Brian Clowdus, the charismatic and risk-taking founding artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse, is leaving the company he created 10 years ago. In a public statement on Facebook this morning, he announced that he’ll focus full time on his surging company, Brian Clowdus Experiences. Clowdus confirmed his departure to ArtsATL two days ago.
This decision to leave the Palmetto-area playhouse has been on his mind for a while. “It’s probably been a two-year journey,” he said in an exclusive interview. “When things started exploding with Brian Clowdus Experiences, I tried to balance those ventures. With everything expanding this year, it became clear I could not do both.”
Serenbe Playhouse is a nonprofit; Brian Clowdus Experiences is a for-profit venture. “Brian Clowdus Experiences is work I am doing across the country. It’s the same kind of work I am doing at Serenbe, but I can do it on a larger scale. Ultimately, it came down to the number of people I can reach and that I can do this on a national level.”
The 2013 staging of “Hair” was a game-changer for Serenbe Playhouse, says founder Brian Clowdus. “We saw hundreds of people a night. It defined the mission of the playhouse and mine as an artist.” (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Clowdus will remain on the Serenbe board as artistic director emeritus and a consultant and is excited to see what the company does next. “Change is good for organizations,” he says. “It’s been an amazing growth year for me, and I’ve seen organizations where the founder stays on too long and the organization winds up suffering. I am excited to pass the torch on to the next chapter of Serenbe Playhouse.”
A search for a successor has begun, although the board and staff have decided they will proceed without an artistic director for a year and not rush the decision to name Clowdus’ successor.
Clowdus, 38, chose Serenbe’s 2020 season knowing it would be one of transition. He wanted titles that embrace life changes and new life chapters. The season will open this spring with the musical Spring Awakening and will include summertime stagings of the Robert Harling drama Steel Magnolias and the musical Kinky Boots. “Those are three huge-name titles that will be reinvented,” Clowdus says, “titles that don’t come to mind as outdoor environments.” Guest directors will be hired.
This holiday season, Serenbe is staging the family musical Narnia, based on C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Performances run December 6–January 5. Clowdus is not directing.
New experiences await
Clowdus, who grew up in Hokes Bluff, Alabama, and spent post-college time in the Northeast, bought a house in Newnan last year and, at the time, was delighted. Yet, work has kept him away from it and reinforced his belief that he can be mobile.
“I am selling my house,” he says. “I have not been there in over three months. I am living this entrepreneur life and going where the shows find me. I am loving the Airbnb life — going to a state, staying there a month, mounting a show and then moving on. I thought I wanted a house and these roots in Newnan. When I moved in, though, I became restless. For me, it was a wake-up moment. I think my car will be my home base.”
He started Brian Clowdus Experiences four years ago and says the work he’s gotten this year has come from companies reaching out to him. “I can’t even think of all I can do when 100 percent of my focus is on this company.”
In 2019 alone, Brian Clowdus Experiences has staged Mamma Mia! in Ohio, The Noccalula Experience in Alabama, The Sound of Music at Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort, four versions of The Sleepy Hollow Experience across the country and The Edgar Allan Poe Experience at Atlanta’s Wren’s Nest.
The road to Serenbe
Clowdus moved to New York in 2004 after receiving his B.A. in theater and dance at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and stayed there for five years. That’s when he moved to Atlanta and started the Playhouse, where, in a decade, he grew the budget from $40,000 to $2 million.
“I was in New York, and I hated the whole lifestyle,” he says. “I wanted to go to grad school in the South and be near my family. [My sister] BreeAnne and I visited Serenbe on a whim, and I got this strange feeling that I was connected to this place. It planted a seed, and I emailed them not knowing a soul, telling Serenbe I’d love to start a theater community there.”
Clowdus eventually heard from John Graham, executive director of the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment, and the two clicked. “I will always remember the way he took a gamble on me,” Clowdus says.
There was one hurdle, however. Serenbe had no theater and no room for one. Clowdus proposed doing work outdoors and began ordering books on opening a theater company. “My first goal was to try it outside, and, if it was successful, we’d build a playhouse in the square. It was never my goal to do site-specific theater, but it unfolded itself to me. “
The company began producing that year, with The Jungle Book as its first production. In those first few years, Clowdus was a full-time grad student at the University of South Carolina, working on his M.F.A. in acting much of the year and coming to Atlanta in the summer. He moved here full time in 2011.
A turning point for Serenbe Playhouse came in 2013 with the musical Hair, staged in an open field. It resonated with audiences and critics, and yielded national press. “It was a game-changer,” Clowdus says. “It was the moment — after four years of blood, sweat and tears — that we saw hundreds of people a night coming to see this show. It was the perfect material and location and time for the company. That was the show that defined the mission of the playhouse and mine as an artist. I hope that Serenbe can maintain forever that scrappy, throw-up-scaffolding-in-the-middle-of-a-field and work-with-what-you-have feel. That was what made the company magical.” Clowdus restaged Hair this past summer.
Buoyed by Hair’s original success, Clowdus turned his attention to such outdoor productions as Oklahoma! (2014) and Carousel (2016) — which included an actual carnival with games and rides. He then turned to two of the mightiest challenges he’s yet faced — Miss Saigon in 2016 and Titanic in 2018. For Miss Saigon, Clowdus used an era-appropriate helicopter in the pivotal “Fall of Saigon” scene each night. For Titanic, he and his team nightly sank a ship in a Serenbe lake.
He had the board’s support, but people did wonder how he was going to make his majestic concepts for both shows come to life. That gave him more incentive. “If you tell me I can’t do it, it lights a fire under me,” Clowdus says.
Serenbe became known for bigger-than-life, immersive musicals but also excelled in smaller-scale work. Besides Hair, Clowdus’ most personal show was Cabaret (2017). “Cabaret for me was — as an artist — a perfect moment in time. It was the ability to stage my favorite musical in a production I had been dreaming of my entire life — and playing the role of the Emcee and directing. It was also the perfect time in our country. We were doing it while people were marching in Charlottesville. It was incredibly moving.”
An Airbnb lifestyle
Being on his own, Clowdus says, will provide more freedom for him to make decisions and free him from fundraising and administrative duties. Already his 2020 schedule is filling up. He’ll return to Virginia’s Wintergreen for a December holiday show and two other as-yet-unspecified shows. He’ll stage Sleepy Hollow in New York again, and he plans a site-specific version of Heathers — set in a real school in Ohio. He also has a fall gig lined up in Sonoma County, California.
He’s receptive to directing elsewhere in Atlanta — “I am a hooker for work,” he says, laughing — but the idea of guest-directing a show isn’t appealing. “It’s not my end goal,” he says. “I don’t want to be in a room with producers. I want 100 percent control of my art. I would rather do less work that makes me bounce out of bed in the morning than have bosses.” He’s not opposed to acting again, either, with a bucket-list dream of a site-specific Rocky Horror Show playing Frank N. Furter.
This is an interesting moment in Atlanta theater, Clowdus acknowledges, with True Colors Theatre Company’s Kenny Leon moving on at the end of last season and Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key in his final season. Clowdus doesn’t see it as a sad time but as the opportunity for new creative blood. He’s still planning to have Atlanta in his life.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like I am leaving. My family is still here. It feels like Atlanta will now be one of my stomping homes, one of my many homes.”