A dream come true: a new life for an old school

By Page H. Gifford

The drawing depicts figures in a line, marching up a hill, some adults, some children, musicians, puppeteers, actors, singers, and artists. This picture was found among all the memorabilia that was saved by the Fluvanna County Arts Council since its beginning in 1992.

It began with a group of 30 people who formed the council, including Jeff Suling (original director of the Fluvanna Community Singers), Horace Scruggs (fourth director of the FCS and current board member), Drs. Denae and Sam Babbitt of the Fork Union Animal Clinic, Carol Lavigne, John Gill, Bonnie Field, Marilyn Pignoni, Don and Maureen (Mo) Cahill (who started Persimmon Tree Players), and Josephine Snead (drama teacher at the old high school). Josephine Snead saw the project as an extension of Fluvanna County’s pride in educating residents.

 Those who have lived in Fluvanna for many years will recognize these few names and the woman who was responsible for the idea of having an arts center in Fluvanna – Reba Webster.

In a statement to the community, Webster outlined her goals and why she and the others felt it was so important to have a community arts center.

“Think what it will mean to the people here in this county and at the Lake. Perhaps it means fewer trips to Richmond or Charlottesville for theater and music performances. Perhaps it means an opportunity for you or your children to perform,” she said. “It would mean local theater and music groups would have an adequate place to perform as would performing artists. But let your dreaming go beyond evening performances to films, lectures, meetings, drama workshops, and seminars, all possible during the day.” Much of what Webster and the others dreamed did come true.

They were set up as a non-profit organization with a mission to serve Fluvanna and surrounding areas  by offering programs, events, and activities, featuring local performing and visual artists and touring artists.

“We would bring various types of arts to Fluvanna for residents to experience and enjoy,” said Webster.  The original concept of FCAC was similar to many arts councils across the country and it was designed as an umbrella organization that would bring together all art groups and related organizations as separate and operating entities, and individuals in the county, encouraging greater cooperation and participation in the arts. It would provide space and equipment to churches, schools, the library, and other organizations with interests in theater, music, dance, lectures, public forums, literary arts, and visual arts.

The original high school was built in 1933 and opened in 1934 with 240 students. It was a white school until 1969 when it was integrated and the African-American students came over from S.C. Abrams. Former FCAC president Adele Schaefer remembers attending the old high school before it was integrated. Joseph P. Snead was superintendent from 1922 to 1957 and it was his wife Harriet Snead who started the Fluvanna Art Association in 1975.

At the time, the building housed offices and the county library. The group looked at the wasted deteriorating auditorium and Kenneth Webb, who was the council member in charge of reconstruction, commented on the water damage. There was extensive work to be done to make a functioning theater.

The council had to raise $150,000. The members were dedicated and committed and their belief in this project was resolute. They attended a two-day workshop in grants administration in Richmond and set up an ambitious fundraising agenda. Tthe county gave them $4,000. They received a contribution from Exxon Corporation. An anonymous donor gave $25,000, and the National Endowment for the Arts through the Virginia Arts Council gave $19,000 for performances. It was a start and then Delegate V. Earl Dickinson, who represented Fluvanna in the General Assembly, introduced an amendment to the state budget, providing matching grant funds to FCAC for renovation of the Carysbrook auditorium for the FY budget 1997-98. The funding was earmarked for underfunded counties.

The original auditorium had a seating capacity of 333. Today, the capacity is 270. A few seats were removed to make it handicapped accessible and the balcony seats had been removed to accommodate the new tech booth for lighting and sound. Anyone who has ever been up there running tech knows the vast view of the stage below but where seats used to be on the tiers of steps that still exist.

The grand opening was in October of 1997. but Reba Webster had already passed away and did not see her dream become a reality. But the others carried it forward and in 1998 FCAC won an award from the Piedmont Council for the Arts for “their unwavering support and significant contribution to the arts.”

Since then, FCAC has struggled, with some support and few volunteers. But to honor Webster’s vision that FCAC would enhance the opportunities  for all varieties of artistic presentation and to serve as a facilitator in the arts education of youth and work with public schools, current president Sharon Harris has begun to return it to its original purpose.

About 15 years ago, the auditorium was packed for the Sprint Sunday Afternoons where University of Virginia opera students sang arias and Broadway songs, and comedians like Brett Leake had the audience in hysterics. Afterward, then president, Marcia Drane, opened up an area of the library for an after-show get-together, meet and greet with the artists with snacks and coffee. But those Sundays ceased to exist.

When the Fluvanna Art Association asked to be involved, they were welcomed in the early days but were never involved in later years until they began exhibiting in 2018 during theater performances and have now partnered with FCAC for future events and exhibits.

PTP often performed as did the Fluvanna Community Singers. But after the Cahills left PTP, the group faded and was not performing as much until it was resurrected in 2004. But there was little support from FCAC in those days.

There were no youth drama programs until Jessica Harris brought Empowered Players to the Carysbrook stage and sponsored free summer camps with the help of FCAC. These were the educational needs that Webster and Josephine Snead felt were so important in engaging youth.

“I’m excited about the future,” said Sharon Harris. And after sifting through thousands of articles, stories, mission statements, photos, and drawings, she feels that Carysbrook Performing Arts Center is going in the right direction. Reba Webster’s vision of a performing arts center exists but its goal to incorporate all the arts, and include films, lectures, literary, the visual arts, and arts education will be realized with the new FCAC.

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