Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke collapsed under a mountain of debt in 2009 after 40 years of operation. The company eventually reopened, but the calamity made a distinct impression on Deejay Gray, who was working there as an assistant director: "My thought was, 'If one company is failing, all theaters are failing.'"
That attitude may explain Gray's relentless ambition for building new theater audiences since graduating from Radford University in 2011 and moving to Richmond. His efforts led to the founding of TheatreLab in 2012, a company started in cooperation with Firehouse Theatre Project and the only one in town dedicated specifically to reaching the millennial generation.
While traditional arts organizations still struggle to navigate social media, Gray has expertly leveraged new outreach mechanisms to build a foundation of support, accumulating 3,400 Facebook friends along the way. "For my generation, social media is the language we speak," he says. Implementing the lab part of his company's name has involved breaking down old theatrical paradigms. For instance, the company's first full season starting in December includes an interactive series called On Book which will directly involve audiences in the creation of four new works.
Gray is most proud of TheatreLab's socially conscious work. An initiative called Spectrum specifically involves gay, lesbian and other at-risk young people.
"I've seen interns struggling with their identity completely come out of their shell working with us," he says. The always effusive Gray works the local community like a politician, continuously looking to build coalitions. "I've been shaking a lot of hands and kissing a lot of babies," he says. "I'm always asking other organizations, 'Can we play together?'"