Braces-clad and enthusiastic. That was me in 2001 during the first ever “Evening with the Stars,” a fundraiser for Athens Area Council for the Arts. I was a ninth grader at Athens Junior High School and, along with my girlfriends in Mrs. Pam Wilburn’s chorus, box-stepped and belted my heart out.

By that point I had performed in 10 dance recitals and nearly as many theatre camp shows, but something was different about that performance. My friends and I performed two ensemble numbers for a crowd of hundreds and were exhilarated. Performing choreography honed over many weeks and harmonizing under stage lights left us feeling like a Broadway company. We were proud to display our talents alongside high schoolers we equated to rockstars and adults who performed like professionals.

Barefoot and liberated. That was me in 2004 at Bonaroo Music & Arts Festival. I had just graduated from McMinn County High School and found an unfamiliar sense of freedom spending three days rain-soaked, curly-headed, and immersed in a sonic wonderland of strings, horns, and drumbeats. Standing alone just outside “This Tent,” with feet keeping time to Sam Bush Band’s tribute to Marley, arms dancing with the raindrops, I identified for the first time a feeling I’ve since experienced many times.

I felt profound solitude swaying silently with the swelling bass strings – as if I were the only girl in the world; yet, at the same time, I felt in deep communion with the thousands of bodies dancing just outside my orb. Sunscreen-lathered and cynical (nay, maternal). That was me a few weeks ago at Sloss Music & Arts Festival.

Ten years had passed since I last attended a music festival and my friend Jenny was on her maiden voyage. In the blazing Alabama sun we sauntered up to one of the early Saturday shows.

About 100 yards from the stage, Jenny and I stopped suddenly and, in tandem, retreated from the magnitude of stereophonic sound. We turned to each other, laughing, “we’re old.” I did feel old that weekend and at odds with the decade-younger festival-going Lauren.

I lamented the absence of sundresses and waving arms. I mourned the loss of adolescent freedom. A constant remained though – the transcendent power of live music. I may not have been able to tap totally into the mud-dancing abandon of my youth, but the music did carry me away.

Red from head to toe and eager. That was a young boy at “Evening with the Stars” auditions last week in the Sue E. Trotter Black Box Theater at The Arts Center. And I mean that quite literally: he was wearing a red suit and red shoes with rosy cheeks to boot.

Watching him strut his stuff while singing one cartoon crab’s classic made me feel like my ninth grade self, waiting anxiously for my turn on stage, legs swinging in a hard yellow plastic chair in the McMinn County High School auditorium.

Magic. That’s what happens in the Black Box. Sometimes when I’m on stage singing with friends I feel the same exuberant joy I did in 2001 box-stepping to “Hard Knock Life.” Often when I’m propped against the wall watching a show, I find myself slipping into that lilting transcendence I first experienced in 2004.

Tonight about fifteen local performers—plus our performing arts mini campers ages 4-10—take the stage to open our 2018-2019 performance season with “Evening with the Stars.”

In two weeks Athens Community Theatre begins a six-show run of Harper Lee’s Classic To Kill a Mockingbird adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and in five weeks our Black Box Concert Series opens with touring musicians Jonathan Byrd and The Pick Up Cowboys with Kyshona Armstrong.

I was in that familiar state of lilting transcendence during our Black Box Concert Series closer Dead Horses last April when I watched my colleague scurry from her front-row seat to her office. I was perplexed because she made her exit right after a passionate speech by the mandolin player. The speech, I learned later, had given her the word she had been looking for. The mandolin player’s speech had inspired a phrase we’ve been using lately: make something meaningful.

AACA’s performance season is built around our mission statement to enrich the quality of life and make a difference for our community by providing opportunities for the expression and appreciation of the arts. I love the vision and breadth of that statement, crafted nearly forty years ago, because it leaves room for us to define “meaningful” for ourselves and allows many pathways to experience it.

Lauren Shepherd is the executive director of the Athens Area Council for the Arts. Learn more about AACA by calling 745-8781 or visiting athensartscouncil.org

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