Elizabeth Grimes Droessler: A Celebration of Her Life | McIver Amphitheater at Meredith College, Raleigh | Monday, June 6, 5 p.m
After helping change the face of arts education in her city, county and state, Elizabeth Grimes Droessler – a deeply respected theater performer, technician and teacher – left the world optimistic while making plans for a summer school.
In late April, the in-demand lighting designer filled one final production with gravitas and shadows — and then, in a fitting closing note, gave the cues for a happy weekend wrap-up, celebration and fundraiser for a company she’s been serving since the 1990s.
Four days later she was gone.
On May 4th, the Wednesday after Droessler ran the engineering for the Raleigh Little Theatre’s annual tongue-in-cheek fundraiser, divas!and the world premiere of Jim Grimsley at the StreetSigns Center cascadewhose lighting she designed, closed in Pittsboro, the multifaceted artist and former arts curator died at her home in Raleigh at the age of 63.
“I find it incredibly touching – and incredibly Elizabeth – that she has devoted the last of her energies to creating in theatre,” says Joseph Megel, StreetSigns Artistic Director. “She gave her last bit of energy to her art.”
The death of Droessler, whose work touched thousands of theatrical and educational lives from elementary schools to colleges across the region, came at the end of what she bravely described in a February 2022 video as “the best year of my life”: one time following her final diagnosis of colon cancer. In response to that prognosis, she dropped a year-and-a-half course to fulfill a series of final personal and artistic dreams and opportunities, including trips to New York, San Francisco and Washington, and a December run in the Lady of the Lake Tiger 5k- race at Baton Rouge.
That agenda ultimately left one box unchecked: a summer course in arts integration at Meredith College.
It would take more than one career to change the course of art education in Wake County, change its future statewide, mentor two generations of artists (including recent Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, who said she owes her career to Droessler in an Instagram post on 6 am) and over the past 40 years have shed light on well over 60 productions for small and large theater and dance groups in the region.
Thankfully, Drössler had multiple careers. After rising from an initial position as a dance and drama teacher in the Wake County school system, she grew the arts education department into the largest program of its kind in North Carolina, directing over 500 music, dance, drama and visual arts teachers as the system senior arts administrator.
During this tenure Drössler headed pieces of goldan annual showcase of the work of over 1,000 students, and produced nationwide theatrical productions of Aida, Les Miserablesand A chorus line with professional guest lecturers including Broadway actors Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise.
“She had an innate ability to see people’s potential,” says Freddie-Lee Heath, the system’s current director of arts education. “She ensured that arts had a place at the table, from core education to facility construction, and ensured that there was room in new buildings for programs to grow.”
But her work, championing the burgeoning field of arts integration as an advisor and faculty member at Meredith College, has an even broader impact in her field. In a state where funding for the arts in schools has historically fluctuated, Droessler devised a way to better protect the arts from the whims of elected officials: by teaching teachers to integrate arts into core curricula, including history, math, science, and social studies .
“When you have funding cuts, you can’t always have that [arts] specialists in a school. This was a way around what was still exposing students to the arts,” says Catherine Rodgers, professor and theater program coordinator at Meredith. “It took a lot of calculation and work on your part to convince different colleges to integrate this, but there are programs across the state that are doing it now.”
“We learned that you don’t have to be great to be an artist,” says Heather Bower, Meredith’s director of education. “All children – and all teachers – are artists. We just have to give them the tools.”
Among other things, Droessler found time to design lighting for a who’s who of regional theater companies, including the Manbites Dog Theatre, the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater and the Raleigh Little Theatre, where she served on the board. “She really elevated people to their best selves,” says Patrick Torres, Artistic Director of RLT. “I looked to her as a mentor who I could trust to give me her honest assessment, encouragement and wisdom.”
Droessler has also toured with Baba Chuck Davis and designed lights for Donald McKayle at the American Dance Festival and legendary choreographer Pearl Primus at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
“It’s really hard to talk about her not being there,” said Ragen Carlile, interim president of United Arts of Wake County, where Droessler served on the board. “She had the ability to burst into a room full of fires – but at the same time, child performances made her cry. She exuded leadership in every way, but she was so easily swayed by the truth, on stage and in life. She hasn’t always been afraid to show that passion.”
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