Carol Thompson is stepping out of her perennial starring role in the three-actor stage version of “Driving Miss Daisy” for a different role at the Averitt Center for the Arts, as its interim executive director.
Thompson, who retired one year ago as director of Georgia Southern University’s Performing Arts Center, has been involved in various ways with the Averitt Center since its formative phase. Her turn as interim director began Monday, after Tim Chapman, who was the Averitt Center’s first executive director and held the job 13 years, departed Friday for his new post as manager of the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center in Carrollton.
At her first staff meeting Tuesday, Thompson told employees that they all know more about running the Averitt Center than she does and asked for their help.
“I said, ‘Here is the way I see us for the next few months, we’re all in the lifeboat from the Titanic. Every one of you have to keep your oars in the water, and I’m going to hold the flashlight, and help lead the way,’” she recounted in an interview.
Besides the executive director, the center’s full-time staff includes technical director Robert Faller, program director Tony Phillips and operations manager Jackie Gordon. A fifth full-time position, development director, is vacant, but applicants will be interviewed next week, Thompson said.
Part-time and contracted educational program directors, marketing staff, facility attendants and custodians complete a 28-person Averitt Center paid staff, and there are many volunteers besides.
The Averitt’s 13th performance season was already set, beginning with “Lewis Grizzard in His Own Words” this Friday and Saturday. Chapman also left Thompson folders full of material on the center’s programs and projects, and they will talk by phone when needed, she said.
When the Emma Kelly Theater and the Averitt’s headquarters beside it are counted separately, Statesboro’s community arts organization now operates four facilities. The Center for Performing Arts on West Main Street opened last year, and the Roxie Remley Center for Fine Arts on East Vine Street was dedicated two weeks ago.
So Chapman has left Thompson and the staff in charge of something like a “mini SCAD,” she said, making a comparison to the Savannah College of Art and Design that seems to occupy about half of Savannah’s historic district.
“Tim poured everything he had into the Averitt, and he had great vision for the community, what the art center could do and what it could do for downtown in keeping it alive and vital and viable,” Thompson said.
Thompson poured her own professional efforts into Georgia Southern in various roles over 25 years. But her volunteer work with the Averitt began before it had a building, 14 years ago. She served on the original committee that proposed the construction and established policies for things such as facility rentals. She trained some of the first ushers and volunteers.
“I mentored Tim through his first arts conference when he’d never been to one and didn’t know what to expect,” she said.
Together, they represented Statesboro’s arts scene at a number of conferences over the past decade.
When Thompson arrived in Statesboro in 1986, “there was no art,” and she wondered what she would do, she said. She and her husband Dale, who have three children and now three grandchildren, moved here from Lugoff, South Carolina. For about four years there she served as performance director for the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in nearby Camden.
Thompson was hired in 1987 as director of giving for Georgia Southern College’s foundation and advancement office. She worked with Hugh “Perk” Robins, who was then Georgia Southern’s development director and has recently died, during a $15 million fundraising campaign associated with the rise to university status in 1990.
In 1996, Thompson was named Georgia Southern’s Campus Life Enrichment Committee, or CLEC, director. She worked with a committee of 10 faculty members and 10 students to arrange for virtually all the artists and guest speakers brought to campus.
Construction of the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center, which includes the 825-seat Performing Arts Center, took several years. Thompson served as the university’s liaison on the project.
When the PAC opened in 2002, Thompson became its box office manager, and then served as assistant director before being promoted to executive director in 2010.
Thompson has enjoyed acting in plays since her student days at Mississippi State College for Women.
But her all-time favorite part, she said, has been as Miss Daisy. Directed by Gary Dartt, the Averitt Center production debuted in 2009 with Thompson in the title role, Mical Whitaker as the driver, Hoke, and Alan Tyson as Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie. They have reprised their roles on and off ever since.
Last year, they took the play to Swainsboro in the spring and gave a special fall performance at the PAC to mark Thompson’s retirement. Last week, they performed in Waynesboro, and now “Miss Daisy” will make one final appearance, for now, Thursday at the Mars Theatre in Springfield.
“Now that I’ve taken the interim role, I’ve told the cast we’re going to have to not take any more bookings,” Thompson said. “I think I’m going to be a little busy.”
Not a candidate for the permanent job, Thompson came out of retirement with the understanding that the Averitt Center board will move forward “judiciously and quickly” to find a new executive director, she said.
The search will probably take at least six months, said board chair Laura Wheaton. Meanwhile, she said, the board is thrilled to have Thompson.
“We just think that she is the person who’s got the right experience and she’s got the right familiarity with the Averitt Center, and we’re very thankful and glad that she is there to help us in this time of transition,” Wheaton said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.