This month brings the end of an era for Thomas Nelson Performing Arts. Victoria Sanders, a major player in theatrical productions at the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium (MTCA) for more than a decade, is off to assume a faculty position with St. Johns River State College’s Florida School of the Arts.
What began as a short-term contract at the College through the Virginia Arts Festival, became Sanders’ full-time job in July 2006. She closes the curtain on 13 years as Thomas Nelson’s theater manager Aug. 12. Although bittersweet, it’s a move Sanders is excited about. She is most looking forward to “spending time with my family” as Florida is her home.
The Navy brought Sanders and her husband to Hampton Roads. With her came vast experience given her work for numerous theaters, a stint with Walt Disney World and service as a performing arts high school theater manager and instructor. Viewing education as a key to staying on top of her game, she has earned three degrees – associate of arts, bachelor of arts in set design, and master of fine arts.
Widely known as Torrie, she will be missed.
“I’m thrilled for her and disappointed for us at the same time,” said Performing Arts Chair Michael Sundblad, who counts Sanders as a colleague and friend. “She and I started this department together. I was hired 12 years ago to take on the music department and grow it. In a short space of time, we accomplished a lot.”
Since staging their first production together, Sanders and Sundblad have helped Performing Arts soar in cooperation with faculty and staff and support from College leaders. The College went from producing one play a year as part of a student organization to now producing a musical, a play and an opera every year.
“‘Little Shop of Horrors’ was the first show we co-produced with a now defunct semi-professional company. My dean at the time saw how well things went, encouraged us to keep going and authorized us to form the Department of Performing Arts,” Sundblad added, noting that every show since the first has been produced solely by their department.
Sanders recalled the early days – challenges and all.
“When I got here, there was one adjunct music faculty member who taught a handful of classes, and had a choir of maybe 12 students …There was one row of music stands, a set of choral risers and a set of screwdrivers,” she said.
“First, I started working with Beth (Beasley) on the productions. A year later Michael Sundblad was hired … we then decided to do a musical together,” she mused. “The first musical, ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ we were flying by the seat of our pants. I was on the stage at probably 2 or 3 a.m. the day before we opened, asking why we thought this was a good idea!”
Patience and dedication paid off and Sanders’ role grew to include performing arts instructor and production designer. She has 27 Thomas Nelson productions to her credit and has worked six shows for community performance groups that held residency at MTCA. Plus, she amassed a costume collection valued at roughly $100,000.
Additionally, through intensive efforts by Sanders and Sundblad backed by key officials, the Performing Arts program added two degree programs – an associate of arts in liberal arts with specialization in theater and an associate of arts in liberal arts with specialization in music. Along with a retired Thomas Nelson vice president for Academic Affairs, they also led the charge in making the associate degree in fine arts available to students across Virginia.
Those and other strides are points of pride for Sanders.
“Now the College has liberal arts specialization degrees, one full-time, one part-time, and a plethora of adjuncts in the performing arts – including me,” she said. “We just finished our seventh summer of our light opera series. We occupy MTCA itself, room 830 (Templin Hall) as an acting and choral studio and room 825 (Templin Hall) as a specially-outfitted music classroom. And, last year we added a room in Diggs Hall as a costume shop and theater classroom.
Then last year we did ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to sold-out houses. One of the students from that production was just cast in an off-Broadway showcase. (Time at Thomas Nelson) has been rewarding and memorable all in one,” she said.
Sanders and Sundblad are certain the momentum will continue. Thomas Nelson Performing Arts provides a platform for numerous talented students, faculty, staff and community members who serve as actors, singers, dancers, musicians and production crew members.
“Through our academic programs and productions, the whole department has seen students go on to wild success including four-year colleges and universities in Virginia and even conservatories across the nation. None of this could have been possible without her,” said Sundblad. “I’m confident that we will be able to continue the work that Torrie and I started. I feel certain that what we have built would not have been possible with anyone other than Torrie.”
Lail Hayes, a 27-year-old from York County, has been taking classes intermittently from Sanders since 2012. She was one of the first students to enroll in the program that features specialization in theater.
She recalls getting teary-eyed when she heard the news “because she and Michael have really built this whole program and whole place that so many people consider home and consider a wonderful place to do their art.”
At the same time, Hayes knows the new job is a great opportunity for Sanders.
“I’m so happy that she gets to go and benefit another community the way she’s benefited ours,” Hayes said. “It is bittersweet because she’s done so much for everyone here.”
Sundblad said Sanders will be hard to replace. “We always say we feel like the stars aligned to bring us together," he said. "You know how people say, ‘I wish I had another one of me to help me do the work?’ Working with Torrie, I had another one of me.”
Heartened by Sundblad’s kind words and echoing his sentiment, Sanders will miss the people most, “especially my students.”
“Because we spend so much time together outside of class working on the productions, our department is more like a family than just coworkers or teachers and students,” she said. “I’m still in touch with students from my first production and will stay in contact with the students in the one that just closed long after I’m gone.”
Hayes, who worked as Sanders’ assistant and stage manager on many productions, has been asked to serve as stage manager for the new director when Performing Arts presents “Chicago” this fall. She will also serve as the theater's main technician until that position is filled. The spot was held for seven years by Thomas Nelson alum David Garrett, who headed for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro in July to pursue a master of fine arts degree.
Because of everyone in the department, but particularly Sanders, Hayes thinks she’s ready for the challenge.
“I don’t think without her and without the people here that I would be as well-educated and as confident and as capable as I would be if I had been somewhere else,” Hayes said. “I don’t think I’d be able to handle any of this if it weren’t for them and her specifically.”