With the mainstream success of productions like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, it seems there’s been a theater renaissance among the masses. And that passion for the stage and sound can be felt right here in Atlanta … actually a bit farther northeast … thanks to Ann-Carol Pence. Under Ann-Carol’s guidance, Aurora Theatre has grown to become the largest arts organization in Gwinnett County and one of the fastest growing professional theaters in the state of Georgia. This artist-turned-producer/music director is helping to keep the arts alive for adults and children alike with her passionate drive to foster creativity and innovation. Get to know our newest member of the FACES family, Ann-Carol Pence.
You came to Atlanta in 1987 to play piano. Why did you come to this city, and what was the music scene like here in the late ’80s?
I was born and raised and went to college in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I’ve always had a passion for music, and practically my entire family are educators. I enrolled in James Madison University to become a schoolteacher … even though it is such an inspiring profession, it just wasn’t for me. Upon graduation, a friend said there were music opportunities in Atlanta, so I headed south to “take a break” and play piano.
What was your motivation for founding Aurora Theatre (with Anthony Rodriguez)? What is/has been the most challenging aspect of getting the theater off the ground?
From the very first day, Anthony and I knew that bringing professional theater to the suburbs was a worthy endeavor and that professional theater could indeed thrive in Gwinnett County. We worked hard for 10 years to grow and become an important part of our community — not just a place where people saw plays — forming a non-profit corporation, establishing a board of directors and defining our mission. We knew we had achieved a modicum of success when we opened our new facility in Lawrenceville in 2007. Currently on the brink of another campus expansion, we continue to find ways to connect this region with a career-long aspiration to entertain, educate and engage. We want to be a place where all people are welcome, both on stage and off stage.
Do you have any good luck routines you follow before a performance? Any superstitions you avoid?
Nope, I am not superstitious. Because I am chronically late, I am lucky if I get to my piano early enough to warm up. Sometimes, the first note of the show is the first note I have played all day. And, the way I see it, if bad luck followed me, I wouldn’t be working in this beautiful venue, with such an incredible group of people!
You wear many hats — resident music director, associate producer, artist, educator, entrepreneur. What is your favorite job, and what role are you still looking to take on, either in the theater or in the community?
My favorite job has always been and will always be the role of piano player and band leader, where my gift is to shine a light on others. It is the way I can be the most collaborative. To help an actor sculpt a moment of a song, to find the groove of a song, to make sure the trumpet is perfectly finessed … it is all exciting and deeply gratifying. If an actor needs extra time, the band can vamp; if an actor misses a cue, the band can skip ahead. I like having to be nimble — it keeps me from getting in a rut! The role that I am most proud of when I step away from the keyboard is that of mentor to the next generation of arts leaders, giving special care to women and people of color.
Where do you and your gang hang out after the final curtain falls?
Local Republic is my favorite Gwinnett restaurant. On a two-show Saturday, the band often makes reservations and heads over after the matinee curtain comes down — we literally “break bread together.” After the show, Universal Joint is a great place to have a beer and a late-night snack with other cast members or patrons.
You’ve produced and developed amazing musicals/shows at Aurora Theatre. What is your proudest production — then, now or in the works, and why?
That’s like asking, “Who is your favorite child?” It’s impossible to answer! I always say I like the show that I am currently working. I have had many highlights in Aurora Theatre’s history!
Why is it so important to keep arts in our schools?
The arts help us make connections, empathize and create. I want every child who walks in our theater to feel empowered to create because I know we are most productive when we use both sides of our brain – when we are both creative and analytical. At Aurora Theatre, we are creating future arts leaders who can problem-solve, collaborate and innovate, who have greater academic achievement, reflect social and emotional development, and who demonstrate greater civic engagement. These are the critical skills young Americans need to compete in a global economy – and how we believe we can change the world.
Besides Aurora Theatre, where are some other Atlanta venues you like to visit for shows and concerts?
I am so proud to live in the same city as the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theatre — I try not to miss a show there. The fact that the Alliance is led by artistic director Susan Booth is even more exciting. There are very few female artistic directors of major regional theaters in the country, and Atlanta is fortunate enough to be one of those cities. I see first-hand what a strong female leader brings to this region: collaboration, mentorship and new works from brilliant writers who are both nationally recognized and also cultivate great “home grown” works. City Winery is my new obsession: the restaurant, the bands and the overall vibe are great. I love the work that Ballethnic and Dance Canvas are doing to nurture a new generation of dancers and choreographers. Of course, I go to the Fox Theatre a few times a year to see touring Broadway shows.
What’s the biggest faux pas that audiences commit: using cellphones, talking, munching on snacks, arriving/leaving late, wearing jeans, fill-in-the-blank?
Leaving early is a pet peeve — I wish all patrons would stay until the last bow to acknowledge the actors. And please, don’t use your cellphone while the actors are on stage!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“There is nothing you cannot do.” My mom reinforced that in me every day of my life. It made me fierce. We, as women, are often afraid to be all that we can be. We are afraid to speak up. We are afraid to fail. We are afraid to lead. But my mother thought I was a shining star. She never discouraged me from speaking up, both for myself and for others.
What three things can you not live without, excluding friends, family and faith?
My piano, a bourbon on the rocks with a piece of dark chocolate, and my iPad.
A huge thanks to Ann-Carol Pence for letting us peek behind the curtain of her life. And as always, a shoutout to photographer extraordinaire CatMax Photography.