Stage Aurora weaves rich theatrical works in northwest Jacksonville – Lifestyle – The Florida Times-Union
The acting mistake bit Shauntel Bennett when she was 9 years old and appeared in a gospel play in her church.
“Even then, I was playing an old lady,” Bennett said with a chuckle when she recently got into the role to play another older woman in the community theater production of Apostasy: 360 Degrees.
“I was one of the older characters and everyone thought so [acting] came to me so naturally. “
But Bennett, who is now 32 years old, has had no place for a long time to completely soothe the itchiness this bug left.
That was until 2007.
It was around this time that Bennett heard that Stage Aurora, the performing arts theater founded by actor and writer Darryl Reuben Hall in 2002, was auditioning for its original “Frat House”.
Bennett called in. And she not only got the role as “Bea”, another old lady, but also the chance to reunite with her long-lost love: acting.
“I haven’t been on stage in 11 years,” said Bennett. “That gave me my break. Even though I didn’t think my audition was that good, Darryl felt like I saw something inside of me, so he gave me a chance.”
Bennett, who works as a financial analyst, said she dreams of going to Broadway one day. This is one of the reasons why she, along with many other actors, is grateful that Stage Aurora has brought community theater into the cultural fabric of northwest Jacksonville.
Hall, a graduate of Raines High School, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Before I did that, people asked me why I wanted to start a theater company on this side of town,” Hall said. “I said, ‘Why not? I grew up on this side of town. Why do I have to open a theater on the south side when people need it here?’ “”
Put locals in the spotlight
For seven years, Stage Aurora – the hall named after the brilliance of the Aurora Borealis as the “theater that illuminates” – has done more than just provide the community with a place to stop.
It has exposed them to the works of literary giants such as Langston Hughes and his play “Black Nativity: A Gospel Song”. It has given many of them the opportunity to showcase their dancing and singing skills to a wider audience.
And it has given many of them the opportunity to work with local producers and playwrights.
One such producer is Noble Lee Lester, who co-wrote Apostasy: 360 Degrees. The piece, which opens on September 18 at the Stage Aurora Performance Hall in the Gateway Town Center, focuses on five vocal youngsters who grew up in the hyper-spiritual atmosphere of storefront churches and who develop various means of holding onto this spirituality amid the challenges of the outside world.
“They realize that they are a rarity and make a covenant that they will only use their talents forever,” Lester said.
While Chivan Rivers, 16, and Ishmael Blue, 26, both residents of Northwest Jacksonville, waited for their scenes during a rehearsal, they discussed their encounter with the community theater on Stage Aurora.
“I’ve always wanted to do modeling and acting, but that really impressed me,” said Chivan, who attended Wolfson High School.
“I think it’s just my personality. … I like to entertain. That’s who I am.”
Chivan said she has been on Stage Aurora productions for a year. Before that she only appeared in church plays. Hall said this is the case with many actors who try it for his productions.
“You don’t learn that much acting from an actor’s point of view in church plays,” Hall said. “You don’t learn the technical aspects of theater and all the other things that come with it.
“With my years in New York and my years as an actor on Broadway, I can overthrow a lot of professionals who can teach these things … I try to both educate and entertain.”
Blue, who also appeared on Stage Aurora’s productions “Frat House,” “Dreamgirls,” and “Reality Check,” said he introduced Hall to live theater when he had previously been to the circus and commercials.
“The first time I got the acting bug was when I saw ‘Home Alone’ in the theater. I think I was 6 or 7 years old at the time,” said Blue. “From then on, I always wanted to do fun things.”
Blue and Chivan said they would have discovered other benefits if they were part of Stage Aurora.
“I have something to do instead of getting into trouble, something I can do after school,” Chivan said. “It also helps me in school because I have to remember things. It helps me in college.”
Blue said, “It gives me something to do even though I’m 26, not 18. It’s better to be with the same people doing the same activities as you.
“It keeps you out of anger and gives you something positive to do.”
I hope to care for professionals
Hall said that while he would like Stage Aurora to help youngsters constructively channel their energy, he doesn’t want people to lose sight of the fact that this is a professional theater company.
In fact, he ultimately hopes it will become known for producing professional actors.
“I would love to see more community people walk through the doors of Stage Aurora and land on Broadway,” Hall said. “But I also hope that many of you will come and give something back to the community.”
Lester said he thinks Stage Aurora can nurture actors in this community by continuing to expose them to quality theater.
“The nice thing about the theater is that you don’t hear a sermon. You see one,” Lester said. “You see a sermon that plays all the pathos in life … It’s good theater in the sense that it is relevant to people’s lives.”
Still, people like 53-year-old Vanetta Sherrod, who works as a drug abuse counselor when she’s not drumming in her church or performing in one of Hall’s productions, feel it is important not to downplay the role of theater in the community.
“I used to work for the Job Corps, and what happens to a lot of kids is they have nowhere to go and nothing to do,” Sherrod said. “But they have talent and that helps them find it.”
For more information about Stage Aurora and its performances, call 904-765-7372 or visit www.stageaurora.org.