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To learn more about GTA Southern Stage, 2200 Buford Hwy. in Buford, visit http://gta.gsc.edu/southernstage/Pages/default.aspx.
A local show more than 35 years ago spawned the love of live theater for two Forsyth County men, who were just boys at the time.
Matt Magill was 11 years old when Jim Hammond, then 17, cast him in the musical “Oliver” at the Forsyth County Little Theater in 1976.
The show was Hammond’s second as a director for theater, which produced shows for about a decade in the late 1970s and ’80s. His directorial debut had come about a year earlier when no one volunteered to direct “Around the World in 80 Days.”
“They were looking for someone to direct the summer musical and no one was interested because everyone wanted to be in it, they didn’t want to direct,” Hammond recalled. “I was, I think, 16 at the time and raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And they couldn’t come up with anyone better so they said OK.”
Despite his age and inexperience, the show proved so successful that theater leaders asked him back to direct the following summer musical, which was “Oliver.”
Magill recalled that even at just a few years his senior, he had great respect for Hammond as a director.
“For a 16-year-old kid, he was amazingly together,” Magill said. “This was a huge cast for the show ‘Oliver’ and he was able to bring it all together. He had a very keen insight even at that age in theater and directing.”
Hammond recalled that one of his favorite parts of “Oliver” was a bar room scene in which he cast “local celebrities.”
“We had a cast of something like 105 in that production and what was fun about it was we had a lot of children and women audition, but we didn’t have a lot of men,” Hammond said. “There’s a bar room scene … so I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get some men.’ So I decided to go out and fill it with local celebrities. So in that scene, I had the sheriff, I had the mayor, I had the pastor of the First Baptist Church.
“So that was really what got me involved in theater … the work there in the local [Forsyth County] community.”
Hammond went on to attend the University of Georgia and later transfer to Gainesville State College (which merged with North Georgia College & State University earlier this year to become the University of North Georgia) in order to take part in a joint theater program with Brenau University.
Theater students from the two colleges and community and professional actors make up the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, or GTA, which is renowned for producing top-notch shows since forming in 1979.
After graduating, Hammond worked with theater programs at Gordon College in Barnesville and Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville before returning to Gainesville to lead GTA. He’s held that position for nearly 25 years.
Just recently, Hammond and Magill found themselves working together again as director and actor through a new endeavor called GTA Southern Stage.
Housed inside the new Buford Community Center, not far from the Forsyth-Gwinnett County line, Southern Stage is a new collaboration between the city of Buford, the University of North Georgia and Brenau University.
Last year, the city completed construction of the community center, which includes a 270-seat theater, and invited GTA to develop a resident professional theater company.
When approached about the collaboration, Hammond said he fell in love with the venue.
“I walked in that building and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “There’s nothing that I can tell people to prepare them for what they’re going to feel when they walk in that space.
“It’s a community center, so you assume when you walk in that it’s going to feel like a community center. It feels like the Marriott Marquis. It is spectacular.”
Hammond described the theater within as “exquisite.”
“It’s like a Broadway theater, but it’s been reduced in size to this very intimate, 270-seat space with box seats on the side and the wonderful balcony,” he said. “I mean, it is just perfect.”
According to Hammond, GTA had been considering adding a resident professional company “for a while.”
“And this theater being built was the perfect event to kind of spur on that idea,” he said.
For its opening season, GTA Southern Stage first presented four short-run shows from production companies around the area. Those began in October and wrapped up last month.
Its first large-scale local production, “The 39 Steps,” a comedic adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie by the same name, was originally scheduled for a two-week run. That was then extended by another two weeks.
Southern Stage’s next production will be “Lombardi” about Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. It’s set to run this August and September.
“The 39 Steps” provided an opportunity for Magill and Hammond to come together again.
Magill, who also graduated from the GTA program under Hammond’s leadership and even starred in an American College Theater Festival-winning production while a student, said Hammond still has the same joy he did as a 16-year-old director.
“None of his insight or enthusiasm has been diminished over the years. He’s like the Dick Clark of theater,” Magill said. “He doesn’t look like a 16-year-old anymore, but … he’s got such an incredible energy about him that it’s always fun to be around him and work with him.”
For Hammond, the career that kept him close to home has been “pretty special.”
“I think of football coaches who go home to their alma mater to coach and I understand the attraction to that,” he said. “That was where you fell in love … For me, this is always going to be a very big piece of my heart, and to be able to work here and build something with all these remarkable people that are a part of GTA is just pretty special.”