Carrboro Sets the Stage for Center Theater Company

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Founder Jenny Latimer talks past productions and plans for the future in their new space

By Anna-Rhesa Versola

Carrboro welcomes a new landmark on East Main Street this fall – the Center Theater Company moved into the space vacated by The ArtsCenter, which migrated into its new location on Roberson Street in late August.

The new community theater was founded in 2021 by Utah native Jenny Latimer, 39. Jenny grew up singing and performing in church-based theater productions. By age 17, she had signed with an agency in New York City and started acting professionally, eventually originating the role of Cosette in the 25th anniversary national tour of “Les Misérables.”

Jenny smiles and poses for the camera, sitting on the edge of a stage with her legs crossed.
Jenny Latimer, founder of Center Theater Company, brings fresh energy to the space formerly used by The ArtsCenter. Jenny, who toured nationally with “Les Misérables” as Cosette, moved from New York to North Carolina and wants to make this area her artistic home. Photo by John Michael Simpson.

Jenny split her time between Chapel Hill and New York City for several years before the pandemic began. “I was doing a show [“Sideways The Experience”] in New York when everything shut down,” she says. Jenny settled into the pandemic quarantine with her boyfriend in Chapel Hill. “I didn’t want to be alone in New York. I was scared. And then, of course, COVID-19 lasted way longer than any of us thought.”

Chapel Hill was a welcome homecoming for Jenny, who earned a Master’s of Fine Arts in acting from UNC in 2020, where she gained confidence in directing. (She was also a company member at PlayMakers Repertory Company, starring in shows such as “Twelfth Night,” “My Fair Lady” and “She Loves Me” and served as assistant director in “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood.”) Naturally, Jenny, as the eldest of eight kids (and, at last count, aunt of 20 nieces and nephews), corralled her friends’ children to rehearse and perform in backyard productions as a fun way to entertain themselves during the shutdown.

“And that’s how it really started, by doing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with this small group of kids,” Jenny says. Over the next two years, Jenny’s theater company grew its classes and camp offerings in a 2,500-square-foot space off of Garrett Road in Durham. Today, Center Theater Company is ready for its new location inside the 20,000-square-foot building that was once a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Carrboro.

“You know, I worked a lot of different jobs,” Jenny says about her cumulative experience leading up to this opportunity as a creative entrepreneur. “It’s been a total labor of love, and I’m very grateful that we’ve had so much support. That’s been the most overwhelming and great part of it all: that people really want this.”

Jenny is eager to invest herself and her career into the youth and the community. “I have so many connections now in North Carolina. I want this to be my artistic home,” she says. Her goals go beyond applause. Jenny wants to pass on the life lessons she’s learned through theater.”

Madeline holds newspapers in one hand, gesturing with the other, a concerned expression on her face.
Madeline Paul, 12, plays Katherine Pulitzer, an aspiring journalist who defies her father to support the striking newspaper boys and girls. Photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola.

“Self-esteem – it’s hard work and showing up,” she says. “Your self-esteem is going to come from that, and it’s gonna give you purpose. So do it. … You have to be so present with the people around you. And I can just see the joy that brings, especially these kids for a couple of hours a day. They are really connecting with the people around them. And [theater performance] is not something AI is going to take anytime soon. I think there’s lots of benefits in doing this art form. Most of the kids probably wouldn’t do this professionally, but it’s a path for joy and connection.”

In May, the cast of “Newsies Jr.” performed on The ArtsCenter stage. Some of the kids may return in late fall to the same physical location but this time it will belong to Center Theater Company. The company will stage a youth production of “Robin Hood” in November followed by its first major production, “A Christmas Carol.” Jenny rattles off a list of people she is pulling together to create a professional level production: Tim Seib (director), Tracy Bersley (choreographer) and Joanna “Jo” Sisk-Purvis (music).

Like the other dancers in the picture, Leila holds two feathery fans, arms outstretched.
Leila Tooloee, 12, sings “Just a Pretty Face” in the role of Medda Larkin. Photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola.

Several young actors dressed in early 1900s newspaper boy fashion are gathered in one spot during this dance number, arms raised and an indignant look on their faces. Photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola.
The Center Theater Company cast of Disney’s “Newsies Jr.” sing “Carrying the Banner” on stage at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro in May. Photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola.

“It was a huge leap of faith starting this community theater,” Jenny says about expanding productions to include adults. “I’m so grateful for all the spaces in Chapel Hill that have opened their door to us along the way.”

Madeline and the actors playing the newsies hold a pose for the last musical number on stage.
The Newsies belt out the finale. Photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola.

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