Jessie Grant spent her childhood amid the stages in and around Yadkin County. Now, she will be the leading artistic vision for the theater community that molded her. Grant was recently promoted to Artistic Director of the Willingham Theater after her longtime predecessor Ron Stacker Thompson has taken a step back.
“My primary goal is to rebuild back what we had before the pandemic and then expand,” Grant said. “I want to make sure we have something for every age group in the community.”
Grant, who has been with the organization since 2016, most recently served as the Director of the Willingham Performing Arts Academy, where she taught and mostly focused on the arts council’s musical productions, which are her passion. She has led 25 shows during her tenure with the arts council.
Grant holds a bachelor’s degree from Lees-McRae College in performing arts studies and a master’s degree in directing from Roosevelt Performing Arts Conservatory in Chicago. In addition to working full-time for the Yadkin Arts Council, she is a full-time student at UNC School of the Arts pursuing her master of fine arts degree.
After her undergraduate studies, Grant acted professionally for a year and a half and then took a teaching job in Durham, which was capped with receiving a pink slip during a widespread round of layoffs.
“I had just bought a house and had to sell it and ended up moving to Maine,” Grant said. “I decided I could sit home and be really mad about it or I could do something about it.”
She landed a job teaching arts education in a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in the island town of Vinalhaven. The school served 189 kids and had a 230-seat auditorium. The productions were always a hit in a town that essentially had no cell service due to its remoteness.
“We did the children’s story Frog Jumps Lilypad and the whole theater was sold out,” Grant said.
Her Maine adventure was followed by teaching high school in Virginia. And when her father’s health declined, she moved home.
Grant’s parents were active in the local theater community and met during a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now 37 and living in East Bend, Grant’s childhood home is one block away from the Yadkinville theater where she now works.
“I’m teaching or directing people who worked with my parents, and their children and sometimes their grandchildren so there’s a really nice circle there,” she said.
Grant’s goals are to continue to offer “a safe space for everyone that walks through the door,” she said. “I get to work with people I respect and I get to help make good humans and I get to work with a community that raised me and help put art back into what I grew up in.”
She already annually leads some of her favorite shows, which happen to truly contribute to the development of young artists, including Peter and the Starcatcher and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare will either help you or haunt you, but he ain’t going away,” said Grant of challenging casts to find the story through the fluttery language. “Peter and the Starcatcher just creates good actors and it’s so much fun. I tell them, ‘Make the audience believe you.’”
For her guiding philosophy, Grant wants the program to demonstrate that the arts play an indispensable role in the development of children and the vitality of a community.
“A lot of people underestimate the talent of this community. We do have a wide draw. We have people from Wilkes and Surry and Winston — any county that touches us. We have a kid driving from Burlington,” she said. “Our core and our big numbers are from this county. It doesn’t matter what size stage you have, it matters what you put on it.”
Lisa Michals may be reached at 336-448-4968 or follow her on Twitter @lisamichals3.