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Young thespians still learn at Mill Mountain
[March 29, 2009]

Young thespians still learn at Mill Mountain

(Roanoke Times, The (Roanoke, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Mar. 29--When 12-year-old Elizabeth Turner learned that Mill Mountain Theatre was planning to shut its doors, "I cried" she said. "I was really sad." One reason was that Elizabeth had already signed up for spring acting classes under Mill Mountain's education director, Ginger Poole.

Elizabeth is much happier now. Because in spite of the fact that Mill Mountain has canceled all plays and laid off most of its staff, the theater's education program continues to operate. For the past nine weeks, Poole has taught Mill Mountain acting classes as a temporary employee of Center in the Square.

Center President Jim Sears said they stepped in when the theater announced it was shutting down, because people had already paid for the classes.

"Rather than disappoint these people, I suggested to Mill Mountain Theatre that they might want to allow Center to hire Ginger and run the theater classes through Center," Sears said.

At the time, bankruptcy for Mill Mountain seemed imminent.

Two months later, the bankruptcy hasn't happened. The theater continues to have two paid employees: development director Daria Goode and operations manager John Bryant. Mill Mountain's board President Jack Avis said the employees are needed to assist with efforts to reinvent Mill Mountain.

Meanwhile, starting Monday, Poole will leave Center's employ and return to work for Mill Mountain again, she said.

"Everybody realizes that the education side is critical to the success of the Mill Mountain," board member Jason Bingham said of Poole's probable return. "We're making sure that it is going to reside at Mill Mountain. Everybody's headed in the same direction there." Bankruptcy proceedings could change everything, of course, especially if the theater is forced to liquidate its assets. But board members and theater employees said last week that bankruptcy no longer looks quite so likely.

"We're working with the biggest creditors right now," said Avis, who confirmed that one of them is Wachovia bank. Mill Mountain owed Wachovia more than $250,000 in fiscal 2006-07, according to tax returns. It also owes more than $150,000 to Center in the Square.

"It's going better than it was in January," Avis said of the negotiations. "I wouldn't say they're going to forgive anything." But he said they are working with debtors and donors to try to come up with a plan.

The shaky foundation notwithstanding, Poole said summer classes at Mill Mountain are now a certainty, thanks in part to a $5,000 grant from SunTrust Bank.

Poole, a North Carolina actress and choreographer brought here by then-artistic director Patrick Benton, teaches her classes at the theater's alternative venue, the Waldron Stage.

On a recent weeknight, she struggled to prepare her teenage students for an upcoming performance for family members, on a set left over from "Driving Miss Daisy," Mill Mountain's last production.

"It's your show, so take pride in it," she told them after a ragged rehearsal. "You all are going to do the work for me -- yes?" Poole nodded her head as an example of the correct response, and the kids nodded back.

Afterward, the young actors talked about the roller coaster ride they've been on. Annalee Hunter, 16, said Mill Mountain's acting program had been expanding under Poole, especially among older teens.

"It was growing, and then it just stopped," with the announcement the theater would close its doors, Annalee said. "It was worrisome." Asked how they felt about the classes being resurrected, the youngsters said they were delighted.

"Oh, my gosh, I was so excited," said Tyler Bailey, 16.

"I was ecstatic," Elizabeth said.

Roanoke has other theater classes. Kevin Jones has taught students at his Kevin Jones Performing Arts Studio for years. And Pat Wilhelms, Mill Mountain's former education director, now runs the Roanoke Children's Theatre, which offers classes and produces plays at the Taubman Museum of Art.

But those close to Mill Mountain say the theater needs an educational component of its own.

For more information about acting classes at Mill Mountain, call Ginger Poole at 342-5749 or e-mail

What of the Atelier? The future of the Mill Mountain Theatre actors dormitory, known as the Atelier, is under review, said Jim Sears, president of Center in the Square.

Center owns the building, formerly the Shenandoah Hotel, on the corner of Campbell Avenue and Williamson Road.

The old hotel underwent a $4 million renovation in the late 1990s and reopened in 2000 as retail space and dormitory rooms for Mill Mountain actors. It is now prime downtown real estate, with an entrance right across the street from the entrance to the Taubman Museum of Art.

And, for the time being, Mill Mountain is no longer staging plays.

Sears said it isn't clear if the space could be used by actors again someday, working at a revived Mill Mountain Theatre. "It hasn't been determined." But he also said there are "all kinds of usages for that building," including upscale short-term apartments, offices and artists' lofts. It could even be sold, he said. "That corner is a very valuable corner. It's a very nice piece of property. We want to do what's best for the city, the citizens and Center." Two Center board members, Roger Elkin and Ed Hall, are studying possibilities for the Atelier and will report back to him in several months, Sears said.

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