Why Crozet: The Hearts of Crozet Arts

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Boomie Pedersen and Zeus at the Hamner Theater. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

It’s important, where we live and why. That’s why, when Albemarle County began a discussion of Crozet’s master plan last year, people were asked to list the qualities of Crozet life they find most meaningful. Many expressed an appreciation for the artists, both performing and visual, who make their home here. Here we focus on two women who have been a force in Crozet’s performing arts. This article is the ninth of a series.

Stories of Real People at the Hamner Theater

Boomie Pedersen was a serious dancer, a child who performed with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and organized dramatic productions at home with her brother and friends. But that was just the beginning, a mere preview of the twin engines of creativity and amazing energy that would power her life. 

She grew up, gave up professional ballet, went on to live in Japan on and off for ten years, and was active in theater groups there. She raised six children and has had a hand in creating and staging enough live drama that you‘d be hard-pressed to see it all in a lifetime. When she came to live in Crozet in 1997, she chose it because of its proximity to school for her children.

She plunged immediately into the local performing art scene. She staged “The Conflict,” an episode from “The Waltons” by Earl Hamner Jr, for the Nelson County Drama Foundation, for a two-year run at Mountain Cove Vineyards and, with Peter Coy, started the Hamner Theater at the Rockfish Valley Community Center. Their adaptation of “The Homecoming” quickly became a Christmas tradition.

In the summers, she staged productions of Shakespeare’s comedies at local vineyards, and, year round, is still involved with an improv group she began more than a decade ago and continues online. 

The Hamner Theater came to Crozet Arts in 2017. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

She never slowed down: she went into labor with her last child while at a rehearsal in her backyard, then welcomed the cast and crew inside to greet newborn Laurence Brown Taylor. In 2017, she joined her daughter, Emma, in VCU’s Master of Fine Arts program, and they graduated together. When the Rockfish Valley Community Center was reorganized in 2017, she moved the Hamner Theater to Crozet Arts, closer to home. 

A woman of many interests as well as boundless energy, one particular interest consistently informs her direction: “I love working with real people who faced changes in a particular place and time,”  she said. Like Hamner, she sees the drama of everyday lives as stories worthy of telling, and she’s worked to help those who struggle for the words to do so.

Currently, she’s part of a collaboration working on a project that tells the story of the explosion at the Greenwood Chemical Company in Newtown. The Second Saturday presentations of “The Newtown Project: Kaleidoscope in Black and White” have been sharing separate pieces created by various artists.

After being involved in performing nearly all her life, Pedersen, who is also the caregiver for her mother, said she never questioned her ability to have a family and a community and stay active in the work she loved. She remembers painting sets surrounded by sleeping children. “I never thought ‘either-or,’” she said: “I always thought ‘yes-and.’”

Crozet Arts was born after a search for the best use of an old school building. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Artists Inspire Each Other at Crozet Arts

When Sharon Tolczyk and Mollie Washburne opened Crozet Arts 11 years ago, there was an art scene, Tolczyk said, but it was small and scattered. The Albemarle Ballet Theatre was here, and Pedersen’s Hamner Theater was in Nelson County. “Now, we have Hamner Theater in Crozet, the Artisans Depot, the Art Box, the Crozet Community Orchestra and the Crozet Community Chorus.”

She mentioned this growth, she said, not because she wants Crozet Arts to claim credit for it, but because the presence of artists across disciplines in a community causes creative growth and collaboration for all of them. That’s also the reason she likes having multiple artists under one roof at Crozet Arts: “You might be walking to your ballet class and hear a cello class,” she said. “Or come for your cello class and find out there’s an improv class at work.” And the teachers get to know each other and work together, she said. The ballet, cello, flute and theater teachers have created an interdisciplinary summer performance workshop for children and young teens, “The Twinkle Project,” supported by grants from Bama Works. 

Sharon Tolczyk of Crozet Arts. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Crozet Arts was born when the county gathered citizens in 2008 to determine the future of the building that had originally housed the old Crozet Elementary School. “I walked through and it was this huge, empty building,” she said. Tolczyk, a professional dancer and dance teacher, had watched as her home state of Massachusetts had turned empty schools, mills and warehouses into spaces for the arts, a use that benefitted the community, sometimes in surprising ways. She participated in discussions about the fate of the building, and found that the community at large wanted to use the school for arts education. 

The non-profit enterprise she and Mollie Washburne put together went by the name of Old Crozet School Arts, later shortened (in 2012) to Crozet Arts, won the county’s approval, and after a year or so of negotiating with Albemarle County, prepared to share the building with the Field School. 

Inside the ballet studio at Crozet Arts. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

From its start it was a grass-roots kind of project, she said, with plenty of fundraising by students, parents and small donors. “It took us three years just to get mirrors for the ballet studio.” Tolczyk was familiar with Pedersen’s work and named her the performance director for the new project, but it wasn’t until later that the two women realized that they had both been in the Princeton Ballet as children, both at the same time, in the 1960s.

When pandemic restrictions closed Crozet Arts, Tolczyk spent the summer learning Zoom, so Crozet Arts could offer online instruction. Fall classes in dance, guitar, ukulele, yoga and cello in addition to Pedersen’s improv classes are underway, with more planned for next month.

From the start, Tolczyk wanted to distinguish Crozet Arts from a place solely for exhibition and performance: “We’re not going to be McGuffey West,” she said then. It’s a distinction she still holds as an important part of her mission. With a focus on learning rather than production, she’s able to welcome students of all levels of experience and ability. “Our shows are the natural product of our classes,” she said, “not the other way around.”

If you have a personal story to contribute to Hamner Theater’s Boomtown project or any questions about it or any Hamner Theater project, email Boomie Pedersen, [email protected] 

Crozet Arts is still enrolling for some fall classes and more classes will be offered as plans are made for both online and in-person classes later. Find details at crozetarts.org. 

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