- Associated Press - Friday, December 23, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Sitting in the middle of the newly renovated theater lobby, Anne Scarbrough gazed through the wall of windows out to downtown Decatur. Eleven months ago, the Princess Theatre’s board of directors tasked Scarbrough - the first new executive director in 28 years - with revitalizing the historic performing arts center and, indirectly, a downtown area in transition.

Across the street from the Princess Theatre stands a new performance space and two vacant storefronts once belonging to restaurants. To the left are three eating spots opened in the past five years. And, behind the theater, appears the Cook’s Museum of Natural Science, scheduled to be complete next year.

“What people want the Princess to do, which is to bring people to downtown and make the city a success, is something no one organization can do. It will take all of us. It will take the Carnegie and the Alabama Center for the Arts and the Cook’s Museum all working together and strategizing to make that happen,” Scarbrough said.

Since taking leadership of the Princess Theatre, Scarbrough spearheaded the transformation of the lobby into a coffee bar, the creation of community conversations and the organization of a summer performance lab for youths. She opened the theater for race relations meetings, re-established conversations with performing arts groups, hosted Broadway musical sing-a-longs and reconvened the community board.

Anne seems to have a great desire to get the Princess back in the community’s bloodstream. What she has done is create a space where people feel comfortable. It is not a forbidden place anymore, sitting down there all closed up,” said Carol Puckett, president of the Bank Street Players, a community theater troupe.

With a 130-year history that includes time as a livery stable, the building once was described as a financial strain on the City Council. People now speak of the Princess Theatre’s possibility and promise.

To cultivate that excitement, Scarbrough spent hundreds of hours researching the performing arts center, getting to know the facility and talking to people in Decatur about their hopes and dreams for the theater.

Many expressed a desire for more concerts. Others wanted films and lectures.

“I heard as many dreams for the Princess as people I talked with. Beneath it all, however, there was this unspoken vibe that what people want is to feel like they belong here and that the Princess is open for them,” Scarbrough said. “What I want is to make the community feel like the Princess is theirs. I see the Princess like the library, a place that is shared.”

People she talked with fell into two groups: the connected and the disconnected. In some cases, a painful past was part of the problem.

When Scarbrough visited northwest Decatur, a predominantly black neighborhood, residents met her vision with guarded optimism.

“Many of them remember not being able to come through the front door of the Princess. When that is the memory they have of this place, why would they feel like it is theirs? They really want to see if this will be a hospitable place for them, and I feel a big responsibility to make that happen,” Scarbrough said.

During the summer, the theater hosted meetings on race relations and community relationships. The Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association organized the meetings in the wake of national violence involving police.

“I believe the Princess has become more open to the community, hosting a lot of events at no cost and expanding its reach to all parts of the community,” said Julia Roth, chair of the Princess Theatre’s board of directors.

That reach extended with the coffee shop, opened in August, and the monthly community meetings called salons. The conversations addressed multi-generational poverty, cyberbullying and the impact of the arts on public health. The next Community with a Conscience salon, scheduled for January, will center on nonviolent communication.

Along with making the theater accessible to the community, Scarbrough rebuilt connections with the city’s performing arts group.

“Decatur went from a vibrant performing arts community in past decades to nothing. In its heyday, there were arts events happening all the time there. All of that went by the wayside when rental costs rose and we no longer had an affordable performance space,” Puckett said.

DreamWeavers, a drama group for children, Bank Street Players and Backstage Theatre Co. disbanded. The Decatur Civic Chorus moved performances to area churches.

When Bank Street Players reorganized in 2012 after seven idle years, the troupe’s leaders found other performance sites at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center, the former Coffee & Playhouse on Moulton Street and high schools. The company scheduled one performance, “The King & I,” at the Princess Theatre.

“We had to scrimp and save and jump through hoops to do it, but we did it because we knew what it meant to stage a show at the Princess,” Puckett said.

This season, three of the company’s four productions - “Called” held last October, “Steel Magnolias” in April and “The Sound of Music” in July - will take place at the Princess Theatre.

“We feel welcome again,” Puckett said. “Bank Street Players and all our kids feel like the Princess stage is our home now. That’s what we were going for when we re-upped and that’s what we feel.”

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml


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