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Chris Jones performing on The Prizery’s Steinway grand piano
SoVaNow.com / October 15, 2020
Chris Jones, the patron saint of the arts in Halifax County, has announced his retirement as artistic director of The Prizery. Over the past four decades, Jones has committed to bringing outstanding dramas, musicals, dance ensembles, bands, and even flying acrobats to the local arts center.

Few people forever change the face of a community.

But “Chris is the ‘charging bull’ for the arts who changed us against all odds. Chris sees far beyond the words in a script, the notes in a score, the dress’s fabric, into the magic of pictures and sounds imagined then brought to life,” said Victoria Thomasson, who was compelled to share their visit to Neverland.

“Our three-decade friendship packs a century of adventures and inspiration! So much can be said, and I can only but sum it up with two words: ‘Peter Pan’! Those two words gave birth to how he approached the arts in Halifax County, FEARLESS!

“In 1993, Chris and I trotted off to Greensboro to see a touring production of ‘Peter Pan’ with Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan. We had already seen a regional production and a community production, both excellent. Here we were watching the big one! Our eyes stayed glued to that stage and the arrival of Peter Pan through the 20-foot windows of the Darling family nursery. After a dance with a live shadow and a laser Tinker Bell, I remember the eldest Darling child, John, saying the word “Christmas.” At that moment, an entire set began moving off, and Wendy, John and Michael, along with Peter Pan, were flying 30 feet above the stage through the clouds of a starry night. Next to me, I heard a gasp of breath. I knew in that instant what Chris would do. He was FEARLESS, and I was terrified!

“He did it. He broke all the rules of convention. Up we went higher than we ever thought we could fly. FEARLESS!”

While Jones’ involvement with local music and community theater goes back much further, it was the audacious undertaking that became The Prizery that propelled Jones even further into the limelight.

The idea of a fine arts center came alive in 1997 when John Cannon donated the old tobacco building to the arts, and it became The Prizery. Jones was a driving force in making that happen.

“I remember when his [Jones’] office was in the basement with a dirt floor, but Chris threw himself into getting a team together to raise money, and The Prizery grew into what it is today: a multi-cultural building where arts, dance, music and theatre can be alive,” said Becky Donner a longtime friend and fellow thespian. “We owe him a great deal of thanks for what he has left us.”

From the initial idea meetings, to the massive restoration of the old building, to the creation of the performance series and the Summer Theatre program, Jones was there - on a mission to bring the fine arts and the performing arts to rural and underserved areas - and to children and teens.

“Chris has a keen eye for excellence and is the ultimate triple threat: he can sing, and dance, and act! But Chris can do so much more too. He is gifted in his piano playing, so he can accompany shows; he can design sets that are gorgeous in execution, and he can also do the lighting design. One person having all those talents is extremely rare, but that’s Chris,” said Donner.

One of Jones’s biggest accomplishments is Summer Theatre, which created a stepping stone for rising college actors and others to follow their dreams onward to larger stages - even to Broadway. Jones routinely attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference and scouted actors to participate in the Summer Theater. This past summer’s, had it not been cancelled, would have been the eleventh year of show-stopping talent. The inclusion of local children and teens and other volunteers raised the bar even when the professionals left town at the end of summer.

For Jones, though, it wasn’t all glitz and glamor.

“The ride over the past 15 years has had many challenges to keep the lights on and the doors open,” said Jones, adding, “I may be retiring, but I don’t feel like I’m finished yet.”

His favorite production, though: Summer Theater.

“It took a leap of faith and is at the top of the list of accomplishments,” said Jones.

His leadership in creating a Summer Theatre program brought renewed energy and increased tourism to downtown South Boston while creating an annual tradition for many families.

“His fight for getting the Summer Theatre, which little communities never get to have, provided the opportunity for Average Joe to see a professional Broadway theater show,” said Susi Robbins, The Prizery’s Pre-K Arts Academy teacher and theater volunteer who has dedicated countless hours creating props for stage performances.

Four-time Summer Theatre performer Jon Latané said, “Chris’s passion for making the arts accessible to the community was always clear. His ability to network and identify talent, and to delegate to accomplish these goals always impressed me. I loved the way he integrated professional actors and musicians with members of the community - especially kids! I’ve never seen a community the size of SoBo with so many young artists, especially in the theatre, and he is clearly the person to thank for that”

Summer Theatre cast member Joe Rosko was an actor in the inaugural season and then returned last summer to direct “Mary Poppins.”

Rosko called him “Arts Hero, Chris Jones is a true example of what it means to be an Arts Hero. He led the way for creating an opportunity for young performers, technicians, and the city of South Boston, to experience professional theater each summer at The Prizery. Chris will forever be a key role in my life’s story, and I’m forever grateful.”

Passionate words of support for Jones also stemmed from Carson Eubank, who served as the music director for the 2018 and 2019 seasons:

“I have had the great fortune of collaborating with Chris closely during that time. In addition to being a multi-talented theater artist, his love and care for the students that come to The Prizery each summer sets him apart. South Boston is incredibly fortunate to have someone that has worked tirelessly to provide the community high-quality live theater. I hope the groundwork he has laid will serve as a strong foundation for whoever fills his position. They certainly have large shoes to fill, but I know Chris believes strongly in what he created and will be excited to see what the next chapter brings under new leadership.”

From countless local actors who performed in the 1980s Halifax County Little Theatre plays to those in the new millennium, they rave over the experiences they have gained through the exposure to the theatre and motivation and direction learned from Jones. Every rehearsal and every show was approached with creativity, craft, patience, respect and a willingness to do whatever it takes to produce an enjoyable experience for those on and offstage. So many people have been touched by the arts over the years, and so much of that is because Jones gave himself to the community.

“Chris Jones came into my life during my high school years in the mid-80s. I auditioned for ‘Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and was cast in the ensemble. By the time I finished high school, I had performed in four of Chris’ productions and found a second family - my Little Theatre family. Chris pushed you to give it your all and would accept nothing less. He helped this quiet, insecure South Boston teen find his voice,” said Jeremy McKinney, who now is an immigration attorney in Greensboro, N.C.

“My experience with Chris shaped my entire view on the arts and their importance in society, especially in a town like South Boston. Whether through a direct or indirect message, Chris always produced shows about love, acceptance, altruism, and kindness towards your fellow citizen. These are messages that are clearly necessary in today’s world, and messages that can only be brought to the community through the arts,” said Evan Snead, who began performing in Little Theatre plays as a child and is now a college student studying cinema and television arts.

Another college student in the performing arts, Gracie Berneche also saw her interests aligned with Jones’.

“He put a great deal of faith in me during his first Summer Theatre experience at The Prizery and cast me as Annie,” said Berneche adding, “This ‘big break’ only solidified my love for the art that he introduced me to. Chris Jones has been instrumental in the development of my passion for the theater.”

“Chris Jones is a true role model to me,” said teenager Katherine White, who spent much of her childhood on The Prizery stage. “He always knew how to encourage me to take risks, push me to be my best, support my endeavors, and without him I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

The goal of The Prizery was always to be an arts center drawing from a wide radius of surrounding areas.

“It has always been important to Chris to provide experiences that would allow children to understand that there’s a big wide world beyond our town,” said Sandy Slayton, a teacher and community theater leader. “Chris worked tirelessly to make The Prizery a regional arts facility we all can be proud of.”

In 2005, the Pre-K Arts Academy in collaboration with Halifax County Public Schools, introduced nearly 4,000 preschool students to The Prizery with weekly classes that included dance, music, and art lessons. The swell of Jones’ broad vision incorporated Parsons-Bruce Art Association and the Robert F. Cage Art Gallery, filled with visual art from as far as Italy.

“The Prizery under Chris’s leadership hosted hundreds of events, panel discussions about mending racial divides, to national artists, to local productions, to Summer Theatre that enriched the lives of community members and tourists alike,” said Alison Streeter, who was active with both The Prizery’s governing board and Halifax County Little Theater when she lived here. She was The Prizery’s managing director in 2015.

“The Prizery can truly be a place for all of Halifax County to come together and learn, laugh, cry, sing, dance, create and maybe even heal,” said Streeter.

His vision for the Community Arts Center Foundation (The Prizery’s governing organization) was “so broad and his desire to bring breath-taking shows to The Prizery’s stage for all ages was so wide, my final words to him on his retirement, as they would say in the theater, ‘Break a leg and knock them dead,’” said Angela Townes-Yancey, The Prizery’s managing director.

Jones has kept busy during the pandemic shutdown with watercolor painting, cooking new recipes and a little yard work.

“Plus, I know all the answers on ‘Jeopardy,’” he quipped; he watches the trivia game with his mother, who is widowed and lives next door to him on a farm just outside the town limits.

Jones hinted at a possibly revisiting and directing “Steel Magnolias”: “I’ve spoken with the girls in the previous cast and they are interested. It’s a familiar story, but I would also love to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’ along with ‘Footloose’ on the Prizery stage.” These two shows would have been part of the 2020 Summer Theatre season that was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jones expressed his desire to see really good Virginia regional groups he had recently discovered: “There is a tango dance group and bluegrass girl trio,” said Jones. “There is another generation of school students who have not seen the Chinese Acrobats.”

The vision for this art mecca in Halifax County took endless meetings, fund-raising and cheerleading that would not have happened without the hard work of Jones, volunteers, donors and faithful patrons.

Said Streeter: The best retirement gift anyone could give Jones is the furtherance of The Prizery’s mission and the expansion of its reach.

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