Open Doors: The New Wayne Theatre Invites a Fresh Take

Ninety years ago, the historic Wayne Theatre opened its doors to the first surge of eager patrons waving tickets. This fall, history repeats itself, but now the theatre is sporting a new facelift and a new outlook.

The facelift has been taking place for years—ever since the late 1990s—when the theatre was a vacant twin cinema with pink-tiled bathrooms. Wayne Theatre Executive Director Tracy Straight at that time served as an elementary school music teacher and musical theatre director. She recalls brainstorming with Lillian Morse of the Waynesboro Players about forming a group of arts-minded citizens intent on saving the theatre. This fledgling group grew into the Wayne Theatre Alliance (WTA). Using a variety of tax credits and other capital, the alliance began overhauling the theatre in 2007. Even then, financial challenges forced construction to stop three times before the work was finally completed in 2016. The process was an arduous one for Straight and the WTA, but she asserts, “I am as engaged as ever!”

Big Bill Morganfield brought his musical talent to the Wayne as part of the Chili, Blues & Brews weekend. Photo by Alan Grossman.
Big Bill Morganfield brought his musical talent to the Wayne as part of the Chili, Blues & Brews weekend. Photo by Alan Grossman.

In September, the Wayne kicked off its opening season as a newly renovated, state-of-the-art performance venue. Already, during its preview season in early 2016, the theatre drew over 3,000 children during the Arts Education Series and saw a dozen sold-out performances for nationally acclaimed acts. The Wayne’s success could stem from its unparalleled sound quality, roomy seating, or versatile stages and rental spaces, but Straight points out yet another feature: its affordability. With many Pay-What-You-Will performances, the Wayne is eager to establish itself as a theatre for every economic bracket. “This theatre is not meant to be elite,” she says. “I’m passionate about the public coming in to connect with all the events.”

Choo Choo Soul was one of many performances that reached the children of the community.
Choo Choo Soul was one of many performances that reached the children of the community.

The 2016 inaugural season demonstrates how the Wayne has created a new outlook for itself. The venue will play host to numerous educational presentations, including the Arts Education Series and the Signature Speaker Series, which features both historical and scientific presentations. Since Waynesboro is the hopeful site for a satellite campus for the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Straight wanted to be sure the museum had a voice. “Even though they are as yet without a building, we want VMNH to have a presence in our community.” Expect to see talks on dinosaurs and geology this fall, as well as top-notch historic impersonations of America’s Founding Fathers.

The Wayne saw many sold-out performances in its preview season.
The Wayne saw many sold-out performances in its preview season.

With a nod to its cinematic past, the Wayne also has the distinct honor of being selected as the only theatre in Virginia to host the “On Screen In Person” series of independent films that tour with their filmmakers. The film showings will coincide with other tie-in events to build community connection. Additionally, every Monday the Wayne shows classic movies selected by audience members and plans to run a “Faith and Film” series in 2017.

And that’s only scratching the surface of all the Wayne has to offer. Making a monthly appearance, The Shenandoah Jamboree showcases country and bluegrass artists, while Live @ the Wayne entertains viewers with a musical and comedy variety show. In November, the Wayne will produce its first musical, The Secret Garden, with accompanying book club meetings, teas, and special dinners on performance nights.

Wayne Theatre Executive Director Tracy Straight. Photo by Mark Miller Photography.
Wayne Theatre Executive Director Tracy Straight. Photo by Mark Miller Photography.

Thanks to the WTA and many supportive residents, Waynesboro now has a performance center with style and vision. Asked what the opening of the theatre means to her personally, Straight demurs. “It’s never been about me. Now that I have kids, I realize what an opportunity it is for them to have this theatre downtown. I really believe this theatre is about reaching our greater community, which is bigger than Waynesboro. Our goal is to create an experience for all patrons that will make them want to come back.”

Which is why you will often find the executive director herself greeting people at the door or thanking them for coming at the end of a show: The theatre doors are where the greater community begins.