Our 20 by 2020 series attempts to profile 20 theater artists, administrators and innovators by the end of the year. All are shaking up the city’s stages. This is no. 16. To see the others, search “20 by 2020” from the homepage.
The best theater directors are everyday gods who can make the impossible happen in a handful of weeks.
They start with someone else’s words and envision that story’s entire world, its magic and its characters. Then they collaborate with others who help them build that world and fill it with light and color. They guide performers discovering how to embody the story’s characters. They fit that endless, gigantic world and all its characters into a small, consumable space. Then they invite you there and guide you through it, introducing you to what you need to see and who you need to know.
Most importantly, theater directors guide you through how to feel about everything in the story and its world so that its message hits you in just the right way.
Director Ibi Owolabi loves the moment when everything comes together.
“What drew me to theater is the fact that you travel so many places and are so many people,” she says. “As a director, you work and merge people into these different lives they’ve never lived. So I feel like you live a thousand lives when you’re in the theater.”
To Owolabi, the appeal of directing is connecting her audiences and actors to the beating heart within even the weirdest of stories. From her first full production as director — the Weird Sisters Theatre Project drama The Electric Baby (2018) — to the sci-fi thriller The Nether, recently seen at Theater Emory, Owolabi works to show the emotional drive behind a piece.
“I’m a fan of plays that use unconventional ways to express human connection,” she says. “A big thing in Electric Baby was that there’s so much weird stuff going on, but people still knew how they felt about what was happening. There was never any doubt that the audience knew they were connecting to something, even if the words and situations had magical realism going on. They still had this human heart connection with what people were going through onstage. Even if they have a magical, glowing neon baby, you know that there’s a story of loss and heartbreak and things that we all have experienced.”
The Weird Sisters Theatre Project, which creates theater by women for everyone, recently named its third and newest team of five producers. Owolabi is one of them. She’ll help produce shows for the next two years.
“They were the first people to give me a full production,” she says. “At the time, I had a bunch of assisting credits. They didn’t make me do labs. They didn’t make me assist 50 people first. They just took a chance on me.”
She wants to take that leap of faith with other young directors.
Owolabi, 26, grew up in Kennesaw to Dominican and Nigerian immigrants. She now lives in East Point with her mother, younger siblings and two dogs. Growing up in such a conservative, white area led her to “a lot of internalized anti-blackness” and trying to make herself into the model minority. She wants her work, as a result, to be diverse, multicultural and political.
“I always knew that I loved being black,” she says. “After college, I was really able to get so much more of my culture into what I do, what I work for and what I’m so passionate about.”
She likes the inclusive feel of new plays and open-minded casting processes that diversify in terms of race, body size and ability. Working with actors to help them build their characters is her favorite challenge. “Directing is my passion. I want everybody to feel satisfied and fulfilled by the work. I ask my actors a lot of questions in the room for the purpose of breaking the play down piece by piece. Then, we build this new version.”
To make sure her actors connect deeply with their characters, Owolabi gives them a safe space in which to make their own choices, ask questions and take risks. Although only in her mid-20s, she has an extensive professional resumé. She began directing as a student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Through Georgia Southern, she took a piece to the Kennedy Center College Theatre Festival in 2014 and won.
She participated in a yearlong directing internship at Actor’s Express in 2016, working with artistic director Freddie Ashley and company. She then received the Alliance Theatre’s Kenny Leon Fellowship and assistant-directed Hand to God (2017), where she met actor-writer Jake Krakovsky, with whom she’s developing a project through the Alliance’s Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab with the working title Honors US History. So far this season, Owolabi has assistant-directed 7 Stages’ updated Angry Fags and True Colors Theatre Company’s Paradise Blue.
In February, she’s directing a Texas tour of a piece titled Here Comes the Sun, and in March, she’ll assistant-direct 53% Of at the Alliance. She also works in film.
She likes that her Atlanta reputation includes the weird.