Throughout its 33 years of service, the Arts Association of East Alabama has functioned as Opelika’s artistic hub.
October marks the beginning of its performance series for 2019-20 with a show from the Kingdom Choir, the British gospel choir that famously performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018, on Oct. 20.
November will bring the touring Broadway revival of the Color Purple: the Musical, an all-male singing ensemble from Australia in December, will bring holiday entertainment, and numerous other productions already have performance dates set for 2020.
Facing the challenges
Yet despite a promising line-up, the art association has been under strain over the last few years from trying to ensure that its performances are affordable for anyone who wants to see them.
“If you price the tickets at the level that you actually pay for the program, only a few people could afford it and you’ve set yourself into an elite category that it’s only for the rich people,” Phillip Preston, the director of the art association said. “From the beginning we have been determined that this cannot be or feel like this is for the ‘special.’”
Preston explained that although the art association keeps the price of tickets low as it can, the end profit rarely covers the overall production cost.
Patrons can purchase single tickets, but the most popular buying option is season subscription packages for adults, seniors and student patrons where they have a certain number of tickets for each show in that year's performance series.
“You can buy a single ticket to a show, but mostly the season is constructed around the concept that people have purchased the subscription option,” Preston said. “So they’ll end up with tickets to things that they have never been to before, never even heard of. We try to have something everybody knows they like something they think they may like, something they can try out.”
The idea for the performance series began with the opening of the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts in 1987.
Although all of the performances in the series are held there, the center was built by the school board who then commissioned the arts association to create the series.
The arts association would later establish the Adventure Series, curriculum-based theater performances specifically for students.
When contracting productions for the performance series, the arts association will try to get the artists into the schools to do workshops or master classes with students.
Neil Sasser, the high school’s band director, recalls various acts from a Korean drum group, a world famous Norwegian trumpeter and even an Army band that invited his students to perform with them all being memorable experiences.
“It has meant a lot to our students and I have learned a great deal as well,” Sasser said.
Preston noted another instance where performers went out into the community, and a dance company had a workshop at the Opelika Sportsplex for the senior members where all the moves demonstrated were designed to accommodate any physical limitations.
The arts association will have actors with the theater department at Auburn University, giving the students the chance to perform in front of professionals as well as receive helpful performance critiques.
“Sometimes there are preconceived notions about artists and about art itself,” Preston explained. “What we want to do is connect people with as many art forms, art experiences and artists themselves so that we are all able to get acquainted with them. When [performers] are not on stage performing, they’re just like the rest of us.”
Finding the money
The art association receives funding from the city, state and has a national endowment, of which Preston adds is in itself a honor.
But with notorious political cuts to funding for the arts, organizations like his are mostly on their own to stay afloat.
With the cities of Opelika and Auburn steadily growing in terms of people and entertainment opportunities, and an increased annual allocation from the city of Opelika for the new fiscal year, supporters say the art association has a great deal of momentum it introduces new initiatives and programming.
“One of our jobs now is to create greater awareness of what we do,” Preston said.
The arts association plans to start presenting visual art galleries beginning at its headquarters at 1103 Glenn Street, which is steadily being renovated and restored to fit needs.
Literary programming is being developed as well, and will include lectures and group book discussions.
The East Alabama Arts Civic Chorale and Community Band are still in full swing, as are other education initiatives like the annual scholarship awards for middle and high school students in various art concentrations and after-school drama workshops for elementary and middle school students.
“What we have done is that we try to place what we are doing so that there’s some relationship to the curriculum [that they’re learning],” Preston explained.
With the opening of the Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University, the community has another performing arts option. However, it also means that there are now two 1,200-seat theaters less than 10 miles away from each other.
Though he doesn't look at it as the facilities competing to fill seats, Preston did express that going forward the arts association needs to take “a new approach” to how it operates.
“As an organization you have to be careful when you’ve been around for a long time and not take it for granted,” he said. “We want to bring a higher level of recognition to what we’re doing.”