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 revered theatrical artist, technician, and teacher—left the world optimistically, while making plans for a summer class.

At the end of April, the sought-after lighting designer filled one last production with gravitas and shadow—and then, in a fitting final grace note, called the cues for a gleeful weekend send-up, celebration, and fundraiser for a company she’d served since the 1990s.

Four days later, she was gone.

On May 4, the Wednesday after Droessler ran tech for Raleigh Little Theatre’s annual tongue-in-cheek fundraising pageant, Divas!, and StreetSigns Center’s world premiere of Jim Grimsley’s Cascade, whose lighting she designed, closed in Pittsboro, the multifaceted artist and former arts administrator died at her home in Raleigh, at age 63.

“I find it incredibly touching—and incredibly Elizabeth—that she used the last of her energy to create in the theater,” says StreetSigns’ artistic director Joseph Megel. “She used her last bit of energy to do her art.”

The death of Droessler, whose work touched thousands of lives in theaters and educational institutions from elementary schools to colleges across the area, came at the close of what she courageously called, in a February 2022 video, “the best year of my life”: a period that followed her terminal diagnosis of colon cancer. Responding to that prognosis, she set a year-and-a-half-long course to fulfill a number of final personal and artistic dreams and opportunities, including travel to New York, San Francisco, and Washington, and a December run in the Lady of the Lake Tiger 5k race in Baton Rouge.

That agenda ultimately left one box unchecked: a summer class in arts integration at Meredith College.

It would take more than one career to alter the course of arts education in Wake County, change its future across the state, mentor two generations of artists (including recent Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, who said she owed her career to Droessler in a May 6 Instagram post), and light well over 60 productions for theater and dance groups, small and large, across the region over the last 40 years.

Thankfully, Droessler had several careers. After rising from an initial position as a dance and theater teacher in the Wake County school system, she built its arts education department into the largest such program in North Carolina, managing over 500 music, dance, theater, and visual arts teachers as the system’s senior arts administrator.

During that tenure, Droessler helmed Pieces of Gold, an annual showcase featuring the work of over 1,000 students, and produced county-wide theatrical productions of Aida, Les Misérables, and A Chorus Line with professional guest instructors 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 arts education director. “She made sure arts had a seat at the table, for everything from core instruction to facility construction, making sure there was space in new buildings for programs to grow.”

But her work championing the emerging field of arts integration as a consultant and faculty member at Meredith College has had an even broader impact in her field. In a state where arts funding has historically fluctuated in the schools, Droessler developed a way to better insulate the arts against the whims of elected officials: by teaching teachers to integrate arts into core curricula including history, math, science, and social studies.

“If you have funding cuts, you can’t always have [arts] specialists in a school. This was a way around that, that still exposed students to the arts,” says Catherine Rodgers, a professor and theater program coordinator at Meredith. “It took a lot of calculation and work on her part to convince different institutions of higher education to incorporate that, but there are programs all over the state that are doing this now.”

“We learned you don’t have to be fabulous to be an artist,” says Heather Bower, head of Meredith’s education department. “All children—and all teachers—are artists. We just have to give them the tools.”

Among these achievements, Droessler found time to design lighting for a who’s who of regional theater companies including Manbites Dog Theater, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, and Raleigh Little Theatre, where she served on the board. “She really elevated people to their best selves,” says RLT artistic director Patrick Torres. “I looked to her as a mentor, who I could trust to give me her honest assessment, encouragement, and wisdom.”

Droessler also toured with Baba Chuck Davis and designed lights for Donald McKayle at the American Dance Festival and the legendary choreographer Pearl Primus at Kennedy Center in Washington.

“It’s really hard to talk about her not being around,” says Ragen Carlile, interim president for United Arts of Wake County where Droessler served on the board. “She had the ability to storm into a room full of fire—but, at the same time, children performing would bring her to tears. She exuded leadership in every way, but she was so easily moved by truth, onstage and in life. She was always unafraid to show that passion.”

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