t ask for any of it. That was all (City Manager) Chuck Warbington and Mayor David Still. The city came through,” Rodriguez said. “These were things we would love, but we knew it wasn’t in the (original) budget.”

In addition to the two new theaters and the outdoor performance space, the Performing Arts Center will have multiple classrooms, dressing rooms and a rehearsal room as large as their largest stage. Currently, Aurora Theatre’s largest formal rehearsal space isn’t big enough to rehearse large dance numbers, co-founder Ann-Carol Pence said.

“Right now, we rehearse in the lobby,” Pence said. “It’s the only place that can hold more than 20 people.”

Rodriguez, Pence, and leaders from the city of Lawrenceville celebrated the facility’s “topping out” — marking the completion of structural work — last week. The city is paying for the project up front. The Aurora Theatre will pay back more than $5 million of the cost over time and manage the venue.

It’s unclear when indoor performances will resume, as large groups of people singing or speaking indoors is considered risky for the potential to spread coronavirus. In the more immediate future, Aurora Theatre will continue streaming some performances and hosting others at large outdoor venues like the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, Pence said.

Since the pandemic emerged in Georgia, the Aurora Theatre has been offering streaming performances for a fee and hosting outdoor events including comedy nights. Its first indoor performances since March will be in December, with Rodriguez’s one-man version of “A Christmas Carol” performed to a masked, socially distant crowd.

When it is safe to return to indoor theaters, Pence sees Aurora Theatre as a place where new productions can be workshopped in preparation for an opening on Broadway.

Aurora regularly puts on Broadway hits new and old, from “Les Miserables” to “Mamma Mia.” She cited Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, which has workshopped Broadway hits like “Sister Act” and “The Color Purple” before their New York premieres, and the play “Driving Miss Daisy,” set in Atlanta and written by Atlanta native Alfred Uhry, though it premiered in New York.

“Those are the stories we want to tell as Southern visionaries. It’s different than a story from New York that comes here,” Pence said. “That shepherds in an Atlanta story with an Atlanta connection. We can develop new work in a way that will help them shepherd those pieces to New York.”

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