Donation gives theater department at Grand Center Arts Academy 'a sense of place' | St. Louis Public Radio

Donation gives theater department at Grand Center Arts Academy 'a sense of place'

Jul 27, 2019

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2012 - By last winter, Larry Mabrey knew that Avalon Theatre, the company he co-founded in 2005 with his partner, Erin Kelley, was nearing the end of its run. The company’s lease was almost up, and he and Kelley couldn’t afford to lease another space.

There was just one problem: What were they going to do with all of their stuff?

Like any professional theater company, Avalon had built up a stockpile of props, paint, seats, sets, curtains and costumes worth, in this case, about $30,000. Keeping all of that in storage would be prohibitively expensive.

So they decided to donate it to a place that could use it: Grand Center Arts Academy (GCAA). Now in its third year, GCAA is a charter school for students in grades six through nine with a performing arts focus. Mabrey and Kelley’s son, Jackson, attends the school.

“[The school] didn’t believe it at first,” Mabrey said. “The first question was, ‘Really? Why would you want to do this?’”

“We noticed that they didn’t have any theatrical facility,” Mabrey said. Right now, GCAA’s theater classroom is a spare white room with a set of  metal risers serving as a stage.

According to Dan Rubright, GCAA’s director of arts and community partnerships, the school ran out of money after installing special floors for the dance program and buying instruments for the music program.

Rubright said the school’s original intention was to build up its theater supplies slowly over time, as it grows to include 10th, 11th and 12th graders.

But the donation, Mabrey said, gives the school “basically a theater they can build in.”

Particularly important are the heavy black drapes that will cover the theater’s windows, which will create a “black-box” theater environment. This allows the students to fully control the lighting and atmosphere inside the theater.

“It’s going to change [the students’] experience from a large room with nothing much in it to a professional theater,” Rubright said. "It really gives the the theater department a sense of place."

“Theater is one of those things that people think you can do anywhere,” Mabrey said. But there’s a big difference between being “on a stage in front of people versus [being in] a classroom with your friend.”

Most of the students at GCAA have yet to see or even hear about the donation, which has not yet been set up. But a few caught a glimpse last May, when they went to Avalon’s theater to pack up the equipment.

“They were just thrilled,” Mabrey said. He remembers thinking, “‘Wow, they really want this.’”

The donation, which is permanent, leaves open an opportunity for Mabrey and Kelley to produce a show with the students in the future. But Mabrey says that won’t come until later.

“We really want to make the students realize that this is theirs,” he said.