As technology and social media dominate our social interactions, making meaningful personal connections with others is becoming increasingly imperative to building a community. This rings especially true for local artists, who thrive when they have resources that can help create a supportive network with other artists. Lisa Miller-Gillespie, president of the Greater Lawrence Fellowship of the Arts, noticed this growing need for community, collaboration and connection, and organized a local festival to support artists of all ages and forms.
Lisa, originally from Denver, Colorado, discovered her passion for the arts when she began dancing as a child. Despite being “terribly shy” growing up, Lisa realized that she was both passionate about dancing and a talented dancer, and pursuing this dream introduced her to the wonders of the artistic community.
“When I was 14 years old, I saw my first play ever: ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,’ and I was gob smacked,” Lisa recalls. “It was so amazing to see this story told on stage and to feel like I was a part of it. I loved the stage setting, the costumes and the characters. I was absolutely fascinated and began to fall in love with theater.”
Throughout high school and college, Lisa continued dancing, studying jazz, contemporary and modern forms of dance. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, Lisa joined the corporate world and worked as a business purchasing agent and an executive administrator. While enjoying her corporate positions, Lisa still found time to dance and even began mentoring young dancers.
At the time, Lisa felt that theater was not her forte, though her love for attending plays remained. However, she made her way into the world of professional theater in Massachusetts. Lisa married and moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she eventually left her corporate job and began studying theater at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. “It was something I knew I always wanted to learn more about,” says Lisa. “I began taking classes and auditioning, and eventually performed at the American Repertory Theater and worked on a few productions there. It was such a great experience.”
Eventually, Lisa and her family moved to Methuen, Massachusetts, and she began teaching theater to children and teens in schools throughout Lawrence, Massachusetts. In Lawrence, she discovered that the community members were passionate for the arts, but there was a need for more resources and creative outlets for local artists.
“I saw so much talent and excitement with these kids, even those who didn’t speak English as their primary language,” Lisa recalls. She was overwhelmed with pride watching her students eagerly get involved in the entire process, including creating props they would use as part of the set pieces. “There are the stories, learning the lines, learning the language, finalizing the set pieces and then there’s the final performance in costume. Watching this transformation was incredible and I loved it,” she says.
Top of page: Lisa (right) smiles with a festival attendee at the 2022 Lawrence Festival of the Arts. Photos by Creative Collective for Creative County Initiative.
After a few years of teaching in the community, Lisa wanted to do even more with the connections she was making. She notes that Lawrence “works as a community is supposed to work,” because she was easily able to make connections to people in the arts, government, education, medicine and business sectors of the city. These connections helped her earn support from her colleagues and gave her a better understanding of what resources were needed to uplift the artistic potential within Lawrence.
In 2020, Lisa connected with Jim Henderson of In Good Company Theater and together they cofounded the Lawrence Theater Festival. They scheduled their first festival for September of 2021.
“I wanted to see a festival in the city because we’d had this horrible global event happen and this community, and other communities like it, were hit hard,” says Lisa. “We were all so devastated and alone, and I knew that the arts in particular were struggling and wondering ‘how do you continue?’ ‘How do you make Zoom work for live theater and for musical performances?’ It was really interesting to see resilience and creativity come forward as we began planning this festival.”
During this time, Lisa found it extremely important to create something that brought people together and celebrated the arts because of what it always meant to her growing up. The efforts took off quickly, as the event garnered interest from students from Lawrence schools as well as arts organizations and local artists including dancers, poets, spoken word artists, singers and musicians.
Unfortunately, the Delta variant of COVID-19 struck the city of Lawrence just weeks before the festival and Lisa made the extremely difficult decision to postpone the festival.
Photo by Creative Collective for Creative County Initiative.
“It was like a gut punch and I felt like I had let down a community,” Lisa remembers. “There were so many people that were so excited and they were left disappointed. In some cases, even angry.”
But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. And this devastating moment offered Lisa and the team that was organizing the festival something very valuable: more time.
Postponing the festival allowed the team to work harder to reach out to more vendors, include more artists and advocate for more funding, which in turn allowed them to pay the participating artists. Additionally, the Lawrence Theater Festival became the Greater Lawrence Fellowship of the Arts (GLFA), a non-profit organization that “participates in artistic outreach and educational programs that bring together local artists and organizations in order to support, promote, uplift, and advocate for visual and performing arts in the Greater Lawrence community,” according to the organization’s mission statement. The first-ever Lawrence Festival of the Arts hosted by the GLFA was held on July 9, 2022, with around 500 people in attendance.
“It was a blur, but also a beautiful day of working with different artists and different organizations in the city,” remembers Lisa “There was great participation from the community, great food and even a kid’s zone for children to enjoy.”
This year, the festival is now called the Greater Lawrence Festival of the Arts and is scheduled for Saturday, June 24. Participating artists and vendors will come from Lawrence and its surrounding communities, including Methuen, Andover, North Andover and Haverhill. The event will feature numerous performances and demonstrations, from singing and dancing to spoken word and poetry. Local vendors and artists will showcase and sell their work, and there will be food and beverages, live music, and importantly, the opportunity for community members and artists to make lasting connections.
“My hope for this year is that even though this event is a festival, I really want to push people to go deeper into themselves to connect with others,” says Lisa. “I’m excited to see more people from different backgrounds, people sharing their stories through art such as spoken word and music, even more so than last year. Showing support for one another and having that community behind you, cheering you on… that’s invaluable.”
The Greater Lawrence Festival of the Arts will take place on Saturday, June 24 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.in Northern Essex Community College’s Lawrence Campus parking lot (78 Amesbury Street, Lawrence MA, 01840). The all-day event is free, and all community members are welcome to attend. To learn more about the festival or the Greater Lawrence Fellowship of the Arts, visit GreaterLawrenceArts.org.