The longtime executive and artistic director of Augusta Players will take a final bow this spring
Martinez resident Debi Ballas cannot remember a time when she wasn’t involved in theater.
“When I was 8 years old, I turned our garage into a theater,” she says. “The garage door was the curtain.
Ballas, who was born in Hollywood, California but spent her formative years in Boston, used to ride her bicycle through her neighborhood to pass out fliers and invite friends to her performances. As the executive and artistic director for Augusta Players for the past 19 years, she no doubt has adopted more sophisticated marketing techniques. However, she is stepping down from her post at the end of the season, which concludes with a production of “Beauty and the Beast” in May.
“We did things we never thought we could do. It’s been so fulfilling,” she says.
Timing is Everything
Ballas, who participated in theater during high school and college, first became involved with Augusta Players when she played the part of Mama Rose in “Gypsy” in 1992. In the mid-90s, she played Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
In 1998 Augusta Players board members approached her about replacing the theater group’s longtime executive director. In addition to her theater background, Ballas, whose husband Chuck owns Luigi’s restaurant, knew what it took to run a business.
And not only could Ballas act. She could sing as well. (She met Chuck at age 20 when she was singing in a band on Miami Beach.) After she got married and moved to Augusta, she sang with a band called Vanilla in Georgia and the Southeast. “I sang Top 40 cover tunes for years, and when disco became popular, I started singing piano bar and jazz,” she says.
And timing certainly factored into her acceptance of the Augusta Players position as well. “I had raised three daughters, and the opportunity came at the perfect time in my life when I was ready to do something,” Ballas says.
Several years into her tenure, she also took on the role of artistic director. At the time she was hired, she says, “Augusta Players hired directors and paid them an honorarium.” When the economy faltered, she added directing duties to her administrative tasks. “To ensure the continuity and the quality of the Augusta Players, it was important to have one vision,” she says.
Ballas, who says her father and “The Judy Garland Show” inspired her love of theater, has difficulty trying to pinpoint moments in her career that stand out above all others.
“I can’t single out any one production,” she says. “Any time you have the opportunity to take something from its rawest stage and bring it to life, it’s magic.”
Augusta Players has done repeat performances of many productions, which Ballas says is typical of musical theater. However, she says, “Every time we do a production, it’s like doing it for the first time. It’s a living, breathing thing. Everyone who plays a role brings a little bit of themselves to it, so it’s never the same.
Sharing a Vision
Ballas has enjoyed performing on stage as well as working behind the scenes, and she is grateful for the opportunity to inspire audiences and actors.
“I love to perform. I love to sing. I also love talent, and to be able to help performers showcase their own talent is special and meaningful,” she says. “It has been great to see young performers grow up in the theater and go on to have successful careers.”
Whether she is performing or directing, Ballas is well aware of the responsibilities of her role.
“When I’m performing, I’m worried about myself and my performance, and I feel the pressure of doing my best so I don’t disappoint the audience,” she says. “When I’m on the other side, I have more than myself to worry about. I’m responsible for making 20 or 30 people do their best. When you’re directing, you have to have a vision, and you have to help everyone share in that vision. When it comes together, it’s magical and exhilarating.”
Augusta Players showed its appreciation for Ballas in February with a gala concert to celebrate her career. The evening included performances by Augusta Players actors to highlight the shows that Ballas produced and footage of old performances that she thought had been lost.
“I’m not often speechless, but it definitely rendered me speechless. The performances were magnificent, and the outpouring of love was overwhelming,” says Ballas. “It was one of the most beautiful, special and memorable events of my life. I’m going to miss all of these wonderful people.”