After pumping out nationally renowned talent for three decades, the Governor’s School for the Arts has its own place.
by Denise M. Watson
Gregory Morton sat alone, practicing his bassoon in a cavernous rehearsal room, working to get the notes just right, feeling pleasantly unrushed.
He used to lug that bassoon from Freemason Baptist Church, to Chrysler Hall or the Virginia Arts Festival building or wherever his Governor’s School for the Arts classes were being held at the time.
That could leave him harried, and often late. “Now, I’m on time for my theory class,” said the senior at Nansemond River High School in Suffolk, laughing. “It’s much easier.”
For most of the school’s history, students like Morton didn’t have a place of their own. They had to make do with any of a dozen temporary rehearsal spots. That changed in September when the Governor’s School opened on Granby Street in downtown Norfolk.
Located mostly in the historic, 1915 Monroe building, the new school offers six floors with some 58,000 square feet of space for classrooms, locker rooms, dance studios and rehearsal halls. It features some of the original terrazzo floors, windows and gated elevators. Offices have been turned into private rehearsal rooms. Natural light pours into windows where some students work on clay sculptures, and others practice for a cabaret. The school’s own black-box theater is on the first floor and can seat 100 around a stage built by students.
And while all of that is very impressive, maybe the most important thing is it gives the students a central place to work on their art: It gives them a home. Deborah Thorpe, the school’s assistant director, was on the planning committee for the school when it was still just a dream. When she walks the halls now, she’s ecstatic.
“Now,” she said, “this feels commensurate with the talent of our kids, with the talent of our faculty.”
Grant Gustin, star of the television series The Flash, is a graduate. So are Marjorie Owens, a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera. Emmy Raver-Lampman, who starred in the Broadway musical Hamilton and is slated to work in an upcoming Netflix series. Adrienne Warren, a Tony nominee preparing for the title role in the musical Tina,about rock legend Tina Turner.
Despite the challenge of operating without a home base, the Governor’s School has done remarkably well, producing world-class dancers, singers and actors. Its contributions are one reason Norfolk has earned a reputation as a cultural powerhouse.
With that kind of track record it’s no surprise that competition for entry is stiff. The school serves about 365 students. This year, more than 650 auditioned for 130 open spots. High school students from across South Hampton Roads, as well as Isle of Wight, Franklin and Southampton County, audition for spots in six departments: instrumental music, vocal music, dance, musical theater, theater, and film and visual arts.
Those accepted spend mornings at their home schools and are then bused to Norfolk where afternoons – and many evenings – are used to dive deeper into their art. Vocalists study opera. Orchestra students learn complex Mahler symphonies. Dancers practice ballet and modern dance under the tutelage of professionals. And students who don’t seek the spotlight build sets and stage plays.
“What we do is set students up to be successful in the arts,” said Andrea Warren, executive director of the program (and Adrienne Warren’s mother). “We have a pretty good track record and people want to be a part of it.”
The Governor’s School is one of 19 such institutions in Virginia, though according to Warren it is the only one dedicated exclusively to arts instruction. Other schools combine academics with the arts.
The idea of carving out space and money for artistically gifted students came out of Governor Linwood Holton’s administration in the early 1970s. Virginia Beach arts teacher Louise Lowenthal in the 1980s spearheaded a regional committee of teachers, artists, dancers and administrators who pushed for an arts high school in the region. Two six-week summer programs were piloted in 1985-86 at Old Dominion University. Full-time school started in September 1987 with 254 students. The program had the bright-eyed artists, quality faculty and high hopes.
It just didn’t have its own space.
When Warren, a former middle school principal, joined as assistant director in 2008, she came with the goal of housing all of the students in one place. She believed mixing disciplines benefited students, and having everyone in one place just made sense. She became executive director in 2010.
While there was some talk of consolidating everyone under one roof in Virginia Beach, the city of Norfolk fought to permanently base the school downtown, helping it raise money and find the right location. Mayor Paul Fraim said he couldn’t see the school leaving Norfolk, the hub of the regional arts scene, with Chrysler Hall, the growing NEON District, the Chrysler Museum of Art, TRDance and Tidewater Community College’s Roper Performing Arts Center.
The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority and several Norfolk-based groups – including contractors, architects, the Virginia Stage Company and Commonwealth Preservation Group – worked with the school on its new home. Contractor Buddy Gadams, probably the most active builder in downtown Norfolk, even allowed the school to extend into two upper floors of his adjoining building, the former Harry’s BBQ.
“We think the Governor’s School is an important part of downtown,” said Fraim, who was mayor from 1994 to 2016. “Norfolk does see itself as the arts capital of the commonwealth, and the Governor’s School is an integral part of that.”
It certainly has become that for its students and alumni.
Jeff Phelps, the school’s instrumental chair, was a cellist in the school orchestra at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach in the early ’90s when a friend suggested he audition for the Governor’s School.
At first he shrugged it off. Then Lowenthal, at the time an art teacher, pulled him aside. “I still remember what she said to me. ‘Jeff, I’ve met a lot of stupid people. Are you a stupid person?’ ”
He auditioned in 1993, earned a spot, and in a sense never left. The school, he said, once polled alumni about some of their best memories.
“My favorite answer was, ‘I’m not sure, but I’m sure it was on a bus.’ ”
That was a testament to how much Governor’s School students had to travel before. The consolidation has increased the school’s instruction time by 40 percent, Thorpe said. For the students, it means more creative energy blending from one floor to the next. Ballet dancers move to the jazz music they hear playing in one room. Sawdust-covered set designers get to know film students. Violist Stella Escano, 16, knew several GSA students before she auditioned, and she wanted to be a part of that world. Their talent was extraordinary. “They were amazing,” she said.
The Governor’s School is open only to public school students, so to attend Escano had to transfer from Norfolk Collegiate to Ocean Lakes in Virginia Beach. The change has been worth it. She has been surprised at how much her skills have improved, a testament to the school’s rigor. The goals are high and require constant practice.
“We have a joke here that if you don’t want to quit GSA, you’re not living it,” she said. “We might complain about it, but we love it.”