Henry Players look to bright future at arts center

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

After nearly a quarter of a century, a new era for Henry County’s award-winning community-theater group has begun.

Henry Players performers l. to r.: Jonny May, Luke Iddings, Heather May, Chris Gansel, Brandy Morris, and Cody Rentz rehearsed a scene at the Hood Street Arts Center in McDonough from the acting group’s upcoming production, “Next to Normal.” Special photo

The Henry Players recently reached an agreement to occupy a portion of the Hood Street Arts Center, at 136 Hood Street in McDonough. The group is now working on designs for the facility, and expects its first production there to be the holiday show of their upcoming 2015-16 season – a season which will also mark their 25th anniversary.

The Players officially announced the impending move to Hood Street on March 12. Players President, Adriana Beckner, could scarcely contain her anticipation when talking about the impending move.

“We made history,” she says. “It’s exciting. We’re all still scared to death, but it’s exciting.”

The Henry Players organization was established in 1991, operating out of what is now the county’s Board of Education building. The following year, the community-theater group unveiled its first production with “Hello Dolly!”

In recent years, productions including “Chicago,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Crucible” have emanated from the 700-seat theater at Henry County Performing Arts Center. The Hood Street Art Center, when it is finished, will seat 150-200 people.

While it will be smaller than the PAC, Beckner says the move will create more flexibility for the Players to schedule future performances than they have now, potentially expanding the group’s fan base.

“In the last couple of years, our numbers have come down,” says Beckner. “We have not filled the 700-seat theater in several years. We’ve had this wonderful stage and this wonderful venue, but we really have not been able to use it to its full capacity. With this new facility, we will be able to run more than one weekend, which would allow for word-of-mouth advertising which, for me, is one of the best ways to get people to come see a show.”

The first show at the new location will be the second show of the Players 2015-16 season. Beckner says this is because the first show of that season – which has not been announced -- will be a musical that is better suited for the PAC. She says although a budget for the Hood Street project has not been set, the Players “have faith that we will be able to handle it.”

Beckner says the Players – including longtime member Damon Bohan -- had been working hard in recent years to find a place to call their own, when they were approached by renowned McDonough artist Andy Davis, who recently launched the Hood Street Arts Center. Beckner says she immediately saw “great potential” in the Hood Street Arts Center, and that the new facility will provide greater access to the arts for local residents and will increase awareness in the community about the Henry Players.

“We’ve actually looked at several buildings throughout the years that would have required a lot of help from donations,” says Beckner. “Damon Bohan made it his mission to find us a home. Andy has been trying to move into this space for years. The moment he found out he would be able to, he told Damon. It took walking through, it took mock-up drawings and it took crunching the numbers to make sure we could do it before we could put it to a vote.”

The Players’ board, on March 3, unanimously approved the Hood Street location as the group’s new home. “I wish I had a camera the day we voted,” she recalls. “I actually did not think the vote would pass because of the fear of such a big change and all the unknowns. That night we had several different votes, and several things to talk about. We saved this for last. The moment we voted, and everybody voted for it to pass, I started to cry. I think it was such an emotional moment, a sense of relief that all that work wasn’t for nothing. The 2014-15 board of the Henry Players made history. The first thing I did when I closed out that meeting was hug Damon.”

Beckner says in addition to their own productions, the Players will make the Hood Street space available for performances outside the theater group, splitting those profits with Davis.

“When we’re not using the space for performances, we’ll open it for recitals, concerts, everything,” she says. “We’ll rent it out, basically. The other thing we intend on doing is adding a summer children’s program. With the PAC, we’ve been limited in what we can do. With our own space, we can do anything. It might ultimately be two separate theaters -- one a little more intimate than the other.”

Beckner says the Players will use the move as an opportunity to “re-brand” and to do more advertising in the community for their productions.

Bohan, a former president for the Players, now serves as the group’s vice chair of operations. He returned to the board two years ago in an attempt to find a home for the group.

However, he says, the overall search has actually been ongoing for much longer.

“We’ve been looking for 10 years, but more actively in the last three to five,” says Bohan. “A lot of it has to do with the availability of the PAC. As the county keeps adding schools, we’ve had less and less availability to use that.”

The Players initially looked at the Hood Street location five years ago, but a church was operating there at that time. Bohan says when he learned, within the last 90 days, that the church would be leaving that spot, he seized the opportunity to move forward on it.

“Everybody seems to really be on board,” he says. “It’s time for us to have a home.

In past years, the Players could only schedule shows to run during breaks in the school system’s calendar. With those concerns now a thing of the past, Bohan says, the new location’s value “cannot be understated.”

“As a longtime board member and participant in productions, we have long been focused on doing whatever we can to bring quality theatre to our community,” he says. “Today, we take another giant step toward that end.”

Bohan also says because the Hood Street facility is smaller than the PAC, the Players won’t have to spend as much time on construction for walls, windows, doors and props for their sets.

“We don’t have to build so big,” he says.

They will begin moving into the 7,000-square-foot facility following the close of their upcoming show, “Next to Normal,” which will run April 9-12.

Beckner, who is also directing that production, adds that her cast has already begun rehearsing at the Hood Street Arts Center.

“It’s kind of nice that it’s becoming an actuality, because I’m already attached to it,” she says.

The Players are considering hosting a grand opening for the Hood Street location later this year. Beckner expressed her appreciation for The Henry County Times and Publisher Mickie Jackson for supporting the group over the years.