When Avery Lewis enrolled in Augusta University almost four years ago, she admits that she was a bit lost.
Growing up in Harlem, Georgia, Lewis always had a passion for acting and performing on stage, but Augusta University didn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in theater.
“I began at Augusta University, kind of unsure of what I wanted to do. I went in undecided,” Lewis said. “When I got here, I was told that communication was the closest degree you could get to a theater major at the time. So, I started taking as many theater classes as a communication major that they would allow me to take. And I just kind of fell in love with the course material.”
About two years ago, Lewis said she heard “talks and whispers” about the possibility of Augusta University introducing a new Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital and Visual Storytelling program.
“I took a chance, and I just went all in on the theater and digital and visual storytelling classes before it was even a major,” Lewis said, laughing. “When the new BFA was approved last year, I was wildly grateful because now I get to graduate with the degree that I really wanted. I didn’t settle.”
Learning the craft
The new BFA in Digital and Visual Storytelling program prepares students to communicate effectively through versatile, technology-rich skill sets which include a strong theoretical and technical understanding of filmmaking, theater performance, writing, directing and production through multiple forms of expressive media.
“The classes that are offered now are getting more into the nitty gritty of film and theater,” Lewis said, adding some of her favorite courses have been Writing for the Stage, Advanced Acting Styles and Voice and Movement. “I really loved Voice and Movement with Dr. O’Meara. I think that’s one of my favorite classes that she teaches. I feel like it’s beneficial for everyone from seasoned performers to new beginners to help them get more comfortable in their own bodies as a performer.”
The Writing for the Stage course also opened the door for Lewis to make her directing debut. In the course, she wrote a one-act play titled, “Verlassen.”
“Verlassen is the German word for ‘to be abandoned,’” Lewis said. “How this play came about is I really like listening to history podcasts, and there’s one that I really enjoy called ‘Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.’ One of the episodes he did really stood out to me and stuck with me for a while. It really made me think. That episode was about the history of humans using pain as entertainment.”
The episode discussed everything from the gladiatorial battles in the Roman Colosseum to the history of public executions, Lewis said.
“During the episode, Dan Carlin mentioned the last public execution was in 1939,” Lewis said. “I was like, ‘That wasn’t that long ago. That’s terrifying.’”
When Lewis received her class assignment to develop a one-act play, she came up with the idea to write about how people historically used public executions as entertainment and justified it with their religious beliefs.
“People used to say, ‘Oh, we’re like saving people’s souls. We’re sending them to heaven. This is so fun,’” Lewis said. “So, the premise of the play was this town has an annual execution day. And because it’s such a religious event, the town is run by a pastor who kind of oversees the events and oversees the day-to-day functions of the town.”
In the play, the town has a lottery to pick the day’s executioner, but the pastor rigs the lottery drawing to take revenge on a soldier who is getting executed that day, Lewis said.
“The pastor has this vendetta against the soldier who wronged him back in the day,” Lewis said. “So, the pastor rigs the lottery drawing so that the soldier’s daughter will act as the executioner. And the play follows all three characters throughout the entire ordeal.”
In order to graduate with a BFA in Digital and Visual Storytelling, students must take a capstone course in which they assemble an industry-ready body of work to launch a career on stage, on screen or behind the camera.
“I had so much fun writing the play, ‘Verlassen,’ I asked Dr. O’Meara and Professor Joiner if I could put this play on the stage as my capstone project,” Lewis said. “They gave me the green light, but said, ‘Only if you direct it.’”
That last stipulation was a little overwhelming at first, Lewis said.
“I never directed before,” she said. “It was intimidating initially going into it, but I found that I really enjoyed the directing process. It taught me a lot.”
Lewis directed and produced “Verlassen” at the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre this past June.
“Directing ‘Verlassen’ let me expand my ideas for what I had originally written and get to see what I had written come to life on a stage,” Lewis said. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was scary at first, but I’m really glad that I did it because it has opened up a whole new door of possibilities and career options.”
Since the production in June, Lewis has talked with Jonathan Cook, a local producer and host of “Gather By the Ghost Light” podcast, about possibly adapting “Verlassen” into an audio play.
O’Meara said it has been a pleasure watching Lewis grow as an actor, playwright and director.
“We are so proud that Avery will be one of our first graduates in the Digital and Visual Storytelling degree, and I look forward to seeing what she does after graduation,” O’Meara said. “She is certainly multitalented, a truly gifted performer, a successful writer and now she can add a couple of directing accolades to her vita, too.”
Becoming a professional director
In fact, Lewis recently signed a contract with The Augusta Players to direct the play, “OH BOTHER! The Blustery Adventures of Winnie the Pooh!” as part of the Artreach Theatre program.
Through the Artreach program, The Augusta Players presents special weekday matinees of its productions to students throughout the Augusta area for a subsidized admission price.
The public performance of “OH BOTHER! The Blustery Adventures of Winnie the Pooh!” was held Sept. 26 at The Miller Theater in downtown Augusta.
“I’ve worked with children as an actor before, but I’ve never worked with children as a director. So, this was another first-time experience for me,” Lewis said, laughing. “In this production, there are adults and children in the show. And it’s just so fun seeing how everyone interacts together. And the children are such little professionals. We all joke that these children are the most professional people in the room.”
The entire cast was enthusiastic and willing to dedicate several hours each evening for weeks leading up to the public performance, Lewis said.
“All of the actors were ready to tackle any crazy thing that I would throw at them, which I greatly appreciated,” Lewis said. “We were all very adamant about making this a fun process and, when you are surrounded by lovely people who enjoy the same craft that you love, making it fun is easy to do.”
Jiwon Lee, a fifth grader who played Roo in the play, said she thoroughly enjoyed working with Lewis as a director.
“Oh my gosh, she’s so amazing,” Lee said. “We’re so lucky to have her as our director. She directs us in a fun and easy way.”
Laurie Easterlin, who played Kanga in the play, said she believes that Lewis is a natural director.
“She is a really good collaborator, and she’s very open to hearing what feels right to us or what questions we have,” Easterlin said. “And she’s a marvelous listener. It’s hard to be a director and a listener because it requires you to multi-task. It’s a real gift to be able to direct what is happening in the room and, at the same time, listen for the feedback, but Avery is a very natural listener.”
A bright future ahead
Lewis, who will graduate from Augusta University in May, said she hopes to attend graduate school next year.
“I’ve been researching schools for the past year, and I’ve found that I really love the University of Alabama’s directing program,” Lewis said. “When I looked through all the different universities’ course lists and faculty, the University of Alabama stood out to me right away, which kind of came as a shock to me because I thought, ‘Oh, when I graduate, I want to move to New York or Chicago.’ But after looking at the different colleges around the country, I’ve learned that your ideal location and your ideal program are sometimes two completely different things. The University of Alabama seems to be the right fit for me.”
As far as her future goals, Lewis said she is interested in possibly becoming a professor in theater but also wants to continue writing plays.
“I think it would be really exciting to be able to not only teach theater and get other people excited about theater, but to also continue writing on the side and getting shows produced,” Lewis said. “I would love to be a published playwright and professor one day.”