Long engagement: Live Arts celebrates 25 years of exceptional community theater

Live Arts’ 25th season of volunteer theater will have a showbiz undercurrent. “They all have something that is like a nod to theater or Hollywood,” says Kisha Jarrett. Photo: Martyn Kyle Live Arts’ 25th season of volunteer theater will have a showbiz undercurrent. “They all have something that is like a nod to theater or Hollywood,” says Kisha Jarrett. Photo: Martyn Kyle

It’s a theme of mystery, of unfolding intrigue and wonder, that defines Live Arts theater’s 25th anniversary season, and for writer, director and actor Kisha Jarrett, that same sensibility fuels the non-profit’s quarter-century celebration.

“When I think about Live Arts, how it [was] started in this teeny tiny space on a wing and prayer by eight people in Charlottesville who wanted to do something cool, and how it grew—now the building itself is an arts mecca with more than 150 people that pass though the doors every day,” says Jarrett. “There are a bazillion things going on, from rehearsals to prep to committee meetings—it’s amazing when you think that 25 years ago there was no money, and now we have a new building and space and this thing that I’m guessing is bigger than what the founders originally envisioned.”

In her art, Jarrett, whose short film script Scout was recently listed for potential inclusion by the Sundance Film Festival and who works as Live Arts’ Marketing and Communications Manager, finds the groundswell of collaborative effort particularly powerful.

“There’s something that’s really freeing about writing for film in particular, but that you find in theater as well, which is that you have an entire world in your head but there’s only so much you can give,” she says.

Jarrett, who began her writing career with short stories and poems before transitioning to theater and film, explains that so much of her work must live in dialogue. “There’s the potential for so much artistry, she says. “The director’s vision, the actors voice and backstory, my favorite part is the process and the act of collaboration.”

Collaboration is the name of the game at Live Arts, where volunteers stage, produce, costume, perform and staff every single show. In the new season brochure, Executive Director Matt Joslyn and Artistic Director Julie Hamberg reflect on the very first Live Arts newsletter, which revealed many names still familiar to those who perform. Upholding tradition is not just about engaging new faces in community theater but learning from those who never left.

“With it being an anniversary season, there was a lot to think about it in terms of whether it would be a retrospective or if we would look forward,” Jarrett says. “Julie decided that we would continue with the tradition of never repeating a show (the only exception in the theater’s history was A Christmas Carol, which ran four times in the early ’90s).”

That commitment to charting unfamiliar waters reflects across the 2015/2016 season shows, which are “all a bit self-referential. They all have something that is like a nod to theater or Hollywood, even if it isn’t immediately noticeable.”

The theater’s line-up for the new season offers the blockbuster favorites (To Kill a Mockingbird, Dreamgirls) as well as smaller shows that encapsulate its experimental artistic roots.

Dirty Blonde is based on Mae West, and it follows two lonely people who find each other because they flock to her gravesite and develop this weird relationship,” Jarrett says. Scenes in the lives of the man and woman, both of whom impersonate Mae West, jump back and forth across time. As the writer puts it, “I can imagine what the Post-It Notes on that diagram board looked like.”

City of Angels is likewise inventive, but with a different nod to silver screen magic. In 1940s Hollywood, a writer tasked with translating his novel into a screenplay for a movie studio works and lives in color, while the action of the screenplay unfolds in black in white. Eventually, worlds intertwine. “It’s a super inventive concept,” Jarrett says, “and one that asks the question ‘What do you do when you say something is your work but it no longer is?’”

The Other Place is unusual, too, not only for its first-person take on unraveling amnesia but its older female lead—a rare occurrence, even in this day and age.

And Hunter Gatherer “is a fun wackadoodle script that I’d recommend to anyone,” Jarrett says. “It speaks to me. It’s about animal sacrifice and first world problems, which is part of the point—about two couples who come together for their dual anniversary and half the couples are cheating with the others.”

“Nobody would put [a show like Hunter Gatherers] in a normal season,” she adds.

That free range flexibility and commitment to new, different, unfolding theater is perhaps one reason Charlottesville will see the community-driven non-profit enter its 25th year with more joie de vivre than ever.

“It’s relevant to the time that we’re able to take those risks,” Jarrett says. “It’s a testament to the people who support Live Arts.”

Live Arts’ 25th anniversary season begins on October 9 with the debut of Dirty Blonde.