Performing arts center director Rani Welch has big plans for Oxford’s old city hall
by Eddie Burkhalter
Mar 28, 2013 | 8593 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Calhoun County native Rani Welch, who danced and taught in New York before opening her own Manhattan theater, is back home as the director of Oxford’s new performing arts center. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Calhoun County native Rani Welch, who danced and taught in New York before opening her own Manhattan theater, is back home as the director of Oxford’s new performing arts center. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
OXFORD — The committee charged with hiring a director for Oxford’s new performing arts center wanted someone with experience and with ties to the community. Rani Welch has both.

A Calhoun County native, Welch, 42, began her job with the city of Oxford as director in February. The $10.4 million renovation and addition to the old city hall continues and is expected to be complete in early May, said Fred Denney, Oxford’s city project manager.

Standing on the balcony last Thursday, Welch smiled broadly and watched workers below install the last of the 1,210 seats in the theater, an addition to the nearly 100-year-old building.

“I love this theater,” Welch said. “It’s so exciting. It’s a dream. This is unbelievable.”

Welch grew up in the Williams community outside of Jacksonville and studied English and dance at the University of Alabama before receiving a masters of fine arts from the University of Iowa.

After college, she headed for New York City, where she worked as a dancer and teacher. She started and ran a dance company for 10 years before opening her own theater, The Rover SoHo in Manhattan.

Several years ago she discovered that Oxford was planning to build a performing arts center, and said after 20 years in New York, the idea of a change in venue was appealing.

But before she ever applied for her new job, Welch moved back to Alabama and founded the Freddy Jet performance company, now located in Oxford’s old train depot just a short walk from the performing arts center.

The first show inside the tiny depot in 2011 drew more than 150 attendees, Welch said, proving that Oxford is thirsty for art.

“We couldn’t get them all in … it was great. My feeling is if we can do that over there, in that tiny little space, I would like to have that same kind of thing here,” Welch said of the performing arts center.

In her years in New York, Welch gained experience running large-scale performances and writing grants, both of which are skills she’ll need when Oxford’s theater opens, she said.

“She comes to us with a great résumé,” said Charlotte Hubbard, councilwoman and a member of the committee that hired Welch. “She has a real passion for this, and that’s what we need.”

“She comes with a lot of good recommendations,” Mayor Leon Smith said of Welch. “Not just from me, and from the people at City Hall, or Oxford really. It’s people that’s known her and been around her in some phase of business, and they really came forward and talked.”

Walking on the stage, Welch points out just how much attention to detail went into the project.

Underneath her feet, the stage has a sprung floor, meaning a layer of foam underneath the wood flooring absorbs some of the shock that would otherwise be directed to dancers’ knees and ankles.

“If you’re a touring dancer, you can’t even require that, because most theaters don’t have it. There are maybe 10 in Manhattan that are sprung,” Welch said.

Brightly lit mirrors line both dressing rooms, and a separate individual dressing room designed for headlining acts has a shower.

Several large meeting rooms inside the building will be used in a variety of ways, from holding classes to promoting visiting artists by possibly having them come in prior to shows to speak with patrons, Welch said.

“There’s nothing left to be desired here,” Welch said. “If you’re a performer — and I know because I’ve been there, I’ve booked shows and I’ve been in shows — if you want to go to a theater where they’ve got the best of the best, then this is it.”

Growing pains

There have been bumps in the road as the center nears completion. At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Mike Henderson said the Oxford Arts Council had the impression the group would have more control over operation of the center.

The Arts Council is a group of volunteers, run by a board, which promotes arts in the city by hosting various performances and community events.

Welch, also in attendance at the meeting, has met with the arts council and said she believes some in the group fear their opinion won’t be sought out once the center opens.

“I don’t have that intention. I would love to get their input. They probably know more about it than anybody in this town,” Welch said.

But Welch said she is concerned the Arts Council is already booking shows without signed contracts, and to take place in a building that isn’t yet ready.

Gloria Horton, president of the Arts Council, said by phone Wednesday both the Arts Council and Welch will book shows at the center, but that the only performance currently scheduled is the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, set for May.

Since the contract for that performance isn’t finalized, Horton said the exact date isn’t yet known, but that Denney told the Arts Council the building will be ready in time for the May performance.

“Whether that’s the case or not, we don’t know, but we’ve been assured that the building will be ready,” Horton said.

When the curtain finally does rise on the new stage, Welch said, she’d like to see the center draw large audiences for shows of all kinds, from ballet companies to piano concerts and theater troupes.

She’ll meet with local organizations, churches and schools in the coming weeks, seeking input on what kinds of performances the community would like to see.

As workers installed security cameras and bolted down seats, Welch expressed her excitement at being at the birth of the new facility, saying the first performance on the new stage will be a special one.

“And I hope I’m here for 60 more years,” Welch said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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