Profile: Virginia Winter
by Jane Ledwell
Virginia Winter, doyenne of the Centre for Performing ARTS in Montague, has such passion for her work, the whole building fills with her expansive, warm, welcoming enthusiasm. Open the door and stories start; plans unfold.
“The first ninety days in this building,” Virginia says, “I would wind up getting annoyed—the door would open, and someone would pop their head in, no appointments, no agenda. I learned to accept it lightheartedly…. I thought, what’s the bad news here? At least they’re nice! And they shared all these layers of stories.
“It all started with a vision of seeing through the cobwebs,” she says. The Centre, the former Yeo Theatre, was vacant “at least two or three decades” before it became home to the Performing ARTS in June 2005. It is now a venue for instruction and performance for music, theatre, and dance instruction for about 100 young people and a growing number of adults.
“We were pragmatic when we started,” she says. “We were not expecting government funding year after year. The business side of me wanted to run it as fiscally responsible and sustainable in its shows and programs.” She adds, matter-of-factly, “I could run this place on just the cost of the upgrade to the Confederation Centre sound equipment.”
“I’m still not taking a salary,” Virginia admits. “I live a modest lifestyle. I spent most of my life in major urban centres, New York and Atlanta, where there was greed and lust for the dollar. Now that I’m focused on my passion for the arts, I find the money is there for what I need.”
The Centre has succeeded in being sustainable, paying overhead, and expanding on space and is still able to make instruction accessible through scholarships awarded for dedication, financial need, and rehabilitation.
“The social rehabilitation scholarship is a pet project of mine,” says Virginia. “I firmly believe that if you take a young person with too much time on their hands and give them an outlet for the creative side that they have, they can tap into their ability, desire, and passion, and it opens a door into their heart. It redirects them, at least for the time that we have them with us here [at the Centre]. I feel like I’m just letting the genie out of the bottle.” Scholarships are partly funded by sweat equity: one hour of instruction for two hours of volunteering.
She adds, “We strive for excellence here. I tell the kids, I don’t care if it’s Montague or Lincoln Centre. You give the audience 110%. You become the persona who you are supposed to be on this stage. The audience is looking up to you when you are on a stage. You need to meet the obligation of that.”
Next, Virginia is hunting for a movie projector to use the theatre’s full-size silver screen. “Rock concerts, folk concerts, ceilidhs—these all have a pocket audience,” Virginia says. “Movies are a universal denominator. There’s a magic about sitting in the theatre.”
And after that: community radio. (She cut her teeth working at Radio Free Georgia.) “It’s the purest form of radio,” Virginia says, “because you’re not bought, sold, or owned by your advertisers.” They already have pledges for equipment for the station.
“We’re really good about cleaning out basements,” she says. “‘Don’t throw it out,’ I say. ‘We’ll use what we can lift or take out!’
“I’m kind of like a steeped-in-heritage kind of gal. [The Centre is] steeped in good memories and history and stories. If there are ghosts here, I haven’t met one I haven’t liked. There’s never an ill will or an ill-wind,” Virginia smiles.
“If anything, I think the forebears are smiling, seeing this place come back to life, hearing the laughter of children, hearing youth enjoying themselves through instruments. They may not agree with their music, but it’s music; they may not agree with their dance, but it’s art.”
“It’s a great place for a kid,” Virginia Winter says. “It’s a great place for me.”