It was her first ever recital. The little five-year-old walked across the stage to the piano, stood there and played “The Noisy Woodpecker,” finally remembering she was supposed to sit down on the piano bench—which she did—for the very last note. Since that first performance, Ann-Carol Pence has enjoyed a career as a professional pianist and music director that has taken her across the country to such stages as The Goodspeed Opera House, Pasadena Playhouse, The Cleveland Playhouse and The Kennedy Center, as well as Georgia venues, including The Alliance, Theatrical Outfit and The Horizon. The co-founder of Aurora Theater in Gwinnett County, Pence has won five Suzi awards for Outstanding Music Direction; countless Suzi awards for Outstanding Work and a Moxie Award (for women-led businesses) for Aurora Theatre. A native of Harrisonburg, Va., Pence is an only child of two teachers who encouraged her music experiences, leading to Pence getting her first job playing piano at a church when she was just 12. She played piano for all her high school musicals and says from a young age, she learned that “musicals were the ultimate form of collaboration in theatre and I’ve had opportunities to use that lesson to this day.” For a time, she thought she might also go into teaching and went to James Madison University. However, her passion has always been music, she said, so in 1987, she packed up everything she owned and moved to Atlanta. “I took a leap of faith and bet on myself,” she said. In 1997, she and Anthony Rodriguez founded Aurora Theatre in Duluth. In 2007, they relocated the Aurora to Lawrenceville and it has been called a “force multiplier” in bringing businesses and visitors into the downtown area. As producing artistic director and co-founder with Rodriguez, Pence sets the vision for the organization and on a daily basis, she does “a little bit of everything,” she said.
She is proud the Aurora has brought professional theatre to Gwinnett and its Mama Mia! and Mary Poppins shows were huge hits. With a patron base that topped 80,000 before the pandemic, Aurora Theatre enjoys fans from all walks of life. Pence hopes that at some point, the Aurora will “shepherd a show” to New York, adding that the Lawrenceville Arts Center is the perfect place to create world-class theatre. In Rodriguez, Pence says she has a “fantastic partner and fellow founder of Aurora Theatre.” “He is the love of my life,” she added. “In February, my mother Carolyn moved in with us. We have a fur baby, Bella, who is the Barx Office Manager and comes with me to work from time to time. We have an elusive cat, Hugo that adopted us in 2013, when he ran inside the theatre as a sixweek-old kitten. We named him after Victor Hugo because we were producing the Georgia premiere of Les Miserables when he came into our lives.”
If shoppers are looking for a gift that will bring a standing ovation, a mini-season ticket to the award-winning Aurora Theatre might be just the right fit. Featuring three events, the mini-season ticket offers theatre-goers an opportunity to enjoy some of the best live performances presented on stage at the new Lawrenceville Arts Center.
“We offer something called a mini-season ticket you can give yourself or others and it’s basically the second half of our season,” Aurora’s director of sales and programming Al Stilo said. “They are the three plays that happen after Christmas and it’s under $80 for all three shows. It’s a flexible ticket, kind of like a starter kit for people who thought about having a season ticket. What do you get that person who has a lot of physical things other than getting them an experience.”
The mini season kicks off with Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, Jan. 19-Feb. 19. The award-winning play is now a hit series on Netflix and features Mr. Kim, a Korean immigrant who dispenses fatherly wisdom, history lessons and potato chips from behind his convenience store counter. “Humor finds its way onto every aisle,” reads the synopsis of the play. “Mr. Kim navigates the needs of his customers and strongwilled family.”
Next up is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, March 16-April 9. The play is about the queen of disco who went from gospel choir member to dance floor diva. Summer is a five-time Grammy Award winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame legend known for such hits as Hot Stuff, Bad Girls and No More Tears. The play shows how Summer risked it all to break through barriers, becoming the icon for an era and inspiration to future music divas.
Completing the mini season is The Play that Goes Wrong, which will be on stage May 25-June 11. “This is quite a coup for Aurora to get this,” Stilo said. “Everybody remembers when we got the right to Les Miserables, which was a big deal. We are the first ones in the region to do this play which has been running in London and on Broadway for more than a decade because it’s one of the funniest farces ever written.” He said it is “laugh out loud” funny and is about a community theatre in England putting on a murder mystery and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. “It’s pure slapstick,” Stilo said. The award-winning comedy has been called a “hilarious hybrid of Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes.”
However, there is still a lot to see and do in 2022 as Stilo says Aurora is getting ready for its “first really big holiday season at the Lawrenceville Arts Center.” The next few weeks will be busy at the new arts center located off the square in downtown Lawrenceville. More information about the center can be found at www. lawrencevilleartscenter.com. Aurora presents Anthony Rodriguez, who will be back Dec. 8-23, for the 16th year of his one-man version of A Christmas Carol, featuring “some of the most exciting and fun elements you can imagine,” Stilo said. An audience favorite, The Christmas Canteen, now in its 27th year is Gwinnett’s longest running theatrical holiday tradition, Stilo said, adding the show is always a little bit different and “overflowing with Christmas-time fun.” On stage Nov. 25-Dec. 23, The Christmas Canteen appeals to all ages and features songs and comedy sketches. Datsuzoku Akrosphere: A Cirque Show will be on stage at the Aurora Dec. 2-4, featuring a cirque-style performance with storytelling through jaw-dropping feats of skill, music and movement. Aurora presents A Motown Christmas, a cabaret show Dec. 22, and comedian Dulce Sloan will finish 2022 with a new year’s eve show at the Aurora.
The above is only a sampling of what’s on stage the next two months.
There are also comedy nights, shows for children, concerts, puppet shows and much more. For a full calendar and ticket information, visit www.auroratheatre.com. Any individual, company or organization can also visit the website if they are interested in having the Aurora as part of their holiday festivities. Aurora’s Reindeer Games provides musical performances and improv comedy that involves the guests for holiday parties. “We can go...to an office event or a restaurant or an event space or somebody’s home,” Stilo said. “It’s really kind of a cool thing we do. We bring us to you.”