The Twilight Theatre’s Mother-Daughter Act
Heart. Dedication. A fascinating story. Unique, interesting, and lovable characters. A show-stopper song. A good laugh. A good cry. A show-must-go-on attitude. Those words might describe a successful Broadway stage show, but they could also describe Jeanne Hewell-Chambers and Alison Chambers—a dynamic mother-daughter team whose creative juices and dedication to the arts has produced The Twilight Theatre, Fayette County’s only theater devoted entirely to community members.
Alison, the Artistic Director of The Twilight Theatre, is also a professional vocalist and actress, a private voice teacher, a workshop facilitator, and an acting coach. Her mother, Jeanne, is the theater’s Managing Director as well as a writer; a performer; an artist with needle, cloth, and thread; a professional speaker; a teacher; an end-of-life-doula; and a personal historian.
Apart, Alison and Jeanne are each a one-woman show. Together, the women are a Tony-winning extravaganza.
It is Valentine’s Day. The flickering glow of candlelight illuminates the darkened theater. A lone spotlight envelops Alison Chambers, who stands center stage. The black gowned, sequin-earringed blond belts out a song about love and heartbreak. The entranced audience sits at small round tables, nestled around the intimate stage. Up front sits Alison’s mother, Jeanne. It is her birthday celebration. The gleam in her eyes and the smile on her face suggest that this is the best gift her daughter could bestow on her.
“Alison is the heart of Twilight,” says Jeanne with pride in her voice. “It was her idea, and she’s the energy and creative force that keeps it going. Without Alison, there is no Twilight. It’s that simple.”
The Twilight Theater may have been Alison’s idea, but the seeds for it were undoubtedly planted by Jeanne. When Alison was three and her brother, Kipp, was two, Jeanne brought them to Atlanta to see “The Nutcracker.” “Everyone said, ‘Why are you taking them up there? They’re too young. They can’t sit still that long,’” says Jeanne. “Well, they were mesmerized. I also gave them piano lessons at age two. I figured that when they’re young, they have all this time; and I was going to fill it with art!”
And fill it with art she did. Throughout high school and college, Alison was involved with music and local theater. As a young adult, she drove to Atlanta and around the South Metro area to perform in shows. But she had the idea that the Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater in Peachtree City would be the perfect place to stage big musical productions in the summertime. She knew there was a large talent pool in Fayette County. So Alison asked the Amphitheater staff if she could produce “The Sound of Music”. They agreed, and the Twilight Theatre was born.
Jeanne, a ninth generation Fayette Countian, does not believe in the old adage about not doing business with family and says her family has been doing business together for years. She realized there was a business side to running a theater that Alison did not know, so she decided to jump in and teach her the ropes.
“She wound up doing more than she expected,” says Alison with a laugh. “What she is very, very good at is that she nickels and dimes me to death. I like pretty things—two bucks here and two bucks there—and it adds up. With Mom watching the bottom line, we’re doing relatively well.”
“I tell people that creativity flourishes with boundaries,” says Jeanne. “But nobody likes the money person. I have to tell them, ‘You can’t spend $1,200 on costumes; you can spend $200.’ And you will come back to me some day and say that’s the best memory you have cause you had to make do!’”
From the beginning, Alison’s goal was to have Fox Theatre-quality sets, sound, and talent. But she wanted the theater to be a community theater — a place where people could watch their neighbors perform. Alison believes Twilight, which was voted Best Theatre by Fox 5 television channel in 2007, has done pretty well in meeting her expectations.
She also rates “Les Miserables,” performed the summers of 2007 and 2010, as the theater’s best production. Sarah Stitt, who has acted in numerous Twilight productions, was Alison’s assistant director for the 2010 Les Mis, which had massive sets and 80 local teenage actors. While Sarah spent each show down front watching and taking notes for the actors, Alison spent every show in the very back, wearing a headset and giving directions to the back stage crew.
“Alison is a perfectionist in the very best way,” says Sarah. “If something went wrong, she noticed and got someone to fix it. Les Mis was a really tough show for a lot of reasons, and I could tell that every setback felt personal to Alison because she wanted the show to be as perfect as possible.”
Alison prefers not to direct. As a performer, she finds it difficult to sit in the audience. But in order to reach her goals for Twilight, she had to develop directing skills. She felt that it was important to give others the opportunity to perform and to have positive encouragement.
Nora Darling, who has participated in numerous Twilight productions, says that before Alison and Jeanne started The Twilight Theatre, there were theater programs in Fayette County, but there was little opportunity for serious actors or mature teenagers and adults to dive further into acting. “Now,” says Nora, “people throughout Fayette County know that Twilight is a professional quality group of actors with true talent and drive.”
While Alison may be the front person at Twilight Theatre, it is agreed by all that Jeanne is the behind-the-scenes person who makes things happen. Susan Stitt, whose three daughters participate in Twilight shows, says that what she admires most about Jeanne is her unfailing dedication to helping Alison achieve her dreams. Allison Balkovetz, whose children perform with Twilight and are members of the theater’s Apprentice Company, agrees. “Alison’s mother is her special guardian angel,” she says. “Miss Jeanne is the woman behind the woman.”
Wendy Darling, Nora’s mother, has known Alison and Jeanne since 2005 when she and her daughter Diane performed as nuns in “The Sound of Music.” “From the beginning, I noticed that they have such a strong bond as mother and daughter, which I appreciated as a mother of two daughters myself,” says Wendy. “They have a mutual respect for each other. They are close without imposing on each other.”
For Jeanne, the opportunity to work with Alison is something that is rare and special. “Not many moms and daughters at this age have this opportunity,” she says. “I also get to act, and I don’t have to audition! Maybe I shouldn’t mention that. It’s a little perk!”
A creative person herself, Jeanne contends that she doesn’t like the business part, but knows it’s necessary. “Alison makes sure I don’t get stuck in the business quagmire. She pulls me out and says, ‘You’re going to do this on stage.’ She has taught me things about myself that I might’ve picked up along the way, but I’m not sure I would have. She has touched a lot of parts of me that had gotten covered up with years—with all the layers—and she’s reached through those layers and pulled out parts of me that I had forgotten existed. It’s a lot of fun working with her, and I appreciate it.”
Jeanne is not the only family member involved in Alison’s Twilight Theatre dream. Her father, Andy, and her brother, who now lives in Los Angeles, have been supportive from the beginning. “Andy has schlepped and hauled and built and tore down and fetched and conceived and hung and more,” says Jeanne. “He’s even filled in on stage when there wasn’t another man who would. And Kipp has provided input into shaping the theatre and every aspect of the shows. He’s designed ads, and he’s flown in to lead the applause at performances.”
Alison, who played sports while growing up, is a firm believer that the arts are as character-building as sports. She advocates that the arts offer vast opportunities for building character, self-discipline, and self-reliance; teaching leadership, management, organization, and communication skills; and forging and maintaining relationships. But even with all that in favor of the arts, the arts far too often take a backseat to sports.
For this reason, Alison and Jeanne particularly enjoy seeing entire families take to the stage together. They love watching the dads who strike out into completely new territory and become involved because their children (sometimes sons, but mostly daughters) love theatre. “They do sports with their sons and theatre with their daughters,” says Jeanne, “and they’re surprised to find that we’re right: theatre is a team sport every bit as much as football.”
Wendy Darling believes that Alison and Jeanne have created a theatre that invites and welcomes families to be involved together. “Many activities that kids get into, the parents may sign them up, write a check, and drop them off. At Twilight, family members are welcomed and encouraged to get involved. It is a community theater.”
The Twilight Theatre fills a significant part of the day for Alison and Jeanne. But in spite of all they do together, they are two individuals pursuing different interests and taking different paths.
Alison, who once ran for Peachtree City City Council as well as the state legislature in 2004, teaches voice and provides coaching for acting and special events, such as talent shows, business speeches, and recitation contests. Terry Hull, whose daughter, Bailee, takes voice lessons from Alison, says that Alison goes above and beyond what most instructors would do. Alison has cleared her schedule to give Bailee double lessons at critical times and attends many of her school performances.
Alison also puts her singing skills to work as a vocalist for special events, and she particularly likes to participate in those where she can combine her love of performing with her love of history. She specializes in impersonating Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, and she performed as Betty Grable at WWII Days in Peachtree City a couple of years ago. As a result of that, organizers contracted her to provide more celebrities and produce a USO Show for the event. Alison and the Twilight troupe also perform in the Fayetteville Cemetery Walk in October and the International Fest at the Dragonboat Races, the Halloween Fest, and the Hometown Christmas festivities in Peachtree City.
“Alison’s also a wicked good writer,” says Jeanne. “And though she prefers to let that be some of the space in our togetherness, she’s finally agreed to collaboratively write some of the children’s books and plays we’ve kicked around for a while.”
A writer and storyteller herself, Jeanne participated in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month last November. “Jeanne is an inspiration to women with her wit and intelligence and energy,” says Wendy Darling. “She is devoted to her husband, her children, her extended family, her friends, and to women as a gender. She is a cheerleader for women to make the most of their lives. She is loving and nurturing, loyal and committed, generous and encouraging, and creative and artistic. She is a writer, an actor, and a producer. She has done so many things in her life and continues to reach to do more. Her creative energy is endless.”
The Twilight Theatre is looking forward to an ambitious season starting this fall. Instead of the usual four to five shows a year, Alison has lined up nine and is working on more.
Alison and Jeanne also have a long list of creative and interesting ideas, and they plan to expand the horizons of Twilight Theatre. For one thing, they want to focus more on education. The theater’s Apprentice Company already gives individuals a chance to direct and perform in their own shows. Jeanne would like to expand that program with playwriting groups for children and adults. She envisions a playwriting competition where the theater would perform the winning play.
“We’ve talked about doing ‘Grease’ and casting it with entirely seniors,” says Alison. “We’d like to have cabaret nights and murder mysteries, along with the other shows we do. But we have to find a venue for everything. We need our own place to do these things. We’re gypsies right now.”
Alison and Jeanne currently create a black box theater at the Fayette County YMCA and produce the theater’s summer shows at The Fred. They believe they could stage an event every night of the week if they had their own building. “There are so many empty buildings in the county right now,” says Alison. “We are a non-profit, so we are hoping that someone will step forward and let us use a space for a specified period of time or give us a good deal. A building is the only thing holding us back right now.”
“We just need a clubhouse!” says Jeanne and laughs. “A place to call home would change so many things. We’re hoping to put together a group of Theatre Angels, who’ll help us find and finance our own place, so we can offer even more opportunities for local folks to take to the stage!”
Yes, this mother-daughter team that has created The Twilight Theatre has enthusiasm and an abundance of ideas and talent – they just “need a clubhouse.” And if Alison Chambers and Jeanne Hewell-Chambers had a clubhouse, nothing could get in their way.
Oh, Fayette County, how lucky you are!