Instilling Excellence at GSA

  • By:  Amy Walton

Deborah Thorpe has been a passionate advocate for the Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA) since its initial pilot program in 1984. Today, Deborah, who’s now assistant director and founda-tion director for the school, is even more excited about how GSA is helping students achieve their dreams. Tidewater Women recently sat down with Deborah to talk about GSA’s programs.

TW: Tell us a little about your role in GSA’s creation.

DT: I was a dance instructor at Old Dominion University when Louise Lowenthal [an art teacher largely credited with founding GSA] asked me to serve on a steering committee for this regional high school for the arts. I was part of a group that developed the first pilot program at ODU, and I ran the dance program.

TW: GSA has experienced tremendous growth since it officially opened its doors in 1987. What caused this growth?

DT: Well, a few things. We went full-time in 1987, but we were scattered all around in different spaces. We finally got our own facility in 2014, so the space has definitely contributed to our growth.

The dedication of our staff is huge, too. They have a really unique rapport with the students, and teachers are called by their first names. None of this growth would have happened without our Executive Director, Dr. Andrea Warren. She worked with our governing board—eight regional school system superintendents—to present the need for a dedicated facility. The City of Norfolk wanted to renovate the historic Monroe Building on Granby Street, and as it turned out, we were the perfect tenant.

TW: Speaking of Dr. Warren, her daughter Adrienne, a GSA alumnus, became the first graduate to earn a Tony nomination for her recent role in “Shuffle Along,” and she’ll star as soul-rock legend Tina Turner in “Tina,” which opens this spring in London. Do you recall any special memories of Adrienne as a student?

DT: Well, first, we’re very proud of all our alumni, including Adrienne. She demonstrated an absolutely supreme work ethic from the moment she entered the school. She was very focused and knew what she wanted. She sort of raised the bar.

TW: Let’s talk about raising the bar. GSA’s mission includes developing excellence. How do you instill excellence in your students?

DT: Our students are given an opportunity to excel in a unique program, based on a college curriculum. They’re given the freedom and the opportunity to follow through on a plan. They’re also given a lot of responsibility and are treated like young professionals. Students are expected to rise to that and to also engage in community service.

TW: The students pay no tuition. Admission is competitive, and you turn away hundreds of qualified students each year. How will the Next Stage Expansion Campaign—with its $6.25M goal—create opportunities for more students?

DT: It will allow us to offer more space. The campaign will help expand our facility by 18,000 square feet, and we’ll hire more faculty. Hence, more students can be admitted.

TW: GSA celebrates its 30th anniversary on March 24 with a gala at The Main in Norfolk. What’s in store for attendees?

DT: Oh, thank you for asking about this. We’re having a party! The staff wanted a big party, so we’re having a benefit gala—black tie optional—that will feature silent and live auctions and live performances by students and alumni. We’re so proud of all our alumni.

TW: You’re a dancer with degrees in dance education. You’ve performed modern dance with regional dance companies, and you chaired the Governor’s School’s dance department for 26 years. Do you still dance?

DT: I dance in the living room (laughs).

TW: Ever dance when no one’s looking?

DT: Yes!

TW: What do you love about dance?

DT: Oh, gosh. I love to move. I think the human form is so expressive. I started out as a competitive ice skater, and when I went to high school, I switched from skating to dancing. I also love yoga. It’s my main form of exercise these days.

TW: What else do you enjoy doing in your free time? Do you have free time?

DT: (Laughs) I love going to movies with my husband. I just love the Big Screen, especially murder mysteries. My deepest love, though, is live theater, and we attend a lot of performances.

TW: Deborah, why is an investment in young artists a good investment?

DT: They are our future. They are out-of-the box thinkers. We’re sending out high-level thinkers, creative thinkers through a creative process. Our physical building even nurtures this, as there’s not a cinderblock to be found!

TW: Do you look forward to going to work each day?

DT: I truly look forward to going to work everyday. I enjoy walking through the halls, peeking into the classrooms, talking to students. It’s “organized chaos,” and I love this! 

For more information about the Governor’s School for the Arts’ 30th Anniversary Gala on March 24, 2018, please visit or call 757-451-4711. Sponsorships are welcome!

Amy Walton is a multi-certified women’s life coach, speaker, and writer who empowers women to live with balance, joy, and purpose. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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