Center State – Performance Series Director Phillip Preston

by Ann Cipperly

Celebrating its 36th season with stellar productions, the East Alabama Arts’ Performance Series brings outstanding shows in music, theatre and dance to the community, with Phillip Preston as the director since the beginning. As he reflects on the early years and growth of the Series, this year is opening new doors. Three famous performing artists have invited local talent to join them on stage, and the EAA prepares for its first touring musical, “We’ll Meet Again.”

“With East Alabama Arts and the Gouge Performing Arts Center,” says Phillip, “we have become ground zero for the performing arts in the state. We are a unique area in the state to cover all the genres in the arts. What is happening is a big concentration in this area between our two theaters more than anywhere else in the state.”

As the upcoming season is announced, Phillip adds, “This year’s Performance Series is a coming together of this community more as an audience of participants than as spectators. We are greeting artists who arrive here from throughout the nation and world to perform on a stage that is uniquely warm and welcoming, and celebrating the talent here.

“The visiting artists are starting to feel that they need to have more contact with the community. The Canadian Brass has invited the EAA Community Band to join them on stage, The King’s Singers, who are world famous, have asked the EAA Civic Chorale to join them on stage, and Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez will include OHS Ovations and Theatre Society students in her performance. Now, we are opening new doors.”


Phillip grew up in a family having a love of music, singing and playing instruments. At family reunions, the family would gather around the piano to sing. After two years of piano lessons, Phillip began playing the piano at age 10 at his father’s church in Tuscaloosa County.

When Phillip was in the seventh grade, his family moved to Beauregard when his father became minister at Providence Baptist Church. He took piano lessons for two years in high school from Mary Slaton, a well-known pianist in Lee County. She assisted him in getting into Auburn University with piano as a major. After graduating, he attended the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, for a master’s degree.

Phillip met his wife Connie in high school in Beauregard. They married in 1973 after she graduated from Auburn University and he was working on his master’ degree. They moved back to Opelika in 1975. Phillip taught classes, while Connie went into banking.

His music professors at Auburn influenced his love of music. During this time, Phillip and mutual music lovers would drive on Highway 29 to Atlanta every night of Metropolitan Opera week in May, to see a different performance each night.

“Hearing the great musical artists of the second half of the 20th century,” he says, “informed my sense of what quality is and how audiences can respond when you are in the presence of greatness. I learned what live performances can do to uplift people.”

In 1980, Phillip became part of the staff at First Baptist Church in Opelika as the pianist. He also gave piano classes at his home.

In 1981, he was invited to join the board of the Opelika Arts Association (OAA), which is now East Alabama Arts (EAA). There were many people in Opelika interested in the arts and music. When Philip became a part of the board, he suggested offering concerts to the commu- nity. Members of the board would make calls and arrange support for the performances.

The OAA began the Spring Festival Series, with concerts held in downtown Opelika church sanctuaries. One of these was the Birmingham Opera for “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Others featured regional classical ensembles or soloists. These were held for about five years.

After the new Opelika High School had been built, there were discussions of building an auditorium not just for students but for community use.

“When the school board and superintendent Dr. Clyde Zeanah decided to build the Performing Arts Center as a dual facility to serve the high school and community as theater space,” remembers Phillip, “it opened up many possibilities.” The OAA was asked to create a performing arts series which established the working relationship with the city school system.

Phillip, who had assembled the spring festival concerts, became the director of the Performance Series. In the spring of 1987, OAA held an open house as the auditorium was being finished to announce the series and have the season ticket holders select their seats. After 36 years, many of the original subscribers are patrons.

The Performance Series opened in September 1987 with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra featuring pianists Joan Yarbrough and Robert Cowan. The orchestra also opened the next three seasons with Robert McDuffie, Marvin Hamlisch, and a concert staging of West Side Story. Receptions were held after- wards at some of the shows for season ticket holders.

Phillip developed close relationships with many booking managements. One agent, Eric Amada, who assisted Phillip with the second season, decided to attend the Robert McDuffie performance to see what was happening in the small town of Opelika to be able to have major shows.

Eric attended the reception afterwards at the home of Ann and Bob Taylor, who was Robert McDuffie’s uncle. Since then, Eric has not only assisted Phillip in finding great performers but has become a good friend.

“It is knowing and developing a relationship with the right person,” Phillip says. “It boils down to this person and that person to make it work, and they know what you are looking for in the future. If I see something I am interested in, I know who to call.”

He is in contact with different agencies daily. Phillip and Connie’s three children, while growing up, would often take messages from agents like Eric while Phillip was teaching piano lessons. When they get together, it is always asking about family as well as productions.

“The guiding spirit behind the Series is finding the best events to represent each of the major areas of the arts in terms of music, theater and dance with variety within those areas,” Phillip says. “We try to develop programming within a certain comfort zone of familiarity but with some cutting edge performances as well.”

Over the years, each season has featured a variety of performances, including Broadway tours, symphony orchestras, opera companies and entertainers. Popular performances have included the Bolshoi Symphony, the Warsaw Philharmonic, New York City Opera, the Ten Tenors, Oklahoma, Cinderella, Chicago, 5 Browns, The Sound of Music, Big River, Wynton Marsalis, among many others.

“We have excelled in identifying talent in their earlier stages and watching them become stars on the world stage,” says Phillip. “There have been many performers, like Jon Batiste, who fit into that category. We have also had many seasoned, world-renowned performers.”

Over the years, Phillip has watched audiences’ response to artists in two categories. He has seen shows where the audience was so touched that there was complete silence at the end of a piece. Other times, the show was so thrilling that people were quickly on their feet jumping up with a standing ovation.

“Last year, as soon as the first person in the Ukraine Symphony Orchestra stepped on stage,” he says, “the audience leaped to their feet. The orchestra didn’t expect the reception they received here. At the end, the Ukrainian flags came out on stage. World events have an effect on the arts like they do on everything else.

“You can’t describe the effect of live performances. You don’t get it unless you go. You go home on a cloud because something happened that you can’t put into words.”

In 1991, Opelika and Birmingham were the first to invite the Alvin Ailey America Dance Company for its first ever performances in Alabama. The dance group is now the most well-known African-American dance group in the world. Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, relayed in his book about his tenure managing the Ailey company, “The most moving of all the tour dates I experienced at Ailey was not in a major world capital but in Opelika, Alabama.”


This season opens with the Johnny Cash Experience featuring songs and stories narrated by his son. Other performances include Cleo Parker Robinson Dance with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Canadian Brass, The King’s Singers, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, Jonathan Dely and his All-Star Band, and Mandy Gonzalez in Concert.

“After all of these years of bringing people to Opelika and having them discover us,” the director adds, “now our hardworking arts groups here at home will get to share the stage with the Big Dogs!”

EAA is also working on its first production and booking effort for a statewide tour. “After the performance of ‘We’ll Meet Again,’ last August,” Phillip says, “Coach Bruce Pearl was so impressed that he offered his support to remount the show so that more people across Alabama, adults and students, could have that same experience.

“It is an exciting time for the arts.”

For tickets to the Performance Series, contact East Alabama Arts at the Southside Center for the Arts at 1103 Glenn Street in Opelika. Call 334.749.8105, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., or purchase tickets online at