Allyson Paris: “There’s beauty, joy and connection to be found.”

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Grand Rapids Civic Theatre—which has served West Michigan for 96 Seasons by producing memorable shows, working with community partners and raising the next generation of artists—recently saw the transition of Allyson Paris from Associate Director to the first sole Artistic Director in the theatre's nearly 100-year history.

We caught up with Paris to learn more about why she's passionate about live theatre, her goals and Civic's future.

What does it mean to be Civic's first-ever sole Artistic Director?

It's an honor and privilege to be the Artistic Director of an organization with such a long history and excellent reputation in West Michigan! I remember the first time I saw a show at Civic as a Greenville High School student. Coming to Grand Rapids to see a show was a big deal! I saw She Loves Me directed by the late Paul Dreher, and it was life changing! I think about that moment all the time, and how Civic is the first theatre experience for many in West Michigan, so we want to ensure the experience is absolutely stellar. While I have many hopes and dreams for Civic in the coming years, ultimately they all come back to that moment. I want people to walk through our doors and feel like they've come to a place that will welcome them, inspire them and feel like home.

How does Civic plan to continue to make the arts more accessible to those in the community?

Access is an important part of Civic's mission as a community theatre. We work with GRPS and other educational partners to remove financial and transportation barriers for young people and families who want to see productions and take classes. We've been working with Autism Support of Kent County to offer Low Sensory Night performances for community members with sensory considerations. We've had a long-standing partnership with Helen DeVos Children's Hospital to provide arts opportunities for patients and families.

As we look forward, I want to ensure we're mindfully including all community voices on our stage, in our classrooms and in leadership roles. That requires a deep look at all our programs and processes—from how we run auditions and choose a season, to how we hire production teams, recruit and train volunteers, and everything in between. I'm looking forward to those conversations.

How do you think the pandemic has changed live theatre moving forward?

The pandemic taught us to appreciate the opportunity to create and enjoy art because for the first time in our lives, the show did not get to go on, and it was heartbreaking. Shortly after that, we learned something even more valuable: Civic Theatre is not only a beautiful, historic building. It lives in driveway performances, online classes, camps, radio waves, and at LMCU Ballpark. Civic is our volunteers, teachers, students, sponsors and audience members, and if we find a way to provide opportunity, they'll make theatre magic whenever and wherever they can.

In September, we opened our 96th season with Once, a musical about rediscovering hope in seemingly dire circumstances. I think it perfectly sums up what it means to be an artist in these times. It's not easy, it's not what we thought it might be, but there's beauty, joy and connection to be found for those willing to create it together.

Edited by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Dec/Jan '21-'22 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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