By Dana Engelbert
University of Mississippi
The Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi celebrates its 20th anniversary this academic year with a diverse slate of performances, an expanded offering for area school children, a book and a spring gala featuring Mississippi celebrities and friends.
“The Ford Center is more than a building,” said Julia Aubrey, the center’s director. “Its mission and strategic planning are dedicated to stretching and exploring how the Ford Center can best serve the arts and its community.”
The center’s goal is to “enrich the intellectual and cultural environment of the University of Mississippi and the region,” per its mission through programming, community engagement and student opportunities, Aubrey said.
The 2022-23 season showcases a broad range of performances and will culminate with a celebratory gala.
Mississippi native and Ole Miss alumnus Jay Jurden, a staff writer for “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on Apple TV+, returns to campus to perform his stand-up routine on Oct. 22.
Two national tours will play at the Ford Center. Broadway’s “Anastasia” takes the stage Nov. 14 and tribute concert “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – A Celebration of Aretha Franklin” plays on Feb. 28, 2023. The performance season wraps up with “The Pirates of Penzance” from the Gilbert & Sullivan Players on March 30, 2023.
A star-studded 20th anniversary gala, hosted by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, will feature eight-time Grammy winners Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., who will perform songs from “Blackbird, Lennon-McCartney Icons” and hits from The Fifth Dimension.
Sam and Mary Haskell will be honored with the Ford Center’s Concerto Award for their exceptional patronage. Besides their generous support of the center, the alumni couple were instrumental in planning its opening gala and are coordinating the anniversary celebration.
“My husband, Sam, and I are honored and humbled to be receiving the 2023 Ford Center Concerto Award and to have it coincide with the 20th anniversary gala celebration is just so very special,” Mary Haskell said.
“Sam produced the opening gala in 2003, and I performed as a part of that evening’s celebration, so for us to invite friends from both New York and Los Angeles to join us for this 20th anniversary event is really exciting!”
“An important focus is for the Ford Center to incubate and be a producer of arts events,” Aubrey said. “We seek collaborations with other units on campus and in the community.”
The center has expanded the Youth Theatre Music Workshop and family-friendly events.
The new Daytime School Series is part of its work to culturally engage the community. The center hosted more than a thousand children for each school performance before the COVID-19 pandemic, Aubrey said. In 2023, the center will host four different shows that appeal to children from pre-K through sixth grade.
Shows in the series are: “Grace for President” on Jan. 25, 2023; “The Lightning Thief” on Feb. 2; “Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation” on Feb. 8; and “Llama, Llama Live” on March 21.
“The Ford Center hosts over 150 events per year beyond the touring shows featured in our annual season,” Aubrey said. “This includes arts-focused events such as university ensemble performances, pageants, lectures and special events.”
One of those special events turned global eyes on Oxford. After being open only five years, the Ford Center hosted the 2008 presidential debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.
Faculty, staff, and students from across campus, along with community leaders, planned the event for months. Community and school events peppered the center’s calendar in weeks leading up to the debate on Sept. 26, 2008.
Journalists and political pundits from around the world gathered in Oxford and on the Ole Miss campus in days leading up to the event, and the debate stands as one of the marquee events hosted at the center.
Besides bringing great performances to campus, the Ford Center serves as a professional learning opportunity for students.
The center offers chances for Ole Miss students to gain valuable professional experience in stagecraft and performing arts management, said Kate Meacham, its assistant director of marketing.
“Several students who worked here went on to professional roles in production or arts management, including many who have been with the Ford Center throughout the years,” she said.
Student performers also gain experience working with a professional crew and facility during recitals and other performances. Throughout the year, students may also participate in master classes hosted by visiting performers and crew.
“The university put the Ford Center here to engage students and the community in a number of ways,” Meacham said. “We look forward to continuing that mission.”
Ford Center staff look forward to a future that continues to bring the campus and community together through arts and entertainment.
Updates have been made to lighting and technical operations inside the theater to keep it competitive. Seating changes have been made to the center’s Mary Ann Mobley/Gary E. Collins Studio Theatre, and collaborators are being encouraged to use it for musical and theatrical events.
Staff members continue to seek out programming that both reflects and inspires the community.
“I encourage individuals, especially students, to take advantage of all that is offered by the Ford Center,” Aubrey said. “There are artists that one would pay high ticket prices to see, right here in Oxford for a fraction of the cost.
“Even though you might not think you are a fan of a particular genre, by taking a chance and attending the performance, you might find you have been missing out.”
The center’s staff have been reviewing its history in preparation for what lies ahead. As part of the anniversary celebration, a book of the center’s history is being developed.
“I discover every day something new and interesting how the Ford Center began with an innovative vision and is now established as a ‘beacon’ for the region,” Aubrey said.
“There is so much to celebrate about the Ford Center, it is difficult to pare down the most important aspects. It means many things to many people.”