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Roanoke Children’s Theatre Makes Its Move

Pat Wilhelms announces the move to the Dumas Center.
Pat Wilhelms announces the move to the Dumas Center.

The recently announced August 1st move of the Roanoke Children’s Theatre to the Dumas Center  for Artistic Development, from the Taubman Museum of Art, is an entirely amicable one. Chalk it up, in fact, to growing pains in large part – the RCT, which mounts 4 literary or issue-based productions every year – needs more space.

At the Dumas, the actors will have dressing rooms, a parent waiting lounge and an auditorium which will seat another 50 people or so, bringing capacity to about 200.  That’s what they call a good problem. Artistic director Pat Wilhelms, who founded the Roanoke Children’s Theatre in late 2008, also pointed out the free parking around the Dumas, located on historic Henry Street in Gainsboro.

“We’ve expanded and grown at such an enormous rate, that we did not expect,” said Wilhelms. “We think [the move] is a smart next step.” Wilhelms lauded the Taubman for helping them grow to the point where a move was necessary.

The old Hotel Dumas, which once housed the likes of Duke Ellington and Lena Horne when they came to town but couldn’t stay elsewhere because of their color, was reborn as the Dumas Center with the help of TAP, which owns the building. Its been searching for an identity and a way to get people there for the better part of a decade. The Downtown Music Lab moved there briefly before heading to the Jefferson Center.

Dumas board member Anita Price, also a Roanoke City Council member, sees “the potential for so many opportunities, giving this space back to what its original intentions were for – for entertainment and cultural opportunities. And most assuredly to engage the community.”

Price said the more people that can see the RCT plays the better, since they have addressed topics in the past like suicide, bullying and alcoholism’s effect on the family – all with a lightened touch that doesn’t turn off younger audiences. “They teach and they bring more awareness,” said Price.

The former public school counselor also sees the RCT move as a way to bring back some economic vitality to Henry Street, to what used to be the center of black commerce in the city. “We do intend to be excellent neighbors and community partners,” she said.

Taubman Museum Executive Director Della Watkins, just several months into her new position, said the Taubman would fill that black box theater space now used by RCT for films, lectures and other events. “We’re thrilled that one of our partners has grown to the point where they need more space – we celebrate their accomplishments.”

Wilhelms said RCT was born “after many, many meetings,” with community leaders, and recalled asking then-Taubman executive director Georgeanne Bingham about becoming a tenant at the museum. A month after the Taubman cut the ribbon in November 2008,RCT moved in with a production of Madeleine’s Christmas. A summer camp and the last production at the Taubman, Stuart Little, will close the curtain there this summer.

Now its time to move on, said Wilhelms, almost 5 years and 56,000 patrons later, as a “happy and healthy” non-profit that employs actors, set designers and other support staff.

Wilhelms also announced the inaugural RCT season at the Dumas Center, which includes How I Became a Pirate in October, A Little House Christmas in December (based on the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls), Teen Brain in February 2014 and The True Story of Three Little Pigs next June.

“You’re home – consider it your space. We are happy with the partnership,” said Curtis Thompson, director of financial services for TAP. He called it “a process,” in making the RCT move happen.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” said Price concerning RCT’s next step; “[and about] what they’re going to achieve moving forward. The legacy and vitality that are here…you can just kind of feel it in this building.”

By Gene Marrano

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