Theater group staging ‘Les Miserables’ in new theater

Less than a week remained until opening night, and the boys and girls of Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy were honing their singing skills, dance numbers and lines in preparation.

The theater troupe was staging “Les Miserables,” an ambitious and challenging performance for the 70 actors cast in this show. Though the show has an added degree of difficulty than what they’re used to, academy leaders felt it was a perfect choice for this moment in time — both for the troupe itself as well as the community as a whole.

“I hope they see the redemption story that runs throughout ‘Les Mis,’ and how a parent will do pretty much anything for their kids,” said Mark Landis, executive director of Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy. “That redemption story can be bigger than yourself, and if you make the choices you need to make, it can have an impact on the people around you, and therefore the world.”

Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy is performing “Les Miserables” in the group’s brand new home — Studio One, a renovated space at the Greenwood Park Mall. The show runs through this weekend, with two performances today and two more on Sunday. A second weekend is also planned May 6 through 9, with six total shows over that period as well.

Not only does the new building provide the theater group with a more permanent place to rehearse and host shows, but it matches the vision that the troupe has been working towards for the past three years.

“Our goal as an organization is to build individuals up through fostering relationships and growing artists, to impact our world and the community around us,” Landis said. “That is a key message that this show provides.”

Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy was originally founded in 2014 as a ministry of Center Grove Church, but in late 2018, the academy made the transition into being an independent nonprofit.

The organization is built upon the idea of inclusion. Opportunities for youth theater remain scarce on the southside, so the academy has been successful by ensuring that anyone who wants to take part in their camps and performances has that opportunity, Landis said. In the past two years, the troupe has done performances such as “Frozen Jr.,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Shrek Jr.”

Throughout its existence, Creative Grounds has relied on other area venues, such as churches and schools, to provide space to rehearse and perform. Organizers didn’t think that having their own theater would be a realistic plan for at least another three to five years, Landis said.

“When COVID hit, a lot of things changed in the world. And one of the things that changed for us was, we no longer could get inside a church to use for rehearsal space so easily, or inside schools to rent space that we’d normally perform in,” he said. “It became a necessary thing for us to look for a facility where we could have rehearsals and performances inside ourselves.

“We could control our own calendar, and our own destiny, in a lot of ways.”

Officials started looking at different properties that they could purchase and turn into a theater. But as they were investigating those spaces, the prospect of leasing a place at the Greenwood Park Mall came up. Discussions picked up in September, and they learned that the area that formerly housed Akira, a high-end boutique, was moving to another area inside the mall.

Looking at the large amounts of space, it seemed to work well as a theater. Landis started negotiating a lease.

“They’ve been happy to have us, and have been really supportive of us,” he said.

Creative Grounds took ownership of the space in mid-October, and went to work adapting it for a performance space. Ceilings had to be raised, sprinkler systems had to be updated, and a stage was constructed. Shelving that had been left behind was re-purposed as the lobby.

The first event held in the cozy space was in December, a grand opening holiday-themed performance, followed by a Valentine’s-themed event in February and a kids show, “The Jungle Book.” “Les Miserables” represents the first full-scale show for older performers at the theater.

“We used those events as a learning opportunity for the space: how does it work for us, what equipment do we need to put in, that kind of thing,” Landis said.

“Les Miserables” is one of the shows that Landis and other officials with the troupe have been dreaming of doing for years. The story, music and choreography is exquisite, but leaders didn’t want to tackle it before its available cast was ready.

Finally, in its seventh year, Creative Grounds was ready.

“With the nature of the show being an opera, it’s all music and requires a lot more of their time outside of the rehearsal space, in terms of preparation,” Landis said. “But we feel really good about where we’re at.”

Rehearsals have been unfolding positively over the 1 1/2 months, as the actors have put in considerable time and effort to master the different aspects of their roles, Landis said.

“The kids have really worked hard. We’ve been able to finesse and mold the show, and the characters within the show, to new levels that I don’t know we’ve been able to do in every show before it,” he said.

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“Les Miserables”

What: A performance of the school version of the classic Victor Hugo story done by Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy

When: 3 and 7 p.m. today and Sunday; 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3 and 7 p.m. May 8 and 9.

Where: Creative Grounds Fine Arts Academy Studio One, 1251 US 31 N., Suite 160 (near the outdoor fountain).

Tickets: $8 for adults, $5 for students