Nathan Gerrells, the artistic director at the Holly Theater, said he sees a purity in a group of people coming together to put on a show for passion’s sake, rather than for money or fame. That sense of pure love for the art of performing is a recurring theme for the actors and crew who are drawn back to the volunteer theater in Dahlonega several times a year to help perform shows for the locals.
The Holly puts on roughly five main stage plays a year, as well as three children’s plays, and in doing so it has acted as a home for much of the theater talent in Lumpkin County. And while based in Dahlonega, actors and crew members from surrounding counties like Hall, White and Forsyth frequently take part in the theater’s productions.
Several of them have gone on to obtain degrees in the performing arts and start careers of their own, many of them come back to the Holly’s productions because of the sense of unity not found in other spaces
“We’re here because we want to have fun,” Gerrells said. “When everybody’s here for that same purpose, it just makes the community just naturally evolve into what it is: a good, supportive group of people. We don’t have to do anything to actively promote that because that’s just what it is. It’s the culture that we’ve built here.”
Keelie Collins, a choreographer on the theater’s most recent show, “Newsies: The Musical,” said she’s found the Holly to be a space for actors, dancers and musicians to grow. Having worked in theater and performing arts for more than twenty years, Collins said she has felt a competitive toxicity in other theater environments, much of which is rooted in attempting to make the spotlight, land solos and higher billing, which members of the Holly actively discourage.
“The atmosphere of the Holly is one of the healthiest theater atmospheres I’ve been a part of,” Collins said. “The directors and creative teams that work here set you up for success. You never feel like anyone is setting you up for failure. There are a lot of times in theater where you feel like people are waiting to have a ‘gotcha’ moment, but that never happens here.”
For Hal Williams, chairman emeritus of the Holly Theater, that supportive environment was a goal at the outset of salvaging and renovating the Holly in the ‘90s.
“There was nothing happening ... in any of the other local communities,” Williams said. “There was nothing to expose the young people to the performing arts, and when we finalized the wording of the articles of incorporation it was with the mission to provide a venue for the performing arts and the exposure of people of Lumpkin County and the surrounding area."
This initiative led to starting children’s acting classes, which helped to build the community that surrounds the Holly from the root, and those roots have gone spread throughout the community through children’s families and friends.
“I wish we could say that we were brilliant and thought of it, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you get the kids involved then mom, dad, Uncle Joe, grandpa, grandma and everybody else is gonna get involved,” Williams said. “From that we have developed into one of the top teaching theaters in the state of Georgia. We continue to educate over 300 kids a year, and what’s developed from that, as my friend the late Larry Sorohan said, ‘We’re raising our own cast.’”
That same care for teaching and raising its cast doesn’t stop at children's shows, however. Each show has open auditions, meaning anyone is able to come in and take a shot at a role.
Even 29-year-old Adam Jarrard, who is playing the lead role in “Newsies,” hadn’t acted before his first Holly production “Forever Plaid” back in February, and had to be taught the fundamentals of acting. In just under a year he has been gradually ascending up the billing in the shows that have followed.
“Adam has a great background in music and is an incredible singer, but had never once set foot on a stage to be in a musical or to act,” Gerrells said. “He worked really hard on ‘Forever Plaid.’ It was a small cast, just four guys, and we really worked on acting and stuff with him, because he knew the music. Just over the course of a couple of months, you can see how much he’s grown as a performer.”
For Jarrard, the welcoming atmosphere allowed him to grow more comfortable with skill sets he hadn’t touched on prior, which ultimately led to his starring role in Newsies.
“There was never a moment where I felt like I didn’t belong,” Jarrard said. “There’s always a little sense of home from the get go. It’s something that I never, even a year ago today, if someone were to tell me this is where I’d be spending the largest part of my life for this year, I’d have been like ‘no way.’
“This suddenly just became home, I’m always here now.”
While the Holly’s education and supportive atmosphere has drawn in actors of all ages, Gerrells said the theater’s ultimate goal is to be part of an origin story for all those involved.
He said he hopes performers that come through can take what they’ve learned in a comfortable environment and apply it in the professional world should they choose to do so.
“There are lots of other stories of kids I’ve seen start in the children’s theater, get hooked on it, go on to New York and perform or are working on cruise lines,” Gerrells said. “A community theater is a place to hook those people and get them excited about it, and if they want to go on professionally they’ll have to find those outlets for real formal education in order to do that, but we provide that foundation and they usually come back to us and consider us their home.”