A Theater Powerhouse: The GTA offers more than culture

By Michelle Boaen Jameson
Photos courtesy GTA

“I believe theater helps people remember that they are human and remember the best parts about being human,” said Gay Hammond.
Gay, one of original members of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, also believes that it’s easy to take hometown stuff for granted but, GTA has had so much support from the community and art, she said, is a necessity of life.

Brenau seniors Ben Fierke and Heidi Rider portray Greek prophetess Cassandra and her ghostly twin brother Scamandrius in the world premier of “The Raven and the Nightingale.” Photos by Simpson Custom Photography

Now in its 39th season, the Gainesville Theatre Alliance has come a long way since 1969 when young, Cuban-American Ed Cabell was hired to teach at Gainesville Junior College. Cabell had a vision for engaging his new community through the art of theater, and as early as 1973 his success in achieving this goal was acknowledged with the Governor’s Award in the Arts (shared that year with John Portman and Robert Shaw).
Beth Kendall, GTA’s marketing manager, said GTA has come a long way since it’s inception.
From its earliest beginnings, Cabell’s vision for engaging the community and expanding Georgia’s pool of artists propelled this Hall County effort from a strictly community theater to its present unique structure that integrates community, educational and professional theater.

Award-winning Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West”, which included student actors Ameena McKenzie, Jameria Ettienne and guest professional Annette Dees Grevious, told the story of newly freed slaves founding towns in the west and struggling with racism even in their own community. Photos by Simpson Custom Photography

“As a result of dedication to production excellence, two normally competitive entities — a public institution, University of North Georgia and a private college, Brenau University — agreed to pool resources to create the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. The collaboration of these two entities, together with guest professionals and dedicated community volunteers, has built a devoted North Georgia audience and is inspiring new generations of artists and patrons,” said Kendall.
And to this day, the mission of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance remains the same.

Love wins in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, which portrayed characters Count Claudio and Hero, played by Gainesville Theatre Alliance’s Mark Anthony Toro and Brianna Roberson. Photo courtesy Simpson Custom Photography

“With the combined support of the University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville State College), Brenau University, professional theatre artists and the northeast Georgia community, the Gainesville Theatre Alliance provides its artists and audiences with quality theatrical experiences that educate, inspire, enrich and unite,” said Kendall.
“The Gainesville Theatre Alliance is a proud symbol of our northeast Georgia community, said leader and founding member Jim Hammond.  “It was here in 1979, when leaders of two colleges and a community theatre said, ‘What could we create, if we all worked together.’  Since that remarkable decision to create the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, more than 1 million audience members have been entertained by more than two hundred productions from Ragtime to Streetcar to Metamorphoses.”
He added that GTA has become a launching pad for hundreds of theater students who are now working across the country and overseas.  82 percent of graduates since 1990 are currently working professionally in their field as actors, directors, designers and teachers of theater.
Gay echoed that sentiment. “We have put out, across the world on the west coast and Europe, edcators, actors and crew and more. We keep tabs on our graduates of the program. It is just ripples upon ripples upon ripples after almost 40 years doing the program. Hundreds have come through.”
GTA has expanded over the years, said Kendall, adding a theater for young audiences called WonderQuest, and a traveling repertory company. It results in a regional theater that engages the community with compelling season selection and excellence in storytelling and programs that draw tourists year-round to the Lake Lanier region.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the Georgia Council for the Arts had the funds to send adjudicators to professional theaters around the state to make evaluations that lead to rankings and grant funds, and in that time, GTA was consistently ranked among the top two or three theaters in the state. While the GCA can no longer evaluate and rank, GTA continues to deliver some of the best productions and highest production values of professional theaters in the Southeastern U.S.  This is due said Kendall in large part to the structure Cabell put into place, where the ticket revenues go straight back into the production program (not to salaries and physical space) — so sellouts create even stronger shows, with professional directors, designers, and frequently actors, in the upcoming productions.
“When you think of Ed Cabell, who trained me and started GTA, it is an astonishing accomplishment. Our audiences are just incredible as to what they give this theater. We work with a lot of professionals, theaters from Atlanta, and they are incredibly jealous of our audiences,” said Gay.
“Because of the generosity of the community, we have our own professional theater in house. I would put our shows up against professional and university shows with this kind of quality. To have this quality of theater here is a great treasure.”

Kendall said that annually “we have one WonderQuest (children’s) production that is for both family and school audiences — this year it was Jungle Book and we had over 8,000 people.  Then there are MainStage shows, two at Brenau and two at UNG (as different stage types give different experiences to cast, crew and patrons) and two to three Discovery Series shows, usually simpler sets and more edgy subject matter (these are free to the public).  In a typical year, we’ll have 70-75 performances of these shows. Then every other year we have a Repertory Company that performs two shows around north Georgia, free of charge at schools, community centers, etc. — which is typically another 50 performances.”
Nine years ago GTA “created” a  February Festival of Theatre to enable it to include more modern scripts which traditionally have smaller casts.  In order to provide enough opportunities for the emerging theater artists, producing modern scripts meant doing two different shows at once.  Northeast Georgia theatre patrons benefit since it also means that there’s something for everyone in the audience as well, as seen in this year’s two Festival productions: “Avenue Q” and “Monstrous Regiment.”
“Avenue Q” is a musical, Sesame Street-style comedic approach to numerous adult and coming-of-age topics. The production uses puppets animated by unconcealed puppeteers alongside human actors, and beat out “Wicked” to win the Tony Award for best musical in 2003.
“The heart of our support, said Jim,  “is the commitment from Brenau University and the University of North Georgia who have built performance venues, funded faculty and staff and attracted the finest theatre students in the Southeast.”

GTA to perform “The Odyssey” with director Michael Granberry

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