Jim Worthey, the new theater manager of Thomas Nelson’s Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium, can remember the exact moment he fell in love with the arts, even though it occurred more than 30 years ago.
He was a sophomore in high school working on the senior play. A few days before opening night, he was in a ceiling crawlspace working on the lighting setup. He started at about 7 or 8 o’clock at night and finished around 1 a.m., but thought it was closer to 10 p.m.
“I lost track of five hours,” he said. “To this day, that was the turning point for me. That got me hooked on theater.”
He’s been involved in it for much of his life, from his high school and college days in Arkansas to Illinois to Massachusetts back to Illinois and Arkansas to Texas and Virginia, working for community colleges, local theaters and touring groups before being hired at the Virginia Beach Convention Center about 12 years ago.
“Theater has always been my passion, and having worked at two other community colleges, it almost seemed like I had to go for this,” he said of his new position.
His background is, well, being in the background. He enjoyed acting in high school, participating in high school speech competitions and doing improv. But after seeing, and hearing, the tape of one of his performances, he decided being behind the scenes would be a better fit thanks to what he calls his “thick Arkansas twang.” That was fine with him because he was more interested in the technical side anyway.
“I have done some acting,” he said. “I enjoy it, but it’s not exactly my comfort zone.”
While he did take acting classes in college at the University of Arkansas, he can’t remember being on stage in his four years there. He said the last time he performed in front of an audience was at Angelina College (Texas) in 2005, playing a small role in “Of Mice and Men.”
His prefers to shine the spotlight on others than to have it shine on him.
“I do lighting design. I can do scene design,” he said.
From 1993-2000, he was the technical director at Moraine Valley Community College just outside of Chicago. He built shows for the theater department and also presented more than half-a-dozen shows a year for concerts, ballets, plays, community events and more. He also worked for five years at Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas, as the stage operations manager. He handled technical aspects, worked backstage, and directed more than a handful of shows.
“I loved doing that. I’m more comfortable behind the scenes,” he said.
He then was hired in 2006 as the technical services supervisor – in charge of audio and visual aspects – for the Virginia Beach Convention Center. That led to more experience in building and facility maintenance, which has given him a different perspective in regard to building sets.
“Because of my construction background, I always come at it from a How-do-I-build-it? point of view instead of something artsy and really fancy,” he said.
His first day at the College was Sept. 25, and he said he’s been playing a bit of catch-up since he missed the beginning of the semester.
“I haven’t had a chance to get into a rhythm yet or into a routine,” he said.
He will have to get into one soon because the theater department’s first of three shows this academic year is set for November with the musical “Chicago.” (A cast has been assembled and rehearsals have been underway for a number of weeks.) That will be followed by a traditional play in the spring and the annual summer operetta.
“I don’t have much experience with operettas, but I’ve enjoyed working with Michael (Sundblad) so far so it should be fun,” he said.
Sundblad, chairman of the Performing Arts Department, is looking forward to working with Worthey.
"We’re very excited to have Jim on board at Thomas Nelson," he said. "He brings a wealth of experience and a lot of excitement and positive energy with him to the position. I am sure he is going to be a great fit and I’m really looking forward to working with him on the production elements of our upcoming production of 'Chicago.'"
Worthey's favorite type of show to work on, he said, always is the current one.
“I enjoy whatever show I work on,” he said. “If I’m working on a show, I enjoy it.”
That enthusiasm was evident in the interview process, according to Naima Ford, the College’s Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator and a member of the hiring committee.
“It was clear from the beginning that Jim was passionate about theater, especially the students who would learn to love and embrace the magic that happens on the stage and in the classroom,” she said. “Our students and the MTCA deserve someone who knows how important that magic is to the College's mission. I believe we found that in Jim."
He said his favorite genre is comedy.
“I like trying to find those things that will push people’s buttons, but not in a bad way. (In a way) that will make them go, ‘Whoa, I wasn’t expecting that’,” he said.
His favorite playwright is Sam Shepard.
“Part of that is generational because he was so big back in the ’80s,” he said. “Reading his stuff and then watching what he did on screen was just fascinating to me.”
Among the items on his wish list is to help the Thomas Nelson theater community branch out.
“I think it would be awesome to find a way to build it out to even more of a performing arts center,” he said. “Find a way (to where) the community goes, ‘Oh wow. There’s more stuff there. Let’s go see that.’”
He wants the MTCA to be more than “just that auditorium where they do the plays,” which fits in well with the vision Thomas Nelson’s administration also has.
“The College recognizes the important value of the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium as both an internal and external asset for hosting performances and events and a revenue generator for the College to potentially fund its operation and other programs,” said Cythina Callaway, Vice President of Institutional Advancement and another member of the hiring committee. “Jim’s understanding and experience working with fine arts centers on two other community college campuses aligns with this vision for the theater.”