Located at 2850 Weir Avenue, The Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center (AMPAC) is more than just a theatre; it’s a creative outlet for the community and a place where both children and adults can learn about acting, costuming, set design, lighting, and sound. The three-story historic school has become a creative incubator, where ideas and creative energy find a receptive audience and collaborations begin. Cofounder and Artistic Director Shawn Holmes talks to SoulFireWV about Striplight Community Theatre’s founding and his vision for AMPAC’s future.
SoulFire: Tell us a little about your background: Were you born in the Ohio Valley? Where did you go to school? And did you study theatre arts? If so, did you have a specialty within the field?
Shawn Holmes: I was born and raised here in the Ohio Valley. I went to many different schools growing up, but for high school, I attended Catholic Central in Steubenville, Ohio, for my freshman and sophomore years and then switched to Weir High School my junior and senior years. After high school, I went to Bethany College and got my bachelor’s in Technical Theatre with a concentration in Stage Management. I was also heavily involved in Scenic Design and Theatre History.
SF: You wear many hats. On nights and weekends, you’re the Artistic Director of the Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center here in Weirton, and by day, you have a pretty exciting job. Can you explain what you do in Midland, PA?
SH: I am a carpenter at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. I take the draftings made by the technical director and fabricate them into reality! We just opened Matilda the Musical and will soon be opening Clue and Frozen JR. It’s such a fulfilling thing to be able to work on theatre non-stop. I am really blessed.
SF: What got you interested in theater? Was there a specific experience that first impacted you and made you realize that you wanted to turn theatre into a career and way of life?
SH: When I was 4, I was taken to see The Wizard of Oz on stage by the local community theatre group. My mom would play the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, and it was an instant babysitter because I would become so enthralled in the world that had munchkins, flying monkeys, and wicked witches! I was so amazed by this magical land from the movie being brought to life before my very eyes. The part that made me take interest though, I remember it very clearly, was watching the witch melt. It was new because in the movie she gets water thrown on her, and she melts into the floor. In this production, she is pushed into a huge smoking cauldron of shrinking potion. The witch kept trying to escape, and every time she would pop out, there would be a much smaller witch in place of the previous one until, at last, a little puppet was pushed back down. As a 4-year-old, I thought that was the coolest thing. Since my brother was a munchkin, I got to go backstage, and my little brain just kept telling me to find the cauldron! When I found it, I realized it was nothing but chicken wire and papier-mâché. That is where my obsession with the theatrical arts began. I knew I just had to create worlds for others to enjoy.
SF: What is the best production you’ve ever seen? And what about it made such an impression on you?
SH: This is a very hard question to answer because I have seen so many over the past 31 years. I will say that one of my favorite shows that I have seen recently has been Beetlejuice the Musical. It will always hold a special place for me because it was the last movie I watched with my cousin Ashley, after whom we named the [Performing Arts] Center, before she passed away. So when I heard they were turning it into a musical, I knew I had to make a trip to see it. What made seeing it extra special is that I got to take my godson Gabriel, Ashley’s son, with me to see it. What made seeing the show extra-extra special is that we got to go see it in Washington, DC, for its out-of-town tryout. Then we got to go to NYC to see it open on Broadway and observe any changes that happened between the DC performance and the version performed on the Great White Way.
SF: When and how did Striplight Community Theatre (SCT) begin? And what does the name symbolize?
SH: My brother and I threw the idea around during the summer of 2013 about starting our own [theatrical] group because there wasn’t a prominent community theatre group performing [in Weirton] anymore. Then we finally decided to have auditions that fall for our first production of the 1959 classic Gypsy. Well . . . we knew the show we were producing, but we realized we didn’t have a group name yet. We went through theatre textbooks and plays trying to find a name. I couldn’t figure out anything that stuck out for me. My brother is actually the one who finalized the name and catchphrase. One of the lighting instruments used in the theatrical world is the striplight. They usually consist of row of lamps with multiple colors that shine together to illuminate the stage. Since we are a community theatre, which has many different types of people—like that of the colors of a striplight—we agreed on the name. And those people are here to shine together to light up the stage!
SF: Can you explain how The Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center (AMPAC) started and how SCT fits into AMPAC?
SH: When we started SCT, it was to get my cousin back into performing and choreography, which she loved and was very good at. Since there was no performing arts venue in Weirton that she could showcase her talents, she was so excited to get started back into the things she loved. Tragically, Ashley passed away a week before our very first auditions. Since that day, we made it a point to get her name in lights in any way we could. Before we had this opportunity to move into the old Dunbar School, we had a former one-room bank, which we turned into The Ashley Marie Playhouse—Home of SCT. Then we kept growing and growing to the point where we were busting out of the tiny bank. When we received the chance to move into a school, it became our mission to turn the Playhouse into a Performing Arts Center. That way, we could open it up to many different artistic visions.
SF: Can you talk a little bit about the current building, the historic Dunbar School, located at 2850 Weir Avenue in Weirton. When I first visited, you showed me a costume shop, the beginnings of an absolutely tremendous script and reference library, and a set fabrication shop. Can you elaborate on these plans, and how is the historic Dunbar School the perfect place for AMPAC?
SH: What else can I say but that it is a dream come true to be able to take an old school that has been around since the 1930s and still in really good shape and start transforming it into a performing arts center. When we toured the property, it already had a woodshop. I thought I could finally stop building in an old musty basement, lol. Then, after looking at all the other rooms, I instantly saw the potential for a costume shop, rehearsal room, and green room. There is still so much potential that we haven’t even gotten to work on yet, and there is so much room for growth. And again, how awesome is it to take a historic building and turn it into something the community can come to and enjoy a night out on the town. Weirton is on the verge of rebirth, and it’s really exciting to be a part of that.
SF: I know that AMPAC is developing into a true performing arts center, and you have plans to offer a variety of classes to the community. Can you share a little bit more about that?
SH: It’s been a long time in the works, but finally it is coming to light. We will be having acting classes starting up after the holiday season. Information about pre-registration will be available soon. These classes will be taught by a truly amazing actor/director, Bobby Zinsmeister. He is an absolute joy to work with. I will also be starting a scenic design/carpentry class where those interested will help build the productions SCT performs at AMPAC. We also have some art classes in the works, and we are always looking for volunteers to help teach classes dealing with the performing arts, such as costumes, props, makeup design, etc.
SF: You’ve had a busy October, with three weekends filled with the dinner theatre experience and psychological thriller No Ordinary Man, two weekends of kids’ activities, and a one-act play at the upcoming event Halloween at the Museum on 10/26. What’s next for you?
SH: Oh My Goodness! So much is coming up I don’t even know where to start. The best place to check out all the information is our Facebook page or website. We are planning a one-night show with the SCT Singers for the Christmas season, and there are upcoming auditions for the Shuddersome Tales of Poe, for which we are aiming to involve kids 18 and under. We’ll also be taking the show to competition for OCTA JR. (Ohio Community Theatre Association). Many things are still in the works, so please check us out on Facebook and Instagram.
SF: Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about SCT and AMPAC, its mission, and future goals in Weirton and the Ohio Valley in general? How can people help AMPAC expand its community outreach?
SH: We are here to enlighten, educate and entertain the Ohio Valley through the performing arts, and we hope to be around for many years to come. We would really like to make the gymnasium that we perform in now into an actual, real-life auditorium. We are looking into some grants for assistance with that, but we welcome any help the community can give. We are always looking for volunteers to help with the many parts that make up a show, such as costumes, lighting, scenery construction, and painting. If you would rather simply watch the productions, you can always donate to SCT, as we are a nonprofit community theatre, and all donations are tax deductible. It takes quite a bit of green to bring a show to life, so please help us with our mission to keep bringing quality productions and a creative outlet to both the Weirton and greater Ohio Valley communities. Please help SCT “Shine Together to Light Up the Stage.”