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New community theater starts in Flowery Branch
The cast of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" are, front row, Matt Kniffen and Caitlin Chalmers; Nita Tisdale; middle row, from left, Lance Stinespring, Marilyn Lev, Dee Dee Allard and Ciro Manzari; and back row, from left, Scot Chalmers, Deborah Meeks, Dan Kniffen and Milt Lev.

Every community needs a little drama. At least, that’s what Donna Chalmers says.

Which is why Chalmers, who moved to Flowery Branch in August, is using her theater expertise to start a new community theater in South Hall.

The community theater, called Fifth Row Center, debuts Saturday with a free introductory performance of "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." The show was performed last year at the Lawrenceville Community Theater, which Chalmers started in 2005, and this special performance includes many original cast members.

Chalmers said she wanted to bring the free show to people in the community and then announce the open casting call for the first official production.

"We wanted to provide a free show for this community to enjoy and learn about the presence, the existence, of the theater," she said. "And then, hopefully announce the show we’ll have open auditions for."

Chalmers founded the Lawrenceville Community Theatre in 2005. Prior to that, she taught drama at Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula.

"I made the decision to rather stay close to home and do theater than drive to Lawrenceville," she said. "So I turned the reins over and started a new adventure."

She said the benefit of having a community theater is that it allows anyone to experience acting, whether it’s someone who dabbled a bit in high school or someone who has had a full career in show business.

"We have people that audition for us that have absolutely no experience on stage, or maybe did a show in high school, or maybe have done professional work and have settled into a 9-to-5 job out in the real world," Chalmers said. "Our talent really runs the gamut of experience. Anybody is welcome to audition for our plays."

Dan Kniffen, an Atlanta attorney who lives in Braselton, is one such amateur actor who hadn’t been on the stage in 20 years until his son talked him into trying out for the Lawrenceville Theatre’s production of "A Christmas Carol."

"He kind of dared me to be in a play with him," said Kniffen of his 16-year-old son, Matt. Not thinking his son would follow through on the request, Kniffen forgot about it.

"And six months later, I came home from work and he said, ‘Auditions are Monday.’"

Kniffen has known Chalmers since she taught at Hebron, and said the community theater in Lawrenceville was an opportunity for the whole family to participate in something his son loved to do.

"It’s a great opportunity to see really great actors, but then there’s others, like me, for whom it’s a hobby and it’s a chance to be involved in theater," he said. "We’ve been living in Braselton and marveling at all the growth that’s going on, and this is one of the ways the community grows."

Buford resident Marilyn Lev, who has New York and Atlanta theater credits to her name, will also be appearing in Saturday’s production. She agreed that the mix of ages and experiences is what makes a community theater unique.

"It’s a mixture of people who are well trained and professional, and the community," she said.

Lev added that she has been working on a production of her own, a series of skits that will be performed this afternoon in her Huntington Court community. "I just love acting; I’m very passionate about it," she said.

For now, Fifth Row Center will call Springs Community Church in Flowery Branch its home. Eventually, Chalmers said she would love for the theater company to have its own building. For the time being, however, Chalmers said she will have to rely on donations, volunteers and big crowds coming to the shows.

"We are looking for people to join us in any capacity," she said. "Whether people want to work backstage or sell concessions or to get on our mailing list to be informed about shows."