Backstage with Youth Performers


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Many parents of artistically inclined children say their child's talent and motivation emerged early. The parents simply had to recognize the interest and provide access to instruction and performance opportunities. And they didn't have to leave the Triangle to nurture their children's blooming gifts. The area is home to a wealth of schools, studios and performing arts centers that train and showcase young performers.

Carolina Parent talked with three highly motivated, standout young performers and those who support them. Here are their stories.

The Ballerina

When Triangle parents take their children to Carolina Ballet's production of the The Nutcracker this holiday season, chances are the Clara they will "ooh" and "ahh" over is Ashley Burnett. Ashley, an 11-year-old from Raleigh, is now in her second year playing the coveted role and appears in about half the performances. (Two other young dancers share the role for the other half.)

Ashley was already a seasoned performer with three Nutcrackers under her belt when Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss plucked her from the ranks of the "Truffles" to be his Clara.

"Mr. Weiss saw something special in her," says Elizabeth Parker, Carolina Ballet's communications manager. "Ashley just exudes a sort of joie de vivre and has a tremendous amount of poise."

Ashley has taken roughly five hours a week of ballet and jazz dance instruction at Carolina Dance Center in Raleigh since she was 4, and she embraces the three-month commitment that performing in The Nutcracker requires. For her, the two best parts about being in the role are working with the "amazing" older dancers and seeing the awe on the faces of the youngest audience members.

"It just makes me feel good to see those adorable little kids looking up at us," Ashley says.

Ashley has performed in other Carolina Ballet productions, including The Tempest. She also will appear in the company's production of The Little Mermaid this spring.

"She's loved dancing from the beginning, and was always willing to do more, like fill in during another class's performance when they were missing a dancer," says Ashley's mother, Tammy Burnett. "Early on, her teachers identified her as being special."

Sure, Ashley might not go on as many sleepovers as other sixth-graders, and she needs to watch the French fries and ice cream to help stay fit. And yes, the family drives a lot and eats many hurried dinners. But they don't regret these sacrifices.

"One minute, your little ballerina is 4 with chubby legs tiptoeing on stage, and the next thing you know, she's a preteen pirouetting with the Carolina Ballet next to a principal dancer," Tammy Burnett says. "It's such an exciting and wonderful opportunity, and makes all the work worthwhile."

The Actor

Next time your child whines about having to wait while you get something done, tell him what happened to Akin Williams two years ago.

Akin, who was 9 at the time, was hanging out in a church in Apex while his mom, Kristina, rehearsed with a community band. In walked a man looking for adult extras to appear in a new local kid's show he was writing and directing. When he was about to leave, he happened to notice Akin and, as they say, the rest is history.

The man was Kevin R. McDermott, a well-known Hollywood child-acting coach with many filmmaking credits to his name. McDermott was in the area to write and direct The Rusty Bucket Kids, a live action show that takes its inspiration from a real general store in Apex called the Rusty Bucket. Created by a former actor and producer now living just outside of Apex, the show's first two episodes have aired locally.

"Casting is a strange and mysterious thing," McDermott says of "discovering" Akin. "I thought the camera would like him. It turns out he's just a natural even though he had no experience."

In the Rusty Bucket Kids, Akin is Myles, the foster son of Peak City's town manager. When the show is in production, Akin spends about four hours a week in rehearsals and filming.

Akin, now a sixth-grader at Lufkin Road Middle School, concedes that when he first took the part, he was a little nervous. Now, he says, "It's pretty fun. I get to meet a lot of different people. We have to be very bold and be nice to each other."

Acting wasn't on Akin's radar. Dance was, though. Akin had been with the Academy for the Performing Arts and has performed in several local shows and competitions. "Since he could walk, he would choreograph dance routines," his mother says.

McDermott feels that Akin has the acting chops to take his career to the next level, and his mother has been approached by several agents wanting to sign him. But nobody — not even Akin — is in a rush. "I don't want to throw him in this whole new area and have him miss being a kid," Williams says.

The Musician

After taking chorus, Sam Sparrow discovered he didn't much like singing, so he signed up for the only other arts elective his school offered fifth-graders: band. Six years later, Sam is a principal clarinetist with the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, the most elite of three musical groups for young people run by the Philharmonic Association. Sam, 16, lives in Durham and is a junior at North Raleigh Christian Academy.

"He honked like a goose for a while," says Sam's mother, Margie Sparrow, of his early days with the instrument. "But we never had to ask him to practice."

When Sam was in sixth grade, he decided, on a whim, to audition for the Durham Youth Orchestra. He made it, which was when both he and his parents realized he was really talented. Soon came private lessons with instructor Jimmy Gilmore and winning a place on the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

"There are times when a young musician stands out, and every time Sam plays I feel he has a special talent," says Hugh Partridge, artistic director and conductor of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

To achieve at a really high level in classical music, performers need to make lots of sacrifices, Partridge asserts.

So far, Sam has been up to the challenge, practicing up to an hour on his own each day, taking lessons with Gilmore once a week, and making it to the Philharmonic's weekly two-hour rehearsals for at least two concerts a year. Oh, and he also plays in his school's three musical groups and for his church's orchestra.

"I see myself going to a music conservancy like Juilliard or Oberlin and playing clarinet professionally," Sam says.

But even if he never performs professionally, Margie Sparrow is glad her son is serious about music.

"We need amateur musicians for lots of things, like live church orchestras," she says. "Otherwise we'll all go to recorded music."

Positive Support for Aspiring Performers

You've heard stories of the so-called "stage moms," those ruthless creatures who micromanage every aspect of their child's career and bulldoze past anything — or anybody —standing in their way.

While such parents are few and far between, it does takes a thick skin and plenty of determination to help young performers realize their gifts and manage their hectic lives.

Here are some tips on being an effective advocate for your budding young actor, singer, dancer or musician while staying sane:

  • Start at the top. If your child shows early promise with an instrument at school, "research the teachers of that instrument and take them to the very best teacher you can find," says Hugh Partridge, artistic director and conductor of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic. "And get them appropriate equipment that will support their goals. Plus, don't encourage them to spread themselves thin by playing in too many groups."
  • Listen to your child. Frequently check in with your child to make sure he or she is still committed to the discipline. "If they're losing their passion, find out if there's another direction they might want to go in or whether they may want to take a break," says Margie Sparrow, whose son, Sam, plays clarinet in the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.
  • Take advantage of summer workshops. Kids can devote more undivided attention to their discipline when they're away from the pressures of school and homework.
  • Spend your time wisely. Tammy Burnett, whose daughter, Ashley, is an elite ballerina, sings the praises of laptops. "When you're waiting around for hours for rehearsals, you can get work done — and avoid the 'backstage' gossip and shopping to fill the time."
  • Focus on the process, not the payoff. Given the odds of becoming the next Hollywood superstar, encourage children to love the work itself. As Kevin R. McDermott, writer and director of The Rusty Bucket Kids Show, puts it, "Performing should be a wonderfully fun experience. It's not about being a professional in a professional production; it means giving these kids an experience in the acting arena, helping them build the love of the craft."

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December 2019

Wear your favorite holiday attire and dine with Santa Claus. Enjoy a delicious brunch, stories and crafts, and take pictures with the jolly man from the North Pole. 

Cost: $10/child. Free for ages 2 and younger

Where:
Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Girls ages 5-12 take their favorite doll and have a creative time together preparing for the holidays. Register by emailing llpolkhouse2@gmail.com.

Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

Where:
Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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See dancers and a guitarist from Flamenco Carolina perform a Spanish style of music and dance.

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits, but what about the next Christmas? With heartwarming excitement, discover how the Cratchit family has fared in the year that has passed since old...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The Durham Medical Orchestra performs with special guest Joseph Alessi, principal trombone, New York Philharmonic.

Cost: Free

Where:
Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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As a Christmas gift to our community and surrounding area, Wake Forest Presbyterian Church delivers the true Christmas story in a stirring virtual “walk” through Bethlehem to the stable...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
Telephone: 919-556-7777
Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Fun for the entire family, enjoy this wonderful, witty retelling of a classic fairy-tale. With a score consisting of well-known pop songs, follow Snow White and her Seven Dwarves as they try to...

Cost: $10-$60/person

Where:
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone: 919-996-8700
Contact Name: Blake Jones
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The choir presents its 49th performance on Handel's "Messiah."

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27513
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The first day of winter is right around the corner! Help us welcome the season by making a snow globe to take home. We will bring the materials if you bring the imagination! For all ages (adult...

Cost: For all ages (adult accompaniment required for all children); FREE. Registration

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Children will enjoy this wonderful book written by John Denver reminding us not to forget about the wildlife this holiday season. We will make a craft then take a walk to look for our wildlife...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Join RTOOT as it performs the music of great Italian composers as well as beloved Christmas classics. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $9/adult, $3 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Dan the Animal Man brings some of his animals from his vast collection to entertain all ages. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Help find candy canes hidden in Bond Park before the Grinch turns them green. Ages 6-12. Registration required online. Choose course #127871. 

Cost: $10/child

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get into the holiday spirit by decorating cooking, making a craft and enjoying a holiday children's show.

Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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The Wake Forest Abilities Choir will present an evening of holiday music under the direction of director.

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Celebrate pecans at the State Farmers Market.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Join us to learn about how Habitat for Humanity helps build houses, hear a Christmas tale and then build a graham cracker house of your own. Call to, 919-245-2532. Best for ages 4 and up with a...

Cost: free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Is there a man in the moon, and is the moon made of cheese? Sip on some hot cocoa and listen to some of the stories people have told about the moon and find out if there is truth to them. Then...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone, and adult accompanime

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Discover family traditions from North Carolina and around the globe. Create art, enjoy free access to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, and have a special visit with Santa.

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Bundle up and enjoy an evening around the campfire learning about creatures of the night and listen to Native American tales about some of our favorite nocturnal animals. Roast marshmallows and go...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Kids ages 5-12 enjoy indoor activities while parents enjoy a night out. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Wear white clothing and play games, tumble and dance. Enjoy pizza, drinks and more. Ages 5-10. Registration required online. Choose course #127487.

Cost: $18/child; $28 for two children per family

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Friday, December 13, 6:00pm, at both the Millbrook and Wake Forest Campuses. Put on your Christmas jammies, grab a blanket and come out for a  festive night to watch the classic animated...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
Contact Name: Lorraine Entwisle
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Have some fun and make something great at the Clay studio (and parents can sneak away and grab a bite or do some shopping at Northgate Mall). Each kid will complete and paint a piece of pottery...

Cost: $18 per child per workshop

Where:
1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Telephone: 919-560-2726
Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Sing along with the band as they perform holiday favorites of Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and more. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Celebrate the love and joy that this season brings by creating art inspired by a Christmas tree. Register online. Choose course #126761.

Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
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Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m....

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
View map »


Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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