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Aurora Theatre reflects on great year

LAWRENCEVILLE — During 2011, the Aurora Theatre grew, expanded and educated thousands in and around Gwinnett County, all part of their original plans. But this year exploded into something more than the theater ever expected.

“When I think back on the year, I think of how many firsts we had here and all of the national recognition we got this year,” Director of Sales and Marketing Al Stilo said. “I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

The theater was awarded two grants: one from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. Both grants helped the Aurora expand its diversity of plays.

The NEA grant helped the theater expand its children’s daytime program in the schools called the Learning Library, which included adding the shows “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in October and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” for January 2012.

There are more than 6,000 children (kindergarten through second grade) signed up for the January show — 10,000 children total for the program.

The $75,000 MAAF grant was the largest grant awarded to the Aurora in its history. They have used it for numerous programs and plays.

“I think you always take it as a compliment when somebody awards you for the work you’re doing,” Stilo said. “When you see funding being cut so dramatically and you still receive money, it in essence becomes a bigger compliment because you feel like of all of the need out there, they say our need to be the greatest — of all of the successful programs, they saw our programs as one of the most successful.”

One thing that the theater is very proud of is its upcoming performance of “Bonnie & Clyde: A Folktale.” The reason? Broadway’s award-winning director Lonny Price and choreographer Josh Rhodes will be producing the play, step-by-step.

“To have Lonny Price and Hunter Foster (the book’s author) in the same room, that was no joke,” Associate Producer Ann-Carol Pence said. “And for them to say we have national-level talent here in Atlanta ... that’s really neat to know. When they leave, they feel really confident that their show is going to have all these great people in it. I don’t think we worry artistically because we’re strong, but you always want outside validation.”

In addition to having Broadway greats working on the stage, the Aurora has received national and international recognition in other ways. When it produced “Barrio Hollywood,” a Spanish play with English supertitles, CNN Espanol recorded the show and aired it in six Spanish speaking countries.

On a national level, the theater welcomed comedians to record their stand-up documentary “The Muslims are Coming!” on-site, which was aired Dec. 19 on NBC’s “Rock Center.”

Other high points of the year: the Aurora organized a new horror walk “Terror on the Trail” for Suwanee in October, it won three Suzi Bass Awards in November and “Georgia Trend” magazine named the company one of the “Best Places to Work in Georgia” in the November issue.

“It’s good to know that the people who work here like to work here because there’s nothing normal about working here,” Producing Artistic Director Anthony Rodriguez said. “You have to be ready to work with whatever comes at you. We have the best staff in the world because they go with the flow.”

Now the Aurora is gearing up for 2012. It is finishing its 16th “sensational season” while organizing shows, programs and incentives for its 2012-2013 season. They definitely want to work towards more grants.

“Since we’ve already had one project with the National Endowment for the Arts, we’ll apply for another (grant),” Rodriguez said.