Arts and Culture

A gem in the valley

The Forbes Center celebrates its 10th anniversary season


SUMMARY: Since its opening 10 years ago, the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts has changed the cultural, economic, educational and social landscape of JMU and the Harrisonburg community—and beyond.

By Jen Kulju (’04M), communications and marketing director, College of Visual and Performing Arts/Forbes Center for the Performing Arts

“Welcome to the Forbes Center!” If you have been to a show at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, the premier performing arts center in the Shenandoah Valley, you likely have been greeted with a smile by one of 150 ushers who generously volunteer their time to ensure a positive arts experience. The desire to provide a high level of service in a professional environment as well as a variety of quality performances for audiences is as much of a goal today as it was when the Forbes Center opened 10 years ago. Along the way, the center has changed the cultural, economic, educational and social landscape of JMU and the Harrisonburg community—and beyond.

A Forbes Center usher shows a patron to his seat for a performance by the Cory Band in November. 

Since opening with a concert by singer-songwriter Phil Vassar (’85) in 2010, the Forbes Center has welcomed over 400,000 patrons to 2,900 performances by guest artists, faculty members and students in the schools of Theatre and Dance and Music in its five state-of-the-art venues.

The Masterpiece Season has grown to 1,300 subscriber households due in large part to the diversity of world-class artists brought in to perform by Executive Director Regan Byrne.

Byrne, who joined JMU when the Forbes Center opened, has been a driving force behind the scenes, front-of-house and in marketing operations, from setting up the box office to initiating the volunteer program to hiring an “enormously committed” team of employees. “We’re in that space where the systems work well. Now, it’s about making a difference in people’s lives. When people walk in that theater, I want their lives to be changed,” Byrne said.

forbes anniversary regan byrne
"When people walk in that theater, I want their lives to be changed," says Forbes Center Executive Director Regan Byrne.

Creating a transformational experience means booking excellent shows that challenge audiences, often with an international flair. “I look to book shows that audiences may not have ever seen—even in Charlottesville, Richmond or Washington, D.C.,” said Byrne, adding that booking opportunities are greater now that the Forbes Center has developed a reputation for having extraordinary audiences and venues. Twenty-time Grammy Award-winning guitarist Pat Metheny said that the Concert Hall was one of the Top 5 performance venues he had played in, rivaling the Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore.

Booking shows that align with the curriculum is also important, according to Byrne, and Masterpiece guest artists who are invited to perform at the Forbes Center host master classes with JMU students. In addition, Byrne facilitates opportunities for students to perform onstage with Masterpiece artists. She connects the artists and faculty directors, who create arrangements that artists often use in other markets. Collaborations have included choral students appearing alongside Danú, Cantus and The King’s Singers, and the JMU Symphony Orchestra and music theatre students performing with Patti LuPone.

Arts enthusiasts Tom and Gina Holden have been subscribers since the Forbes Center’s inception, attending an average of 30 shows per season. While mostly ticketed for the Masterpiece events—including Forbes Family Fun shows with their granddaughter and her friends—the Holdens also enjoy the student performances, which they have attended since 1989, when the productions were held in Wilson Hall and Latimer-Shaeffer Theatre in Duke Hall. “We’ve loved watching the students’ progress,” Tom Holden said.

forbes anniversary metamorphoses
The Forbes Center's production of Metamorphoses featured a pool filled with 4,000 gallons of water on the Mainstage Theatre.

Ross Neal, a 2013 music theatre graduate and equity actor at Walt Disney World, honed his acting chops at the Forbes Center. Ross acted in the center’s first theater performance, Metamorphoses, which featured a pool filled with 4,000 gallons of water on the Mainstage Theatre. “Being able to quickly transition from a dance class to an acting class to working on sets in the scene shop let me be fully immersed in professional-level work,” Neal said. He returned to the Forbes Center in May to perform in The Pledge as part of the Madison New Works Laboratory at JMU.

Anna-Lee Craig, a 2011 theatre alumna and assistant audio engineer on the Broadway production of Hamilton, spent her junior and senior years at the Forbes Center where she was a production intern under Tom Carr, the center’s recording engineer/sound designer. Craig said working with Carr was a great experience.

“The Forbes Center is a great place to cut your teeth, make mistakes in a place that’s safe, and learn what you don’t know.” Craig returned to the Forbes Center in September to serve as the sound designer for the JMU School of Theatre and Dance’s production of Everybody.

Senior oboe performance major and Harrisonburg native Laura Ruple experienced the Forbes Center being built along with her dad, Eric Ruple, faculty pianist and interim director of the School of Music. She remembers “walking through the hallways when there were just outlines of rooms drawn on the cement floor,” watching the delivery and assembly of hundreds of brand-new Steinway pianos, and signing her name on the concrete walls that now form the back of the Concert Hall stage, where she regularly performs.

Donors Earlynn J. Miller and Don Albright have seen the arts blossom at JMU over the last 10 years due in large part to the Forbes Center. Miller, faculty emerita of dance, started the JMU Dance Program in 1969 and taught for 30 years, and Albright spent much of his 30-year career in the United States Foreign Service as a cultural attaché. Miller said the Forbes Center was needed to accommodate the growing technical requests and audiences of dance professionals, and ultimately to move the arts forward at JMU. As subscribers, the two enjoy attending performances that “knock you out,” up to 21 dance, music and theater events per season. “The arts bring a sophistication to a community, which is welcome. They give people a lift, a little different view on their society,” Albright said.

“I believe the arts in any form touch our souls and feed our humanity,” said Kathy Moran (’87M), a financial adviser at Kathy Moran Wealth Group. Moran had been looking for a way to significantly support the arts at JMU when the opportunity arose to sponsor the Forbes Center Masterpiece Season in 2017. With half of the dollars going toward center programming and half toward student scholarships, Moran liked the dual mission of the sponsorship. Kathy Moran Wealth Group is now in its third year as season sponsor.

“The arts are such a uniter and enrich our lives in ways that nothing else does. When the opportunity came to give back on a meaningful level, the sponsorship was a no-brainer.” Moran often brings personal and professional contacts to performances, and sees the Forbes Center as a wonderful tool to share with and about the community. “It is a hub that draws people from inside and outside the area into the artistic endeavor.”

forbes anniversary moran duke dog
Kathy Moran ('87M), whose business sponsors the Forbes Center Masterpiece Season, was greeted by a special guest at Holidayfest in 2017.

The Forbes Center is committed to reaching students in grades pre-K-12 for performance and live arts experiences. A cappella groups from Harrisonburg City Public Schools and Spotswood High School performed at the center in Sing Out!, featuring JMU’s a cappella groups, from 2012 to 2019. In 2016, the Forbes Center became the premier performance partner for Any Given Child Shenandoah Valley, a program of the Arts Council of the Valley and a community partnership with the Education and National Partnership offices of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. As part of this program, the Forbes Center has welcomed over 5,000 children in grades K-8 for 11 free matinee performances that culminate in question-and-answer sessions with the artists.

The Forbes Center is helping to attract businesses, tourists, retirees and job seekers to Harrisonburg as well. In 2001, the city established the first Arts and Cultural District in Virginia, which includes the downtown core and extends to JMU’s campus. “The Forbes Center sits in the district, and the location is so nice, and within walking distance to restaurants downtown,” said Brian Shull, who as director of economic development for the city was involved in creating the district. According to Jennifer Bell, city tourism manager, “The arts are a huge economic driver to Harrisonburg. It’s a big draw for local spending as well as for tourism spending,” which in 2018 totaled $131 million, $4.8 million in local tax receipts and 1,200 jobs.

Bell said tourism spending is the No. 2 industry in Virginia and that nationwide studies have shown that arts and cultural travelers spend more money and tend to stay longer in a community. “When you can bring people in for a performance at the Forbes Center, they’re likely to spend more … perhaps go out to dinner, shop and stay overnight than someone passing through for another tourism purpose.” Bell said that the center is also important to retirees and job candidates seeking vibrant, diverse cultural opportunities.

forbes anniversary cuban all stars
The Havana Cuba All-Stars brought the crowd to its feet during a 2016 performance.

Andrea Dono, executive director for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, moved to the city from the D.C. area in 2016 and has been particularly impressed with the international talent that comes to the Forbes Center, as well as the accessibility and affordability of the performances. “The Forbes Center is an awesome treasure that showcases the best of Harrisonburg,” Dono said.

“Over the past 10 years, the Forbes Center has become one of the gems of the Shenandoah Valley where people of all walks of life are welcomed to experience the world through a new and different lens. We’ve listened together, learned together, laughed together and cried together,” said JMU President Jonathan R. Alger, who has attended countless performances with his wife, Mary Ann, and daughter, Eleanor. As for the next 10 years, Byrne said she “can’t wait.”

“The arts allow you to continue to be excited about what you’re going to do in the future. It never gets tiring, we’re never complacent and we never stop dreaming about the next performing arts experience.”


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Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, November 10, 2020

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