Theatre Raleigh co-founder Lauren Kennedy Brady is on a mission to create space for performers in the Triangle — and the curtain is rising on a new artistic home.
As told to Emma Ginsberg
Lauren Kennedy Brady is the co-founder and artistic director of Theatre Raleigh, a non-profit theater company that has been producing professional shows in the Triangle for over a decade. Born in Raleigh and raised on North Carolina stages, Broadway veteran Kennedy Brady has made it her mission to create a thriving regional theatre scene in the Triangle — one where artists can make a living and audiences can be dazzled by a wide variety of shows every night. On August 3, Theatre Raleigh’s production of the musical City of Angels will open at the company’s brand new space in North Raleigh, which Kennedy hopes will become a bustling home for Triangle artists.
How did Theatre Raleigh first come to exist?
It’s such a circuitous route. Originally, my dad and my brother started a series at the Duke Energy Center called Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. That was when I was still an actress in New York, and I was helping them cast and being a creative consultant. They ended up not wanting to do it anymore, so I took over the series, but it was more like I was using the name and starting from scratch. It was still called Hot Summer Nights for a while, until I created the non-profit Theatre Raleigh. We kept going for 10 or 11 years at the Kennedy Theatre in the back of the Duke Energy Center, until Covid pushed us to expand and move out to our new location in North Raleigh.
Theatre Raleigh’s acquisition of a permanent new space is a big move – how did you make the decision to take that step, and how did the pandemic factor in?
Having my own space was something I’d always dreamed about, and the Duke Energy Center was becoming cost-ineffective for us. We were renting there — we couldn’t grow. The theater was small and we didn’t have office spaces. We had to expand to create new theatre and do education, or else we were going to stay a small company that did small shows in the summer. The pandemic pushed us to a point where we knew, “We have to do this now.”
Like all other theaters, we canceled our 2020 season due to Covid. The cancelled shows had this silver lining — I’m always looking for the positive in everything — because they gave us time to devise the idea of creating the Theatre Raleigh Arts Center, where we could not only do our own shows but host other arts groups, individuals, and performers to rehearse and create. We found our new space, and for 6 months to a year, we did a lot of the work ourselves. Me, my husband, my technical director and some key staff members made some aesthetic changes to this space that was once a church in a business park. Now, it’s a multi-use and multi-faceted center for the arts.
What’s your favorite thing about Theatre Raleigh’s new space?
I love and feel very proud of the lobby we’ve created, because we did the work ourselves. My husband, my daughter, my technical director and I laid the floors, created an art installation ceiling and put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s one thing to raise the money — I’m trying to raise 1 million to create the rest of the facility right now, and it’s hard work — but when it really comes down to it, changing the lobby was the impetus for all of it. I smile every time I walk through it.
For artists, space is really hard to come by; we knew that firsthand and from our friends in smaller theatre companies. So it’s our mission to offer space to our theatre friends for a low, non-profit rate. We’ll potentially give a few people each year grants to use the space for free, so we can lift up some of the companies that have struggled with being able to afford a stage. We also have rehearsal space we can rent to people, and small studios where people can make self-tapes or teach voice lessons. My dream is that it’ll just be bustling with the sound of music, this center where people can come and know they’re able to create. Where we can all do it together. It’s already coming to fruition. Even though we’ve been under construction for the past year, we’ve been able to offer our space to a number of other companies — smaller theatre companies, dance companies, children’s theatre companies — it’s been really cool.
This is just the (literal) first stage. I can see us continuing to grow, acquiring other spaces. Right now, we’re almost at capacity for 2022. Every space we have is rented or being used. It’s a great reaffirmation that the space is something people want and need.
Now that live theater is having a post-pandemic renaissance and Theatre Raleigh is growing in such a big way, what are your hopes for the company in the coming years?
I’d like to grow our audience base — we have a great opportunity to capture new audiences who had never heard of us when we were tucked up in the small theatre behind the Duke Energy Center. Now we’re in North Raleigh, right by the I-540 and close to Wake Forest, Wakefield and Youngsville, so I’m hoping that we’ll capture a younger, newer audience.
I’m looking forward to expanding our programming and doing more kinds of events. We have a cabaret theater in the lobby called our (wait for it) Lobby Cabaret Theatre, which we’ve configured to look like a New York cabaret with sofas and high top tables. We can also now do two shows at once — live music or a cabaret in the lobby theater, and a play or musical in the mainstage theatre. We also have a bar in the lobby and our liquor license, so it’s a destination where you can just park once and enjoy your evening.
What are your dreams for the future of theater in the Triangle?
I moved down here officially about 10 years ago, even though I was running Theatre Raleigh from New York before that. To create an arts hub here where people have enough work to sustain themselves as artists is the big dream. Since we’re a professional theater, offering local artists jobs is really exciting to me. We have 14 amazing local performers in City of Angels, who live and work and raise families in the Triangle, along with all of our designers and backstage crew. We also bring in people from New York (Broadway’s Megan McGinnis, Adam Halpin and Adam Monley are starring in City of Angels), so for local talent to get to work with that kind of Broadway caliber raises everybody’s game and creates such enthusiasm.
The more you do, the more you get, right? The more shows we do and the more jobs we offer, the more people will think, “Hey, Raleigh’s a great place to be,” and it is. I mean, look at the growth happening in Raleigh, not just in the theatre scene. It’s a very exciting time to be here, and I hope that the arts will grow along with the city.
This article originally appeared on waltermagazine.com on August 2, 2022