Live Arts History


Live Arts began as the dream of a small group of passionate people and has grown into a major cultural force in our community. Dreaming is still at the heart of all we do. We are committed to being a product of this unique community as well as a process for creating community. We make art that blurs the lines between genres, drawing freely from dance, music, visual arts, and other forms. We draw from an array of international influences creating extraordinary work with ordinary people. We are committed to outreach, education and new works as tools for creating both art and community. We strive for an arts organization that is a holistic structure with all areas drawing strength and support from all others. We are creating a theater and a supporting structure that are like no other in the world.

Live Arts started in 1989 with a small group of dedicated artists and benefactors who sought a home for live performance in the heart of downtown Charlottesville, Virginia and found it in developer Gabe Silverman’s Old Michie Building on Market Street. Our first production in that 135 seat theater space was of Sartre’s No Exit in September of 1990. Acid house dance parties provided an early approach to artistically motivated, experience-based events as a fundraising tool. This form found fuller expression in the legendary annual “9 Lives” benefit, a combination of cabaret and promenade theater forms with outrageous visual design excess and broad community support.

A popular series of coffeehouses under the direction of Fran Smith, the founding Artistic Director, provided a stage for local musicians, actors, and writers and were a popular regular feature of the first years. John Gibson began work at Live Arts as a volunteer in January of 1992 and became the first full-time employee in April of 1993. As the organization grew in scale and ambition, growing professionalism led to the addition of full-time Development and Technical Director positions.

The first in a series of distinctive musical theater productions was The Fantasticks in 1992 under the direction of John Owen. Our Live Arts Theater Training Ensemble (LATTE) was begun in 1997 under the direction of Lydia Horan and guidance of Kay Leigh Ferguson and provides arts education for all ages and unique performance opportunities for young people, a commitment that continues under the current director, Bree Luck. That same year saw the creation of a second, smaller (70 seats) performance space – Live Arts B or “LA.B”. An expanded commitment to new works began in 1999 and the outreach program has provided touring shows, pay-what-you-can performances, classes workshops and many other ways to touch lives regardless of age, income or ability to pay.

A major institutional self-study and long-range planning process also began in 1999 and resulted in many structural changes, including a powerfully simple new mission statement: “Forging Theater and Community”. Another enormous step was taken with the successful drive toward a new home for our theater. This campaign, in collaboration with Second Street Gallery and LightHouse Studio, and led by Thane Kerner, resulted in our spectacular Water Street facility designed by local architects Bushman Dreyfus.

In 2003, Live Arts moved into three floors of the Center for Contemporary Arts building on Water Street, designed by local firm Bushman/Dreyfus Architects. The Theaters are a 170 seat, 3 story configurable space with permanent balcony known as the DownStage, and a 70 seat black box known as the UpStage. Shows can run in both spaces at the same time.

With Gibson’s decision to retire in January 2010, the Board completed a restructuring of leadership to fit the needs of an organization ready to enter its third decade. Satch Huizenga, Gibson’s back-up as Director of Operations, moved into the new chair of Producing Artistic Director, and after a national search, Matt Joslyn came from Ohio to lead the financial operation as Executive Director.

After 8 months, Huizenga resigned from the organization, prompting a national search that led to the hiring of Julie Hamberg as Artistic Director. Hamberg started September 1, 2011, launching Live Arts into its 21st season.

In 2014, under the leadership of Matt Joslyn and Julie Hamberg, a beautiful lobby renovation ensured that our common areas are inviting for guests and artists to share in concessions and conversation before, during, and after shows and rehearsals.

Beginning in September 2016, the board decided to move from a dual leadership structure to a single leadership structure, and the quest for a Producing Artistic director began. In April of 2017 this committee, with input from volunteers and supporters selected Bree Luck, who had a long history as a director, education director, and community leader from a pool of 50 national candidates to take on the Producing Artistic Director position. Luck’s leadership lasted another 2-plus years with many advances including the “flipping the ratio” season selection where 80% of the playwrights and creators were women and/or a person of color. In August of 2019, Luck resigned and with Barbara Kessler and Jeremy Duncan Pape in interim positions of leadership – the board set out to fill the Executive Director and Artistic Director positions.

Season attendance has continued to thrive, Volunteers are still the heart of Live Arts, and the Youth, Education, and Foundry programs have expanded by nearly 30% in the last three years.

The astonishing growth in size, artistic maturity and ambition, and organizational vision are all testaments to the unique community that is our home. An annual audience of 20,000, critical acclaim and a core, recurring volunteer base of over 800 speak to the rich community of artists, patrons, and passions from which we draw. We are proud to be a community theater like no other, reinventing that traditional form and reflecting a community that is also like no other.

Since our first opening night on September 25, 1990…

  • We’ve presented 272 fully produced plays and musicals made right here in Charlottesville (that’s over 5,000 individual performances), clocking an estimated 1.33 million hours of rehearsal, production, and performance time by our volunteer company members.
  • Through our robust education programs past and present, including free in-school workshops and after-school programs with partners such as the Boys and Girls Club, internships, the mentor/apprentice program, classes for youth and adults, innovative and inspiring summer camps, audience talk-backs, and the Readers Circle, the theater has lifted the level of knowledge and spirit of collaboration of over 21,000 Virginians.
  • 348 new pieces of theater by local playwrights were premiered or work-shopped in our building (36 of which were full-length plays).
  • In the last season alone we engaged 679 artists in our productions, 599 participants in Foundry programs, and welcomed 294 new volunteers and an audience of 20,353.