Aurora Theatre’s new $35-million home to open this summer

Artist’s rendering of the new Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, future home of the Aurora Theatre. 
Courtesy of SSOE Stevens & Wilkinson
Artist’s rendering of the new Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, future home of the Aurora Theatre. Courtesy of SSOE Stevens & Wilkinson

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Courtyard performances tentatively planned for June

Even the desperately allergic appreciate the glories of spring in metro Atlanta: the colorful popping of azaleas and dogwoods, rising birdsong in the morning, the return of patio dining and baseball.

“Spring is like a perhaps hand,” wrote e e cummings, “changing everything carefully.”

On the Lawrenceville historic square this year, the careful changes of spring bring other glories: the whine of power tools, the spark showers of welding torches and the thick dust of drywall being sanded as the $35-million Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, new home of the Aurora Theatre, nears completion.

Its opening will be one more sign that the pandemic is easing.

The new 55,000-square-foot facility, adjacent to Aurora’s current venue, will have a 525-seat theater, a flexible cabaret space, an outdoor courtyard for performances and gatherings, an art alley/sculpture area and a lot of state-of-the-art backstage bells and whistles, including a rising orchestra pit and a cavernous room for rehearsing big musical dance numbers. There will also be a hospital-grade HVAC system and a lot of COVID-inspired touchless interfaces, paid for by $2 million from the CARES Act through Gwinnett County.

Aurora Theatre co-founders Ann-Carol Pence and Anthony Rodriguez tour the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, which is expected to open this summer. 
Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Aurora Theatre co-founders Ann-Carol Pence and Anthony Rodriguez tour the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, which is expected to open this summer. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The facility is being built by the City of Lawrenceville. The non-profit Aurora, one of the largest professional theater companies in Georgia, is contributing $5 million upfront and will repay some of the city’s investment through a long-term lease. Atlanta architectural firm SSOE Stevens & Wilkinson designed the contemporary brick and glass building on the site of a former gas station, credit union and parking lot.

The upgrade is a logical move for Aurora, which has had a transformative effect on Lawrenceville’s central square and on the community that surrounds it.

“The success of the Aurora got a lot of folks thinking about what is the next big step,” says Lawrenceville city manager Chuck Warbington. “We see what the Aurora is doing here as a force multiplier, attracting people into the downtown area.”

Part of the theater’s success can be attributed to co-founders Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence’s intentional approach to inclusivity in a community that is rapidly diversifying, a course that has yielded benefits in art, commerce and community-building.

Associate director Pence and producing artistic director Rodriguez, both 57, have been business, creative and life partners for almost 35 years, working their way up from tin-cup-in-hand days to multi-million-dollar deals.

The couple met in 1987 at Manuel’s Tavern. She was a piano player and sometime musical director for Atlanta theater. He had been a little bit of everything: Renaissance Festival jouster and fire-eater, hotel concierge, waiter, actor.

“I’ll be honest, my life was falling apart,” he recalls. “I wasn’t happy in my first marriage, my mom died, I had had cancer. Ann-Carol was there to talk things out, be a shoulder to lean on.”

“The greatest thing that Anthony needed,” Pence chimes in, “was someone to expect him to be excellent.”

“I don’t disagree,” Rodriguez replies.

In 1996, they began working at the tiny, newly opened Aurora Theatre in Duluth.

“It wasn’t making money,” Rodriguez says, “and the owners wanted to shut it down after only being open for one year. We met some people in the community, and we said, ‘This doesn’t need to close.’ We formed a board of directors and a non-profit and bought out the meager assets the theater had. We kept the name.”

Aurora grew from pathetic attendance in the early days to sell-outs, to bigger theaters, and more awards and recognition. Rodriguez became such a wheeler-dealer while promoting the theater that he was elected chairman of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

Atlanta architectural firm SSOE Stevens & Wilkinson designed the contemporary brick and glass building on the site of a former gas station, credit union and parking lot.
(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Atlanta architectural firm SSOE Stevens & Wilkinson designed the contemporary brick and glass building on the site of a former gas station, credit union and parking lot. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

“Anthony walks two different lines,” says Al Stilo, Aurora’s director of sales and marketing. “He has a very artistic spirit, but he also walks the line in the business world and brought Aurora to the business world.”

In 2014, the theater commissioned an economic impact statement that found the theater generated $3.14 million a year in the nine-block historic district in Lawrenceville, says Pence.

Ben Bailey, owner of gastropub Local Republic and Strange Taco Bar, has seen the effect first hand, noting that the Aurora-driven traffic on the square was “huge” before COVID.

“We would have an entire restaurant shift where at 7:30, 7:45, everybody was getting their checks to go to the theater, and we would completely reset for 8 o’clock. That was when they had a 250-seat theater,” he says. “And now that it’s going to be much larger, it’s going to be interesting to see the traffic.”

The performing arts center will open slowly, starting with the open-air courtyard probably in late June or early July, and the indoor facility in late September; timelines have been pushed back by COVID and weather. Rodriguez says Aurora hopes to start a full season in October, depending on how quickly COVID restrictions are lifted.

“Our goal when we open the outdoor space, even with COVID, is to have something every weekend,” says Pence. “We will roll out a series that includes family programming, comedy and concerts.”

In addition to big crowd-pleasers like “Les Miserables” and “Mamma Mia!,” Aurora produces concerts, stand-up comedy, children’s programs, Teatro Atlanta (Atlanta’s only professional Spanish language theatre) and Lawrenceville Ghost Tours.

There are also plans to rent the center out to other arts groups.

“There’s a ballet company here in Lawrenceville, the Southern Performing Arts Academy, and we want them to be able to rent the space for ‘Nutcracker,’” says Pence. “We want that to be a Christmas offering they bring every year.”

And as always, diversity will be part of the mix.

The Aurora Theatre presents their final performance of Les Miserables in Lawrenceville Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. (Photo by: Brendan Sullivan)
The final night of “Les Miserables” in 2013 ended with a community singalong of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Courtesy of Brendan Sullivan

Credit: BRENDAN SULLIVAN

Credit: BRENDAN SULLIVAN

“We want to celebrate the people of our community,” Stilo says. “And when you walk around Kroger in Gwinnett, it’s an international experience. We took something as familiar as ‘Les Miz’ and showed how a timeless story like that can be brought into our modern era through intentional diverse casting and showing a reflection of our community today. It makes the themes resonate to a larger group of people.”

That resonance was apparent when “Les Miz” closed its first Aurora run in 2013, and the theater invited community members onstage for the finale.

“The stage was packed with a few hundred people,” Rodriguez recalls. “It was pretty overwhelming. They all marched in from all points in the theater and sang ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ We had our community reflected both in the audience and onstage.”

Aurora Theatre. 128 E. Pike St, Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, www.auroratheatre.com

Aurora Theatre Timeline

1996: First season in downtown Duluth’s Parsons Dry Goods

1999: Aurora Theatre Inc. established as nonprofit organization with a board of directors including co-founders Anthony Rodriguez (producing artistic director) and Ann-Carol Pence (associate producer)

2007: Aurora Theatre relocates to downtown Lawrenceville.

2010: Named Best Theatre Company in Atlanta by Creative Loafing

2016: Rodriguez elected chairman of Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce

2016: Receives Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities for “In the Heights”

2018: “Mamma Mia!” is all-time Aurora record holder for tickets sold

2019: City of Lawrenceville and Aurora Theatre break ground on Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center

2021: Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, new home to Aurora, set to open

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