Organization has been entertaining audiences in Alexandra since ‘67

“Building community by igniting interest and participation in and through the performing arts.” That is the mission of Andria Theatre, a premier live theater and performing arts center in Alexandria. And for more than 50 years, the organization has been delivering on that mission.

The Andria Theatre spire was brought back last year, enhancing the look of the theater as well as downtown Alexandria. Contributed photo

“The Alexandria Area Arts Association (AAAA) began in 1967,” said Ann Hermes, executive director of AAAA and Andria Theatre. “It really started with a choral group who put together some shows. It wasn’t until 1970 that they put on their first fully staged musical production. The first show was Oklahoma which was performed in the Jefferson High School gymnasium.

From 1970 to 1990, the organization put on one musical every other year in the Jefferson High School auditorium. In 1990, the AAAA purchased the current building on Broadway from John Perino, who had used the building as a movie theater.  The very first show performed on the stage was Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music.

“Since 1990, the organization has slowly built up to a full season of shows,” said Hermes. “For a while it was two shows a year. Then it was three. Then four. It was four shows a year up until fairly recently, when the previous executive director came on board, and they added the fifth show for student actors.”

New Season

The new season of main stage shows at Andria Theatre includes five fully staged productions.

“We are very excited about this season’s line-up,” said Hermes.

The new season kicks off in October with The Wizard of Oz, followed by The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in December, Ken Ludwig’s comedy Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery in January, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in February and Mamma Mia! in April.

“We are currently running a great special on season passes. For adults, it is $75 for a season pass, which is five shows for the price of four,” said Hermes. “For seniors, it is $60 for a season pass, which is also five shows for the price of four. And we will also waive the convenience fee on all these passes for an additional $10 savings.”

Hermes has lived in the Alexandria area for most of her adult life. She has been an active part of the theater since she first came to town.

“Theater has always been my passion,” she said. “When I moved to the area after working in Fargo and Minneapolis, I was thrilled to find out there was a community theater here. I auditioned for Oliver. I didn’t get in the cast, but I told them I could sew. So I helped with costumes. They needed help in the chorus, which I eagerly joined.”

Hermes helped where she could on that show and continued in various capacities as actor, tech crew, marketing, and directing ever since. She was named executive director in 2016.

Dave Christman, another longtime volunteer and performer at the theater, is  artistic director for Andria Theatre. He wears many hats at the Andria Theatre. Two of those hats have included leading the popular Student Theatre Projects and the emerging Quad Squad, an improv team that has groups performing both at the theater and on location.

Student Theatre Projects

“When we started out the Student Theatre Projects, it wasn’t about a show,” said Christman. “Parents and staff wanted us to do some theater with area youth. My intention was to give some basics on what goes into doing a show. Then, we started to put on a show as part of that, and now it has morphed into a beast that gets bigger each year.”

Christman said the group has grown because of demand from the community and because of the passion shown by both the returning actors and the adult volunteers.

A scene from a performance of James and the Giant Peach. Contributed photo

“The kids definitely get nurtured here,” said Christman. “Our goal is that even if they don’t get a big role, they are still going to have a great experience.”

“They all believe in what Dave does and what Dave says. They really trust him,” said Hermes. 

And Christman takes that trust seriously.

“They probably learn more about life lessons than theater,” he said. “They learn confidence. They treat people better. They learn how to be a good community member and give back. They learn how to market a show and how to represent themselves when they hang up a poster.”

And sometimes the life lessons go even further. When a recent group was starting to complain about practicing, Christman decided to shift the narrative.

“Instead of lecturing them, I tried to show them how blessed they are,” he said, “and how they can use their bodies and minds in a positive way. “

At that same time, a teachable moment presented itself.

“This summer, during a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Sleepy Hollow Theatre in Bismarck, N.D., a few kids broke into the theater and vandalized the theater and costumes. There was enough damage that they had to cancel shows,” said Christman. “I told our students this story and asked them how we would feel if that happened to us. In two days, the kids had raised $250 for the Bismarck theater. Andria Theatre matched that amount, so we were able to give $500 to the theatre in Bismarck.”

But the group wasn’t done.

“They said, “Let’s keep it rolling.’ They started asking, ‘What else can we do?’” said Christman.

Over the summer, the theater group decided to make cards for patients at the hospital, they brought in needed toiletry items to the local food shelf, and they donated their time at an event at Bethany on the Lake, a senior living facility nearby.

“They volunteered to perform for residents at the ice cream social at Bethany and stayed to talk to the residents,” said Christman, who said the conversations between students and residents of Bethany were powerful and impactful for both groups that day. “It cost us nothing, and we really touched our community. There was no more complaining. And this looks like it has nothing to do with theater. And it doesn’t really. But it is so much bigger than theater or this organization.”

And the students work hard. For productions with both students and adults, students are often the first ones on stage working on their scenes and pitching in to do other things when needed.

“Sometimes, the kids can be good mentors for the adults,” said Hermes.

Currently, students ages 8-11 are working on a project that will end with a performance of Sleeping Beauty Kids later this fall.

The community outreach is a good example of how Andria Theatre is willing to go to the next level. They are also planning to take next year’s summer Student Theatre Project to the next level. In an effort to help the kids gain an understanding and respect for the culture depicted in The Lion King, Christman and Hermes are planning to bring in a Zambian immigrant to help educate the kids on cultural mores and experience authentic African cuisine. Also a drumming and dance group from Minneapolis will be teaching the importance of drums and dance in African life and their celebrations. They also plan to bring in a professional puppetry organization with an African flavor to help the students become even more immersed in the culture.  All these activities are expected to be funded through an National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. Should the grant not be awarded, students will still experience some of the educational components of African life.

“Things like this are bigger than theater,” said Christman. “This is about our community. We want to be the heart of the arts community in this area.”

Quad Squad

Christman has been involved in improvisation for 22 years, performing with a business partner from England all over the country (49 of the 50 states) and all over the world.

“I have always liked the spontaneous and quickness of improv,” said Christman. “There is a lot of thinking outside the box, and it is fun to see how improv brings out certain personalities in people.”

In 2015, Christman assembled and trained a team to form an improv team called the Quad Squad. The team started to do some gigs both at the theater and out at different venues. The Quad Squad has been well received, and a second team has been established.

“We did 30 gigs last year,” said Christman. “We have some real creative people here, and it is fun to watch them grow and develop.”

“How fortunate it is for Andria Theatre and audiences to have Dave right here in Alexandria!” smiled Hermes.

Changes/Improvements

While the organization is still called Alexandria Area Arts Association (AAAA) on paper, the group brought back the name Andria Theatre last year as part of a rebranding effort. Andria was the name on the original spire on the theater in 1937.

“That spire blew off in a summer storm in 1974 and was never put back up,” said Hermes. “So our organization has not changed, but AAAA is now doing business as Andria Theatre.”

When the organization purchased the theater building in 1990, it was an enormous project to convert the facility from a cinema to a live performance facility capable of launching big productions. The organization later purchased the building next door, which was a barbershop, and made that into their box office.

“We’re continually looking for new ways to improve the facility,” said Hermes. Last year, several improvements were made, all designed to make the overall experience better for theater patrons.

“We got the new spire up and then fate afforded other improvement opportunities to start falling into place,” said Hermes.

A scene from Andria Theatre’s performance of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Contributed photo

For years AAAA was looking to upgrade its theater seats. Hermes heard that the CEC Theatre, the cinema in town, was beginning a major remodeling project and was planning to replace all their seats with recliners. The seats they were taking out were in great condition, so Hermes approached them about the possibility of buying them.

“They didn’t take anything for them. They just gave them to us,” said Hermes. ‘It was a huge donation from CEC Theatre.”

With the help of volunteers, the old chairs were removed from the Andria Theatre and replaced with the new ones.

“You don’t see many theaters that have nice rocking seats with cup holders,” said Christman. “We are very fortunate.”

In addition to the seats and the spire, AAAA made improvements to the roof and the ceiling at the same time. Helping the financial part of the improvements was a generous bequest from the Ruth McDonald Trust.

What’s next for the Andria Theatre? First on the list is a new digital marquee, followed by LED stage lighting, and an improved sound system according to Hermes.

Community Support

Add up the main stage shows, the improv shows, the student shows and the other side projects and the results indicate a very active community theater.

“We had 51 performances last year,” said Christman. “That averages out to a new show on stage every six weeks. This building is used every single day of the year for something.”

In addition, AAAA’s annual fundraiser is Art in the Park each July. It has been a major fundraiser for the theater for over 40 years. 

Andria Theatre has remained vibrant and grown through the years because of the support provided by the community, said Hermes and Christman.

“The health of this organization is good and that is due to everyone who has participated in some way in the last 51 years,” said Hermes. “This theater was built by many, many people who all had the vision and desire to make live theater viable and successful in our community.”

Hundreds of volunteers help at the Andria Theatre every year both on stage and off.

“People donate hours and hours during productions, often after putting in a full work day,” said Hermes. “For our production of Singin’ in the Rain Jr, there were more than 6,600 volunteer hours donated. That is a significant amount of time.”

“There is a willingness and flexibility to help from so many people, from each show’s crew to assistant directors to family members. They just ask, ‘What can we do to help — just let us know,” said Christman. “We are very blessed.” 

“An environment of generosity and solidarity exists in Alexandria which is unique and unrivaled,” said Hermes. “Here you find government, education, businesses, manufacturing, tourism, retail all working together to better the community.  Every entity benefits with the spirit of togetherness, and the arts are no exception.  We appreciate the value that people place on the arts in this community.”

In return, the Andria Theatre team works hard to give back to the community.

“We are always looking at ways to make your experience as a patron better,” said Christman. “And we want the public involved in our decisions. Their voices really matter.”

If you are interested in getting involved in community theater, there is always a place for you at Andria Theatre, regardless of age or experience.

“We believe in involving as many new people as possible to keep things fresh and reflect the needs and wants of the community,” said Hermes. “They are the lifeblood of this organization. We love to get new people involved. Because when it comes down to it, this is really everyone’s theater. It is the community theater.”

To learn more about Andria Theatre, to purchase tickets to an upcoming show, or to buy a season pass, call the box office at 320-762-8300 or visit their Web page, andriatheatre.org. Andria Theatre is located at 618 Broadway in Alexandria.