Carol Thompson has had a passion for the arts for a long time.
A native of Foley, Alabama, Thompson was raised in Pensacola, Florida, and is a self-proclaimed “beach girl.” It was during her senior year of high school, she says, that she discovered theater. Her teacher was a graduate of Mississippi University for Women, and introduced Thompson to the school. The school name, shortened to MUW, is affectionately nicknamed “The W.”
“For senior day, she took me to ‘The W’ and I just fell in love with it. I never thought I’d go to an all-girls school, but I just fell in love with it,” she said, laughing.
Thompson ended up having to come home late in her college career because her parents were involved in a terrible car accident, and needed her help. She finished her education at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
Thompson had decided to major in theater, but her parents didn’t feel that would be an appropriate career for her, so she earned a teaching certificate in secondary education. After graduating in 1969, she taught English, theater and dance for a couple of years, but decided that teaching wasn’t for her.
“I had one assignment for middle school, and that’s when it kind of changed. High school, I enjoyed,” she said. “It was a volatile time, and that made teaching very difficult.”
Thompson laughs as she says she made the decision to “retire” from teaching.
Thompson found that building a career was difficult for her, due to her husband’s work. Her husband, Dale, was working in the construction engineering division at Union Camp, making a move every two to four years necessary. The couple always lived in the Deep South, but she says it was hard to establish a long career with all the moves.
So she got crafty, and went into consulting for community theater, combining her love of theater and the need to work.
“What I found, in the South in particular, is that everybody wanted to be the actor on the stage, but nobody was watching the books,” she said.
So at no charge, Thompson would go into a theater, and consult with its leadership to help them turn things around and make a profit. If she was successful, she was paid a percentage of that profit.
“I did it because I felt so strongly about theater surviving in the South,” she said.
In 1981, the Thompsons moved to the Savannah area, and were transferred back in 1986. By then, the family had expanded to include a daughter and two sons. The couple decided that Statesboro would be their home.
“With the college here, we just felt that the education system would be good, and it had a community feeling, and Dale said he would commute 100 miles a day,” Thompson said. The couple built a home in what was then rural Bulloch County.
Thompson was soon hired in the foundation office at Georgia Southern, as the Director of Annual Giving. In that capacity, she ran the “A Day for Georgia Southern” campaign, the wild game suppers and all the social events for the college president. She also went on tour with the president and then-coach Erk Russell to raise money from out of state alumni. Thompson says she “did the first $15 million campaign, got university status during that time, and got the first million from faculty and staff.”
“It was great fun,” she said of the experience.
But in 1992, she found that she was burned out.
“What happens in fundraising is that pretty soon, people start dodging you,” she said, laughing. “And I missed my arts.”
Thompson began working part-time for the school’s art department, coordinating ArtsFest, as well as serving as the school’s liaison for visiting artists. When GSU’s Director for Campus Life position opened up in 1996, she got the job, and was back in the arts, where her heart had been all along.
“I was a happy camper,” she said.
During her tenure, Thompson worked as the liaison for the building project for the school’s Performing Arts Center, and served as Assistant Director for the PAC before becoming the Executive Director in 2011, a position she held until her retirement in 2015. Her last show at the PAC found her in the lead role in “Driving Miss Daisy,” a role for which Boro residents know her best.
One year into her retirement, the Averitt Center for the Arts came calling, and Thompson was named interim director while the Averitt board searched far and wide for a permanent director. Although she enjoyed her time in the interim position, she says it cemented her decision to retire.
The early days
Early on after moving to the Boro, Thompson found that there was no operational theater in Statesboro outside of what was happening at the college. She says having that outlet was important to her, and she knew that it was important for the community, so when the opportunity to help came around, she jumped at it.
She started with a group in those early days that met in a house across the street from the police station, as the current Averitt Center building was being restored. The group was working to develop the rules for the theater, and establish costs and rates. Thompson worked to train ushers and house managers, as well as volunteers, and went on to serve on the Board of Directors at the Averitt from 2005 to 2011, including a term as president.
Take a bow, Miss Daisy
But her involvement didn’t just happen behind the scenes. Thompson has been in the spotlight as well, tackling multiple roles. She’s most known for her role as Miss Daisy, which she has performed 12 times, including on stages in Swainsboro, Waynesboro and Springfield, as well as at the PAC and at the Averitt’s Emma Kelly Theater. She starred opposite Mical Whitaker as Hoke.
Thompson took on a one-woman show in 2011 for the Bulloch County Historical Society, focusing on Maude Brannen Edge, for the society’s annual meeting. She calls the experience one of her biggest challenges. The show was historically based, with lots of facts and dates and Thompson said, “It had to be right. I was in front of the historical society.”
Thompson’s husband, as always, was supportive. But this time, he fed her lines to help her when she fumbled a bit. The performance happened at Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church, which had two doors at the rear of the stage. The doors were removed and the openings were turned into windows as part of the set, complete with curtains.
“When I would get lost, I would just go over and gaze out the window. Dale would give me my lines. This was my secret,” she said, with a sly smile.
In 2012, Thompson starred in “The Glass Menagerie,” under the direction of Whitaker. She won the Averitt Center’s Critic’s Choice for Best Actress, while Whitaker took home Best Director. In 2015, Thompson revealed more than just her acting chops in a saucy production of “Calendar Girls,” which featured the cast of women nude on stage during each performance.
“It was a little different on stage, because, you know,” she said, with a grin.
Her next role was as Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” again under Whitaker’s direction, with Alan Tyson playing Big Daddy. Tyson had played her son in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“So my son became my husband. This is the theater,” she said, laughing.
Thompson paired again with Whitaker in “The Gin Game” in 2019, roles about which they were both apprehensive. They were worried that audiences that had seen them in “Driving Miss Daisy” would have trouble accepting the duo portraying rougher-around-the-edges characters.
“But the audiences were so gracious and they just got it,” she said. “That was so rewarding, that they understood the context and the characters.”
In 2021, Thompson partnered with Ressie Fuller, and the women co-directed “The Sunshine Boys.” The duo is currently looking at projects to find another collaboration, to be announced at a later date.
Beyond the spotlight
Thompson put her background in dance to work as she partnered with Dancing with the Statesboro Stars, which she has supported for years. A fundraiser for Safe Haven, the local emergency safe house for adult and child victims of domestic violence, Dancing with the Statesboro Stars enables the facility to serve Bulloch, Candler, Effingham, Jenkins, Screven and Washington counties. Thompson says she is proud to be a part of the event, one she calls immensely worthy, and one she truly believes in. She has also been a judge for Dancing with the Coastal Stars, and says it was great fun to come from behind the scenes and be on the other side of the event.
Thompson was elected to the Georgia Southern Retirees Association in 2018, an organization that helps retirees of the college with benefits and healthcare issues, work that she says is truly important.
“We’re very protective of what’s happening to the retirees. That’s why this association was formed; to not only keep us connected to colleagues who have become friends, but to also help retirees,” she said.
Being involved in the theater, on stage and off, is a passion that burns bright for Thompson. Her involvement in the arts has taught her many things. She says that people often criticize the theater as “fluffy and easy” — an environment that is about nothing more than having fun.
“It is a very disciplined art form,” she argues. “That’s why I perform it and that’s why I taught it. What a difference it makes for young people who are interested in the arts, because it deals with that other side of the brain. People always laugh because I say theater is a team sport. You know, there’s not a star in theater, because if you didn’t have the lights, if you didn’t have the music, if you didn’t have the sound, if you didn’t know the lines, if you weren’t directed, if everybody didn’t show up to do their job, it crumbles.”
Thompson is still astonished — and grateful — that these days, the Boro has three theaters providing entertainment for audiences.
This, she says, makes her incredibly happy.
“People can see theater, people can participate in theater. I find it amazing that I’ve been a part of that whole process, to come to a community where we have no theater, and now we have three active, viable theaters,” she said. “And now, I can breathe easier.”