By Baker Ellis
On a given summer weekday in downtown LaGrange within the confines of a nondescript, single-story building on Bull Street, a cacophony of laughter, singing and dancing can be heard ringing through the halls. Children of all ages are clustered together at various times of the week in various stages of the building, some in pink tutus practicing ballet, others clambering around in costumes, preparing for an upcoming theatre performance. This is the Lafayette Society for Performing Arts, which has been one of the driving factors behind LaGrange’s burgeoning arts culture for more than three decades.
“There’s always music, theater and dancing, and someone is telling a story somewhere in the building pretty much all the time,” said Amy McDow, who serves as the Marketing Director and Lafayette Theater Academy Program Coordinator for the LSPA.
The LaGrange Society for Performing Arts was founded in 1981, 36 years ago. Since its inception, the organization has sought to be one of the premier instruments for promoting cultural awareness, artistic expression and appreciation for the performing arts in West and Central Georgia. The LSPA’s mission is to promote, cultivate, nurture and enhance the performing arts experiences for LaGrange as well as East Alabama and West Georgia.
The LSPA has grown since 1981, and now has more than 400 students per week, 13 paid productions and 41 free productions scheduled throughout the 2017-18 season. The organization has been successful in achieving its mission for more than three decades now, and the last two years have brought important changes that now allow the LSPA to better serve the community.
To understand how the LSPA carries out its mission, it is important to first understand its structural organization, which is intricate. The LSPA is a nonprofit organization, which houses a wide array of programs and organizations underneath its nonprofit umbrella. A more succinct analogy is to view the LSPA as the trunk of a tree, with various branches shooting away from the trunk, and still smaller branches shooting off from those.
“The LSPA is an umbrella organization,” Ryan McWhorter, LSPA facilities manager and Lafayette Theatre Company artistic director said. “Being under the LSPA ‘umbrella’ means all of the finances funnel through the same office. We’re technically one organization with different arms. We’re all under the same Tax ID.”
The main arms of the LSPA are the Azalea Storytelling Festival, the Lafayette Theater Company, the Lafayette Center for Dance, the Lafayette Ballet Company and the Young Singers of West Georgia. Each of these specific organizations aim to serve a segment of the arts community, and allow students a wide array of options to invest in. The Lafayette Ballet Company and the Lafayette Theater Company both have smaller, more specific arms as well.
The offshoot of the Lafayette Ballet Company is the Lafayette Ballet Guild, dedicated to spreading the joys of dancing through community outreach and fundraising programming throughout the ballet season. By comparison, the Lafayette Theatre Company houses both the Lafayette Theater Academy as well as the Lafayette Theatre Outreach, both of which are aimed at bringing the theatrical arts to the community’s youth.
The academy was created to provide a safe environment for students of all ages to express their individuality and creativity, while developing the necessary skills to succeed in theatre. The second LTA season wrapped up in June of this year with a full-costume production of the Lion King. The outreach program, by comparison, is a free after school educational program that strives to bring performance arts to area elementary schools with a large population of underprivileged students.
At first pass, this can seem a jumble of similar-sounding names, acronyms, and organizations that are hard to distinguish from one another. This may be somewhat true to the un-initiated, but what becomes obvious quickly is the LSPA’s intricacies are a direct result of the passion and dedication that exists in the community to help as many children and students connect with the arts as possible.
“There’s not a community I’ve been in that is this size, and much larger, that is this dedicated and devoted to supporting the arts,” McDow said. “We have a number of amazing artistic outlets here for both the visual arts and performing arts.”
Amy Orr has been with the LSPA for 20 years. She now serves as the Lafayette Ballet Company artistic director and Lafayette Center for Dance director, and has helped implement some of the children’s programs since her arrival, including the creation of a pre-ballet program. Orr has been able to watch the organization develop and consistently provide the area with artistic instruction for longer than most.
“This is just a space that focuses on the arts better than anywhere else,” Orr said of the LSPA as a whole. “We all work cooperatively together. We’re just the arts Mecca here, and it’s great our community has this.”
The space that has been created would not be possible without a massive amount of volunteer hours, as well as community support. As a nonprofit organization, the LSPA relies solely on community support, charitable giving, grants and sponsorships. Keeping everything moving in the proper direction from a financial perspective would not be possible without community support.
“It’s an undertaking,” Kerri Vice, executive director of the LSPA said. “We’re putting on productions, we’re putting on a school for around 400 students a week during the school year. If it wasn’t for the businesses in town, the Callaway Foundation and parents who are sending their children here, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”
On top of the financial support the LSPA receives, the volunteer support is crucial as well.
“If we had to pay everybody for what it takes to make all of this happen,” Vice said with a chuckle. “We wouldn’t want to see that on paper.”
What the LSPA has created is unique to Troup County and the surrounding area. A space to cultivate and celebrate the artistic talent of the community that simply cannot be found in cities of similar size.
“This is really the only organization like it in the area,” McWhorter added. “As far as artistic organizations, this is pretty much it in this area. The theatre, theatre school, the dance company, the choral company, you can come in and be a part of several different artistic organizations.”
More so than providing a space to cultivate artistic talent, the LSPA is equipping children and students with life skills that will last them well into their professional careers.
“All the skills we teach here can be used in the professional world,” McDow said. “Communication, coordination, having confidence to stand on stage and talk to people, being able to nail a job interview. When you see the dancers on stage, whether they are five or 18 and graduating, their confidence is amazing.”
The LSPA’s Lafayette Theatre Company is producing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” from July 20-29, and will produce “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in late September. Those events will be followed by the Azalea Storytelling Festival, which will take place on October 15.
For a full list of shows and upcoming events, visit LSPA.org.