ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Laura Sessoms Grimes, Fall 2004 Physical Theatre Program
Laura Sessoms Grimes is a North Little Rock native and an alum of North Little Rock High School, where she was active in drama and dance. She received her B.A. in Theatre Arts from Hendrix College, where her emphases were Acting and Playwriting. Laura attended Birkbeck University in London, studying Shakespeare and Victorian Literature as part of the Hendrix in London program. Upon completing her undergraduate degree, Laura moved to Arezzo, Italy and became one of the first students to complete a course of study in Commedia dell’Arte and other physical theatre techniques at the Accademia dell’Arte.
Shortly after returning to the United States, Laura was accepted into the Professional Actor Training Program at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, one of the country’s most acclaimed acting conservatories. Alumni of the school, the home of legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, include Robert Duvall, Carol Channing, Gregory Peck, Allison Janney, David Mamet, and Arkansas’ own Ashlie Atkinson and Mary Steenburgen. Laura completed the two year intensive course, and along with fellow graduating classmates formed The Real Theatre Company. Laura served as associate artistic director of this 501c3 organization for three years, during which time the company produced a 40th anniversary production of Hair! in collaboration with the play’s creator James Rado. The Real Theatre Company went on to create an extensive educational outreach program for New York City’s public and private schools. The company also conceptualized, workshopped and produced multiple new works, including US, an original musical based on the music of Peter Gabriel. Laura was also a founding member of The Collective Theatre Company in New York City, which produced the first New York reading of her play, Prisoners. Laura was also part of a hand-selected group of Playhouse graduates for an intensive workshop and performance program, Shakespeare at the Playhouse.
Laura has worked extensively as a stage and film actor in New York City, and Europe, as well as in local and regional theatre. Most recently, Laura was seen in The Argenta Community Theatre’s productions of Mrs. Miniver, A Christmas Carol and Newsies and The Arkansas Rep’s Plays in Progress series in conjunction with Rolling River Playwrights Collective. In the fall of 2020, Laura can be seen as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire produced by ACANSA Arts Festival of the South at Argenta Community Theater.
In addition to creating theatre both on and offstage, Laura’s career has centered around marketing and promotion. While living in New York, she worked in marketing and promotion of couture bridal fashion designers from around the world, and assisted in the production of print campaigns and fashion shows for New York Bridal Fashion Week. Since returning to central Arkansas in 2013, Laura has worked extensively in e-commerce and print catalog marketing and merchandising, event planning and photography styling, and business optimization and development. She is experienced in social media and email campaign marketing, as well as in conceptualizing and branding for new and existing businesses.
Laura is married to US Army Major and fellow theatre artist Ben Grimes, and the two have two children – six year old Julian “Buzz” Grimes, and one year old Florence “Birdie” Grimes. The Grimes family are proud supporters of theatre and arts education organizations throughout central Arkansas, and around the country. Beginning in 2019, Laura and Ben launched “Second ACT”, an educational program for adult actors of all experience levels at Argenta Community Theatre.
Laura is thrilled to be a part of the Argenta Community Theatre family, and honored to be given the opportunity to grow this successful, high quality theatre into an even bigger staple in the Central Arkansas entertainment and arts education realm.
When did you attend the Accademia? What did you study there?
2004. I was in the second session ever offered and we studied Commedia, Voice, Movement, Arts Philosophy and Italian Language
What was your favorite thing about the program?
In those early days, it felt like we were making a lasting impact in creating a course of study that would benefit performing arts students for years to come. Because we were such a small and focused group, we were able to be extremely involved in the creation of the program and curriculum, and were allowed the freedom to try anything that may have interested us.
Can you share a favorite memory or story from your time in Italy outside the classroom? From a trip or a meal in town etc…
Because we were such a small group, we were pretty free to “adventure” during our time at the Accademia. My roommate and I became wonderful travel companions, and set out on several trips together that year. Whether it was traveling to Florence to see La Traviata performed, enjoying the Feast of St. Francis in Assisi for her birthday, or just exploring Arezzo with our small class, the entire semester was chock full of “pinch me” moments.
What were some of the biggest “take aways” from your time at the Accademia?
The Accademia built on my undergraduate program’s foundation of the arts as a collaborative form of expression. The value of collaboration in the arts cannot be overstated, as far as I am concerned, and I continue to build my own career around collaboration as a tool to create better art, reach more people and improve communities in a way that a solitary approach does not.
Do you stay in touch with anyone from your class?
Yes! I have remained in contact with several of them – especially my roommate and dear friend Brianna Sloane. Though we ended up in very different parts of the country, we have kept in contact and been able to communicate about our artistic processes and projects easily since our time at the ADA, because it feels like we speak the same “language”. Since I’ve moved back to Little Rock, I’ve stayed in touch with the Linda Brown, who ran the US side of the school during my time there, and I even got to see Scott McGhee at a recent fundraising event here in Arkansas. Any time I can reconnect with someone who shared this experience is a soul-filling moment.
Can you tell us more about a project you’re currently working on? What was your process? Who has contributed?
I recently became the Executive Director of Argenta Community Theater, the largest non-equity/non-university house in the state of Arkansas. At Argenta, we pride ourselves on professional level production value, and robust mentorship, educational and community outreach initiatives. Since leaving New York City in 2010, I have not had the opportunity to focus all of my energy and career on theater making, and truly in a market the size of ours, there are just a handful of chances to do so. While I spent my early career looking down my nose at “community theatre” I have come to realize the vital role it plays in nurturing future professional artists and providing an outlet for creative exploration for people from all walks of life. I became involved here at ACT in 2015 when a mentor and playwright encouraged me to audition for the world premier of Mrs. Miniver, for which she was adapting the script. As a new mom with a full time job, I’d incorrectly assumed that I’d never have time to get back into theater. I’m so glad that I was wrong – my husband and I both have been so much happier and more fulfilled being back in the swing of creating art. Now, I have the great pleasure of running this wonderful company, teaching acting classes for adults, and acting in a handful of roles a year. The process of growing into this position has truly been an organic one, and the contribution and support of the theater community in Central Arkansas, and mentors like Judy B. Goss, the Hendrix College Theatre Arts professors and the founders of ACT – Vincent Insalaco and Judy Tenenbaum, have made it possible. The lessons I learned at the ADA about the value of collaboration and ensemble work have undoubtedly shaped my career as it has evolved over the years.
How has the Accademia helped shape who you are as an artist/creator?
I draw on my time at the Accademia in my own performance every time I work on a role. While my training after leaving the Accademia was in a much more naturalistic/realistic style of acting, I have always been able to marry the more physical and exploratory approach that we used at the Accademia with the “reality” based Meisner technique that I learned at The Neighborhood Playhouse. The combination of these types of training has allowed me to grow into a well-rounded artist with an ability to tap into the physicality and emotional life of a role fairly intuitively. And, it cannot be stated enough, that the emphasis of collaborative work has been a constant in my creative life since attending the Accademia, and is, in my opinion my greatest takeaway from my time there.
In your opinion who is a good candidate to get a lot out of the program?
Young artists who are looking for an immersive experience, who need a push to access their physicality in consistent way, and who are game for trying something totally different should seriously consider the Accademia dell’Arte.
Where do you live? What part of the city?
North Little Rock, Arkansas – in the neighborhood where I grew up.
What inspired you to base your work and life there?
After spending 15 years away from “home” we made the decision to move back to Arkansas and be closer to family when we started having children. The arts community in Central Arkansas has grown tremendously since I’d left here in 2000, and I knew I could have a meaningful impact on a community that means so much to me if I could get involved in helping to grow and refine the arts scene in my hometown. I love that my two little ones are growing up near their grandparents, so that was a major factor in our decision to return here.
Thinking back, what was the transition like going from college life to the ‘real world’? What advice would you give students who are thinking about what’s after college?
I think that looking at “transition” as more of a gradual blending is helpful. I graduated from college in the spring of 2004 and then attended the Accademia that Fall. A few months after returning to the US, I was accepted a two year conservatory in New York, The Neighborhood Playhouse. Those years in New York were when I really made that “real world” transition, but it was a gradual process. I really enjoyed spending my twenties there, focused on art and survival. As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted over the years, but I have been able to find the balance of art, family and stability that works for me at this point in my life. The advice that I needed at 22 years old was to not think about the “next step” in life in terms of absolutes. Your “real world” does not have to look like anyone else’s, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Figure out what you need to do to meet your basic needs as well as your creative needs, and evolve from there.
Besides your work, are there artists / companies that you regularly support or would encourage others to check out?
ACANSA Arts Festival of the South, Theatre Truck (by classmate Brianna Sloane), Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. In general – Support your local community theater scene. Support new artists finding their voices. Get out and see live work in multiple mediums. Get involved. Find OR MAKE your artistic “family” wherever you happen to be.
How supportive of artists are the audiences and the community?
We are blessed with a local community that is very proud of their own, but it takes work from the arts community to be inclusive of the people you serve. Do not think of your audience as beneath you – think of your work as an opportunity to bring something new and different to the audience you serve. Think of art as service. Pay it forward to a new generation of artists. We have found all of these things reap tremendous dividends when it comes to support from the community.
Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for asking for my take – my path has been a twisty one, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being on it.