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Florida actress finds a home for professional theatre in Pulaski County

By David Bradshaw

Special to the SWT

Stepping over storm tossed branches lining the paths of the Oakwood Cemetery where she walks her Labradane each day, Robin Brooke turns her face into the chilly breeze and inhales deeply. “Smell that? Wonderful boxwood. It takes me back.”

Somewhat reminiscent of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, she has been obsessive about “building it and they will come.”

“It” is theatre here in downtown Pulaski. “Not community theatre,” Brooke is fast to point out, “but theatre for the community.”

Each October, she explains, she would come to visit her best friends who live in town. “We were working in the theatre together, going back 25 years,” she says of Patrick Kearns, now working for Dish Network in Christiansburg. “And I’ve known Wesley Young almost that long as well.” Young is a theatre professor at Radford University.

An idea began to grow of living here and starting a professional theatre company. “I could feel the buzz of what this town was back in its heyday,” she says, “and I felt it was on its way back.”

In fact, she has felt that for the past few years, and she came to a decision to sell her Florida home and start looking in Pulaski. She bought a house on Zillow, sight unseen, last March. However, when she was ready to load the moving van, Hurricane Irma decided to make an entrance.

“I was hunkered in the laundry room with a mattress above me thinking, just let me get out of this state in one piece.” After loss of power for a week, and packing in sweltering heat, Brooke set off for the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

Her ammunition was a lifetime of professional theatre experience. Several years in New York City, regional theatre, dinner theatre, outdoor amphitheaters, touring buses, children’s theatre, teaching at two performing arts academies, as well as writing, directing, costuming and scenic artistry, which helped her be well versed for the task at hand.

For the past10 years she has been a professional voice actress, dubbing foreign films and TV to English, voicing cartoons, audiobooks, video games, training modules and even projects for Amazon’s Alexa.

“Each time I visited Pulaski,” she says, “I felt like I had gone back in time. I walked in that theatre and my heart started beating faster. I could feel all of the history that has passed within those walls. And if it wasn’t for a group of people who felt the same way, I would have been standing in a parking lot. It’s amazing what they’ve done, and I wanted to take it another step. The Friends of the Theatre are the reason that theatre exists and I want them to really feel the extent of what they have done. I want the community to feel that.”

Brooke may have moved from Florida, but she is in fact a native Virginian. Her grandfather was the minister at Trinity Church in Staunton for many years. Her father was raised in the rectory there and her mother had gone to Mary Baldwin. She was born in Staunton, but never lived there.

And so, after moving into her Pulaski home, Brooke founded the New River Valley Regional Theatre. “Regional,” she says, “because I wanted to pull together all of the communities like Radford, Wytheville, Christiansburg and Blacksburg.”

The goal is to produce a different stage play each month, beginning with a comedy called Murder at the Howard Johnsons. It’s a silly farce, which played on Broadway in 1979. The show is set to open May 4 at the Pulaski Theatre, with two professional actors from Kentucky and Michigan, as well as Brooke herself in the roles. It closes with a matinee on Mother’s Day.

In addition to the monthly staged plays, Brooke is also launching a live radio show. “Think of it,” she says, “as a cross between Prairie Home Companion and the Carol Burnett Show.” The Pulaski Radio Show will run every fourth Saturday, and will have live music, rotating local hosts, actors that portray regular characters, audience participation and a few prizes.

The first show launches May 26 with The Resonant Rogues, a popular band from Asheville. Also, on the billing as the first guest host will be Jeff McCoy, of Pulaski County High School.

“I had heard about Jeff all over town, and about the amazing job he’s done with the students,” Brooke said. “I went and saw a production at the high school and was totally impressed. I thought about how great it would be to make a connection where perhaps students could use what they have learned and apply that knowledge in different capacities at the theatre.”

Brooke, who is appearing as a guest artist in Radford University’s production of Oklahoma! April 10 through 15, is excited about the possibility of working with students on both the high school and college levels.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Pulaski County,” says Jeff McCoy, “for our current and former students, and for the Pulaski Theatre. This is a chance for current students and those who have recently graduated to learn from professionals. They can possibly have the chance to intern in many different areas of the theatre business before or even during college. This gives our citizens a new and exciting theatre group, allowing for great entertainment that we don’t currently have year-round. We look forward to watching the theatre blossom.”

Working hard alongside Brooke are Shannon Collins and Jessica McKinney, both members of the Pulaski Theatre board.

“I’m so looking forward to this addition of the New River Valley Regional Theatre to the Pulaski Theatre assemblies,” says Jessica. “It’s my hope that this will draw more of a crowd to the theatre and to downtown, adding that needed spark. I am personally very excited.”

“I really think this is something our town needs,” adds Collins. “I’ve been volunteering at the theatre for around four years and can’t wait for this to all start to roll!”

Ushers can volunteer on a regular basis or just once in a while, and for every show worked, they will receive a pass to see the show for free. Anyone who would like to participate is welcome to sign up by emailing robin@nrvregionaltheatre.com

Brooke plans on sharing the net proceeds after production costs with the Pulaski Theatre and will also make a donation each run of a show to a local group participating in community development or compassion. For instance, the professional actress who will play Patsy, in Always Patsy Cline, is a breast cancer survivor. “For that show, we will definitely be choosing a group that works with breast cancer awareness,” says Brooke.

Moving forward, Brooke hopes to find a permanent additional space in the downtown area. “It should be space that has room for a scenic workshop, storage for costumes and props, and a rehearsal space that also doubles as an area for workshops or classes.”

Brooke is currently seeking corporate sponsors to maintain professional quality and to improve existing equipment. Actor payroll, set costs, costumes, technicians, royalty and licensing fees for shows, marketing, online ticketing, musicians and equipment can all add up very quickly.

As we end our walk around the paths of the Oakwood Cemetery, an elderly man walking his beagle waves and shouts, “Hey, theatre lady!”

She waves back. “Hey! Getting warmer!”

“That’s pretty optimistic,” he says.

She laughs.

“Mmm, smell that boxwood!”

For tickets and information visit: www.nrvregionaltheatre.com

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