Center stage

South City Theatre Artistic Director Sue Ellen Gerrells receives national theatre award

Story by Emily Sparacino

Photographs contributed

Theatre was a part of Alabaster resident Sue Ellen Gerrells’ life when she was in college, but she gave it up after she married and started raising her children.

Then, when her husband’s job moved the family to Singapore in 1975, she found time to immerse herself in community theatre.

“When we went to Singapore, I wasn’t able to work,” Gerrells said, noting expatriates had to have special documents to work in Singapore. “We had a live-in amah (housekeeper, cook, babysitter, etc.), so I suddenly had free time on my hands. I discovered The Stage Club, Singapore, a community theatre founded in 1945 by British troops serving in the area. I worked with them as board member, president, actor and director the rest of the time we stayed in Singapore, and my years there hold a special place in my heart.”

Many people in Shelby County probably know Gerrells, 72, from her work as artistic director at South City Theatre in Pelham.

Others in the theatre world, however, soon will know her as an AACT Fellow, an award the American Association of Community Theatre has bestowed upon Gerrells this year, more than 40 years after her involvement in theatre as an adult took root overseas.

“Becoming an AACT Fellow is the highest honor I can receive as a community theatre artist,” Gerrells said. “It means the world to me. I’m still overwhelmed to be included in this august company.”

According to Gerrells, fewer than 100 people still living are “Fellows” in the country.

“I shamelessly think of it as the Kennedy Center Honors of Community Theatre,” Gerrells said. “It’s a lifetime award, so I’ll be part of this very exclusive group from now on.”

Gerrells plans to attend the awards ceremony during the AACTFest 2017 national theatre festival in Rochester, Minnesota, June 26-July 1.

Until then, she will undoubtedly remain busy with her duties at South City, where her husband, Mike, serves as the facilities manager and technical director.

The couple assumed leadership positions at South City in 2012 when founder Alan Gardner had to relinquish the artistic director position because of health issues, asking Sue Ellen and Mike to take over.

“It was a good fit for us,” Sue Ellen said of the opportunity. “I had the background in the creative side of the theatre, and Mike was an experienced technical theatre person. Unfortunately, Alan passed away six months ago, but before his death, he did attend a production in our new Pelham home and gave us his blessing and encouragement to carry on with his dream.”

As artistic director, Sue Ellen must choose the productions and directors for each season, oversee all the creative decisions made by the theatre and run the day-to-day operations with Mike.

She advocates for South City and handles its publicity, social media and website.

In addition, she has directed and acted with South City in numerous productions.

“South City continues to evolve,” Sue Ellen said. We’ve undergone many changes since our birth in 2000.”

South City, a non-profit theatre organization “dedicated to promoting theatre in Shelby County,” was formed and led by Alan and Francie Gardner for 12 years, according to the website.

A member of the Alabama Conference of Theatre, the Southeastern Theatre Conference and the American Association of Community Theatre, South City produces six mainstage plays every year and conducts a youth program consisting of two workshops during the school year, along with a two-week summer camp for children interested in theatre.

“My first work at South City was directing ‘The Rainmaker,’” Sue Ellen said. “That was a special show because I met extraordinary talents who have become lifelong friends, and I squeezed my foot in the door of a new (for me) theatre company.”

In many ways, her theatre work overseas prepared her for South City.

After returning to the United States from Singapore in the mid-1980s, the Gerrells family lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, followed by Mobile.

Sue Ellen worked at Theatre USA in the University of South Alabama’s theatre department as its publicist and arts administrator, served as the assistant to the Chair of Theatre Department, was active as an actor and director with Theatre USA and appeared with the Mobile Theatre Guild and the Joe Jefferson Players.

“It was there I began my association with The American Association of Community Theatre when MTG entered our production of Marvin’s Room in the Southeastern Theatre Conference representing Alabama,” Sue Ellen said. “We didn’t win SETC that year, but someone saw our production and recommended us to the Dundalk Maytime Festival folks who invited us to participate and represent the U.S.”

Then, Mike’s career moved the family to San Diego, and Sue Ellen took a job with the University of California, San Diego, and started working with several community theatres in the area as director and actress.

“One of the highlights of my time in California was co-founding the Full Circle Theatre in La Jolla. The head of the La Jolla High School theatre department, Ann Boutelle, wanted to start a company that would marry the talents of experienced community theatre artists with the up-and-coming talents of young high school performers. I worked with Ann, her husband and another woman to set up Full Circle where I performed.”

2000 was an exciting year for the couple as Mike was offered a promotion and the opportunity to work in Yokosuka, Japan, as the project manager for Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems.

“By this time, our kids were on their own and didn’t accompany us so once again I had free time on my hands,” Sue Ellen said. “I worked on the U.S. Navy base for PIRE’s PREVENT program and later as a faculty member for the University of Maryland’s University College, where I taught public speaking, writing and theatre courses. While in Japan, I performed with the Yokohama Players and the Yokosuka International Players, community theaters using mostly expatriates in the area.”

Sue Ellen said a high point of her theatrical career was performing in Marvin’s Room at the Dundalk Maytime Festival in Dundalk, Ireland, with the Mobile Theatre Guild.

“It was my first international stage appearance and my first time in Ireland,” she said.

Sue Ellen said her favorite directing project was “Oklahoma!” in Singapore in 1983.

“We had over 250 folks from all nationalities audition for us,” she said. “It was quite overwhelming! The final cast was made up of multiple nationalities: Singaporean, American, British, Australian, Dutch, Indonesian, etc. The project began my first foray into starting a theatre company, STARS: Singapore’s Theatre American Repertory Showcase. I’m proud to say that after I left Singapore in 1985, STARS evolved into a professional theatre company which still performs today.”

When Mike retired, the couple settled in Birmingham in 2006 to be close to their children and to afford Sue Ellen more opportunities to continue her theatre career.

She served as the executive director of the Alabama Conference of Theatre from 2008-2013, and recently resumed the position as the interim executive director when the current executive director was forced to step down for health reasons.

Sue Ellen serves as an adjudicator, Endowment Fund Trustee, Festival Commissioner and AACT Ambassador. (For more information about AACT, go to Aact.org.)

Sue Ellen was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. She and Mike have been married for 50 years and have three sons, all married, and three grandsons.

Sue Ellen and Mike are active members of St. Thomas Catholic Church in Montevallo.

Decades of theatre have given Sue Ellen more than just awards and recognition.

“Theatre has taught me to be less judgmental and more accepting of different beliefs and cultural practices,” she said. “I’ve learned discipline and collaboration from working on productions where teamwork is always required. I’ve learned patience and trust are necessary to lead a team of individuals in a project.”

Now that she has accomplished many of the professional goals she set for herself, Sue Ellen said she plans to enjoy time with her family, see and do as much as she can while she’s still able and continue to pass on the gifts theatre has given her to a new generation of artists.

“I’ve learned that people are basically the same deep down. We all want and need love, recognition and acceptance,” she said. “Theatre has given all of that to me and more. I am who I am today because of my lifetime working in community theatre.”