Lionheart Theatre Company finds new venue in old church

Thank goodness for old churches.

As the city of Lawrenceville converts an old Methodist church into a home for the Aurora Theatre and the Red Clay Theatre prepares to start its season in a former church in Duluth, the Lionheart Theatre Company is already rehearsing in its own old church in downtown Norcross.

After years of bouncing from venue to venue, the community theater group has found a permanent home in a 136-year-old chapel near the heart of downtown, said the group's founders, Tanya and Michael Carroll.

Churches make perfect homes for theater groups because they're already set up, in a way, for performances, Tanya Carroll said. Pews provide great seating for the audience, and the acoustics are usually superb. Stained glass windows and other architectural details add built-in charm.

"This place is so old, which is a draw. It will be beautiful when it's all finished," Tanya Carroll said.

The chapel is actually part of a 4-acre property purchased by the city of Norcross to house a new cultural arts center, said the city's Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lovelady. The city used money from the county's penny sales tax to purchase the property, which also includes a 350-seat auditorium, classroom space, a fellowship hall, a Queen Anne-style Victorian parsonage and a cedar shake-style cottage. The church was formerly home to the Norcross Praise Fellowship Church.

Plans for the property are ambitious and include a community arts center, teen center and a senior center, Lovelady said. The chapel and auditorium will be available for local performing arts groups to use. The Lionheart theater group is the first to claim the center as a home base, so it will have first dibs on using the chapel space for its productions.

But the city hopes other local dance, theater and music groups will use the auditorium and chapel spaces throughout the year. Lovelady said he hopes to see the center help create an active arts community in Norcross.

"There's this feeling that if you want to go see a play or look at cultural arts or performing arts, you've got to go inside the perimeter. We want to change that," Lovelady said.

Tanya Carroll said she's confident her theater group will help lure people downtown at night. The group urges its patrons to use performances as an excuse for a night on the town - eat dinner at one of downtown Norcross' restaurants, see the play then grab drinks at one of the city's bars or pubs.

"We're in walking distance of everything downtown," she said.

An evolving space

An audience of about 100 will be able to sit in the chapel's pews for the group's first performance of the season, "Anatomy of Gray," which will run from Sept. 1-9. The pews have been rearranged to create a "theater in the round" setup, where the actors perform in the center of a circle of seats. The intimate setting works well for the play, a period piece that doesn't call for a very elaborate set, said the show's director, Joanie McElroy.

The chapel is full of interesting architectural details, including ornate window moldings, arched stained glass windows and Gothic-style lanterns to provide lighting. But lots of renovation work is needed to bring the chapel back to its former beauty. For now, the church has peeling white paint, a drop ceiling and rust-orange carpeting.

Renovation work won't start until after "Anatomy of Gray" completes its run. At that time, the city will pull out the carpeting to uncover original oak floors, take out the drop ceiling to reveal the original vaulted ceiling and repair and repaint the exterior.

Audiences who catch "Anatomy of Gray" and later performances will get a first-hand look at the theater's progress.

"Come see this one, then watch the evolution begin," Tanya Carroll said.

Humble beginnings

Tanya and Michael Carroll founded the Lionheart Theatre Company six years ago as a way to share their love of theater with the community. The Carrolls both studied theater in college, and Michael has performed with nearly every community theater group in metro Atlanta.

"I like working with people who might not otherwise get to do much theater," Michael Carroll said. "I also try to be a good influence on the younger actors. That's how I got to be a better actor myself - watching really great actors work."

The group got its start at Norcross Presbyterian Church and later performed at The Royal Art Gallery and the Berkeley Lake Chapel, among other spaces.

While Lionheart has also approached by the Aurora Theatre to perform in the black-box theater space in its new facility, the Norcross chapel will serve as its home base, Tanya Carroll said.

About 15 actors make up the group's core performers, but new actors sign on all the time. The shows are open to actors of any experience level from Gwinnett and beyond, Carroll said. The actors vary in terms of age, but they all share one characteristic - they're doing theater because they love it. Most have job and school responsibilities during the day, but they all volunteer their time for the rehearsals and shows.

"These people come from work or school and they're ready to work," said "Anatomy of Gray" director McElroy. "It's amazing to get this kind of energy from people after they've worked all day."

If you go

•What: Lionheart Theatre Company's production of "Anatomy of Gray." Set in the 1880s, it's the story of a young doctor who has a crisis of faith.

•When: Sept. 1-9. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1, and 7-9, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2.

•Where: The Norcross Community and Cultural Arts Center, 10 Britt Ave. in Norcross

•Cost: Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and senior citizens.

•Info: Call 404-456-9820 or visit lionhearttheatre.org.