The Doug Smith Performance Center’s Memorable First Summer
The Palace Theatre’s last six months have read like one of its plays: A cast excited about opening a new education center for children, only to be blindsided by a pandemic. They show resilience moving forward despite an economic plunge, and a community rallies behind the facility, bolstering hope for a financially stable future, where fans once again fill the seats of the Palace.
But, unlike a typical play, there have been no rehearsals, and the script keeps changing. “We’re still adapting. It’s been making a plan and ripping up another plan,” Executive Artistic Director Ron Watson says.
One plan, however, has not changed—to help children learn life skills through theater classes in a new, larger space after the education program outgrew its home at the Palace on the Square.
‘Not Loud Enough’
After nearly 20 years, the Palace’s education program on the Square was bursting at the seams. Doug Smith, a Palace board member and patron since 2004, donated $1 million in 2015 to get a new building for youth off the ground.
The Doug Smith Performance Center opened its doors June 29 at Second and Rock streets. It is a three-story, 14,500-square-foot facility designed to serve more than 4,000 students per year, with a 200-plus seat performance space, seven classrooms, eight restrooms, storage and wardrobe spaces, a teachers’ lounge, dance studio, rehearsal space and an outdoor terrace for events and special classes.
It was a bittersweet first summer for the facility, which welcomed 130 students from first grade through high school, down from more than 600 campers last year. Still, those numbers reflected some positivity; if not for the larger spaces in the new center, social distancing would have required admitting even fewer students. “We wanted this building to be overflowing. But if we didn’t have it, I don’t know that we would have been able to operate at all,” Education Director Kristen Rogers says.
Kristen and the other staff miss the extra noise. “The joys of the sounds of summer in the education department fill your cup for the entire year,” Education Administrator Jesee Smart says. “Opening for summer camps is super exciting, but a little sad. It’s not loud enough in here. [It should be] booming with laughter and joy,” she adds. “And it was. At the end of the day, it was great, but not enough. I have great anticipation for the day when we can fill every classroom to its max.”
This summer’s campers were much different than the usual fresh-out-of-school kids excited for two weeks of fun, a bustle of energy from the minute they walked through the door. A subdued group took their place, wide-eyed and nervous about the new world they found themselves in after months of isolation. “We were getting kids who have not left their homes since mid-March,” Jesee says. “They all had big eyes. ‘What is going to happen?’”
That uncertainty wore off soon enough. Yes, they had to wear masks, wash hands frequently, and sit six feet apart, but singing, dancing, making friends and learning life skills while having fun—those took center stage. “You see them start to come back to just getting to be kids again,” Kristen says.
“Their lives have changed so dramatically,” Ron adds. “If we can provide that creative outlet, a little bit of normalcy, even if it’s not normal, it’s better than just seeing their friends on a video screen.”
During classes, kids have learned to work toward a goal, build confidence, and gain empathy. In a world without empathy, Kristen says, theater allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand another perspective.
The center is gearing up for its fall season starting September 14 with virtual and in-person classes for pre-kindergarteners through adults.
Kristen and Jesee are grateful to the community for allowing the Doug Smith Performance Center and the Palace Theatre to continue educating youth and entertaining Georgetown during a difficult time. “There has been a huge revenue loss and it’s a challenge to keep the doors open, but we really have had a huge surge of community support, which is amazing,” Jesee says. “Unfortunately, there is still a need.”
Two fundraisers are underway – Save My Seat, the annual fundraising effort that kicks off the fall season, and a donor-initiated campaign to keep staff on board. To donate, visit GeorgetownPalace.com/donate.
The Palace Plays On
The Palace Theatre has found a new stage—the great outdoors.
When staff opened the theater back up with limited seating and staggered arrival times after a temporary closure in March, they quickly found audiences weren’t ready for indoor events yet. Moving events outside was a revelation, Executive Artistic Director Ron Watson says. Ticket sales picked up and the Palace began hosting performances and live music in the area behind the Palace.
Even with the boost in sales, revenue is no where near where it used to be. “You get creative, you adapt, but we’re constantly worried about the future of the Palace. Like everyone else, we’re hurting,” Ron says.
When the Palace announced staff would be reduced, the community raised its voice to support them and an anonymous donor came forward with a matching donation to keep employees working.
“I believe the Palace is near and dear to everyone’s hearts,” Ron says. “From the outcry we had when we put out there that we had to reduce staff, the vocal support was huge. Now we need the financial support to be huge as well.”
- 8:45 pm Sept 4: Parking Lot Movie: “Mamma Mia” (Sing-along).
- 8:45 pm Sept 12: Parking Lot Movie: “The Princess Bride” (Quote-along).
- 8:30 pm Sept 11: “Love Inspired featuring Laura Benedict.” Austin pop-rock will perform a wide range of country, swing, R&B and ballads.
- 8:30 pm Sept 25: “A Night of Soul and R&B featuring Roderick Sanford.” Roderick, has performed in the Austin area for many years and will serenade with songs from legends like Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra.
- Oct 9 – Nov 8: “Steel Magnolias.” A hodgepodge group of women form friendships as strong as steel, which they are forced to lean on when tragedy strikes.
All events will take place outdoors in the area behind the Palace. Enter the parking lot on foot via Eighth or Ninth streets. Admission for the outdoors movies are by donation with a minimum of $5 to help support the Palace. Admission to the musical events and productions are listed on the website. Guests can bring their own refreshments and chairs, although chairs will be available. Social distancing will be followed, masks are required for entry and exit, and anytime you cannot maintain 6 feet of spacing. Reserve your spot at GeorgetownPalace.com.