Maestro! UNO Alumnus Wins National Award for Community Theater in Jefferson Parish

University of New Orleans alumnus Dennis Assaf was honored last month with a Distinguished Merit Award from the American Association of Community Theatre for his work with Jefferson Performing Arts Society.

Assaf, who received a Master of Music degree in Conducting from UNO, founded the nonprofit arts and theater organization more than 30 years ago and now serves as executive director, artistic director and conductor. Under his leadership, Jefferson Parish will soon have its own performing arts center.

"We have grown to become Louisiana’s largest producer of theatre, This past season we did 18 different productions representing more than 200 performances in 12 theaters, eight cities, five parishes and two states," said Assaf, who has been honored as a distinguished alumnus of UNO’s College of Liberal Arts. "Many times this season we had more than one production performing in a different city on the same night. One time in March we had four different productions going on in the same night, four different facilities."

He was recognized on Saturday, July 14, at the AACT NYC Convention in New York City for his artistic vision and leadership in creating and developing the organization, according to the Times-Picayune.

Formed in 1978, the Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center is home to musical and community theatre, opera, ballet, symphony, dance and choral concerts. In keeping with its mission statement, the organization sponsors educational outreach programs for adults and children in music, dance and community theatre and has worked to be the catalyst for a new performing arts center in Jefferson Parish.

Over the last 35 years, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society has grown into a regional theater company that last year booked more than 200 performances in the Gulf South region.

Key outreach programs include the well-known Theatre Kids!, Arts Adventure Series, Theatre for Young Audience, Cultural Crossroads and Theatre for Young Audiences. More than 12,000 area children have participated.

The five-year-old Theatre for Young Audiences is a touring community theatre that has performed across South Louisiana and in Mississippi. Other JPSA performances are now held at East Jefferson High School in Metairie, the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre on the West Bank and other venues.

Assaf, who tours internationally as a conductor of symphony, ballet, musical theatre, and grand opera, made his Carnegie Hall debut in May 1993 and his European debut in 1998. Past travels have brought Assaf to perform in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt;  Aberdeen, Scotland; Rome, Florence, Lecco, and Bellano, Italy and Honolulu, Hawaii, among others. In November, he returns to Italy this November to conduct two operas for the Teatro Sociale in Trento, Italy.

Assaf was honored in 2008 by the Young Leadership Council as a “Role Model.”  Past awards also include The Gambit’s Big Easy Entertainment Awards for Best Classical Music Production (A Gala Evening with Frederica Von Stade,1996) and for Outstanding Achievement in 1994. He was named “One to Watch” by New Orleans Magazine in 1982 and 1994. JPAS and Assaf’s achievements have also been the subject of a national broadcast of Artsbreak on the Bravo Entertainment channel. Recently, Assaf received the 2010 Storer-Boone Lifetime Achievement Award.

Last year helped him to soar higher. The award-winning conductor and visionary arts leader secured a $15 million pledge from the state of Louisiana for the new Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center, now finally under construction on Airline Drive.

On Saturday, Assaf will be honored locally for his work with JPAS to build a performing arts center. He will receive a Civic Award Winner of the Year from the Alliance for Good Government. The Alliance presents the award to a resident from each of four parishes who has “gone above and beyond in contributing to the betterment of the parish/community,” according to award presenters. Assaf was elected for the honor in Jefferson Parish. He was voted in through secret ballot.

In September, the Arts Council of New Orleans will present The Jefferson Performing Arts Society with The Community Arts Award for the organization’s work in education in the arts.

“I’ve dedicated the last 35 years of my life to getting it built,” said Assaf, who has spent his professional career with JPAS pursuing construction of a performing arts theatre for Jefferson Parish. “I always had that dream.”

For more information about the nonprofit theater and arts group, visit the JPAS website.