For any artistic director, a programming decision brings with it all sorts of variables to weigh and consider — getting the rights to stage the show; casting and juggling actors and their schedules; determining how best to market the piece.
When it comes to making choices for an upcoming season, Brian Clowdus, artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse, has to contend with all of the usual situations as well as what he calls “environmental issues.” His productions are all staged outdoors, which bring extra wrinkles to the producing forefront.
Clowdus’ acclaimed troupe is approaching its sixth season of tackling open-air versions of work such as Oklahoma!, Hair, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For him, programming choices boil down to two factors — location and material. “Sometimes there is a location I want to use in Serenbe,” he says. “It may be theatrical — there may be something special about the environment — and I will use a piece to fit that location. A great example of that was Hair a couple of years ago. I found the wildflower meadow first — I was connected to it — and it reminded me of Woodstock. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we could do Hair out here and re-create Woodstock.’”
With other productions, the material speaks to him and he figures out where to stage it. That was the case with the recent Oklahoma! and the The Snow Queen, a world premiere by Rachel Teagle based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale staged at Serenbe’s Swann Ridge.
The most complicated and challenging productions for Clowdus were during the first few seasons. “We were figuring it out as we went along,” he says. “Whenever we go into a show, it’s not just a new show, it’s a new theater. We are literally creating a theater from the ground up. The world is created by that environment, starting with the first question — Where can we get power? Where can we put lights? Where can we put speakers and the audience? It’s a new event every time. We have to have a perfect location before we go into rehearsals.”
Born in Alabama, Clowdus got his undergraduate degree in theater and dance from Amherst College in Massachusetts before moving to New York to become an actor. He was there for almost five years before deciding to move back to the South. “What brought me back was getting my MFA at the University of South Carolina,” he says. “I visited Serenbe the summer before I went to grad school. For me, I am a big follower of my gut. I had this weird gut feeling from the moment I stepped on Serenbe. I sent them a blind email — not telling a soul — introducing myself, telling them I was looking for a theater company.”
Serenbe reps agreed to meet with him, later asked for a business proposal, and soon the new company was approved. Serenbe Playhouse was founded in 2009, with the first season in 2010. Clowdus produced the first two years while he was still in graduate school, driving back and forth from South Carolina.
It wasn’t what he originally envisioned doing, but he realized it was a professional fit. “I got both of my degrees in acting and I never really looked at becoming a director, but the property was there and now people look at me as a director opposed to an actor,” he says. “I love it.”
Clowdus knew Atlanta was theater-heavy and specifically wanted a company with its own environment. “I said to myself, there are so many successful theaters in Atlanta,” he says. “I want to be in a location that is different. Serenbe is outdoors. I attribute our location as a selling point. You can’t find Serenbe backdrops in Atlanta. You have to get out of the city.”
What some don’t realize, though, is that the outdoor component of Serenbe Playhouse was unscripted. “I would love to say it was part of my plan the entire time,” he says. “We produced the first season outdoors out of necessity because there wasn’t any indoor venue here. Then that was what everyone was talking about.”
Producing outdoors may always be a challenge, but it’s not as nerve-racking as it used to be. “What used to stress me out in the first seasons were things I cannot control, like the environment,” he says. “Most directors are control freaks, but you have to let it go. I cannot control the weather. Now I do not even look at the forecast. I go into every performance thinking it’s going to be perfect weather and it’s not going to rain. [If it rains it] becomes the stage manager’s control.”
The Serenbe team does everything in its power not to cancel a performance. A plan B is always in place just in case. “We give audiences options,” he says. “We will hold the curtain for 30 minutes. One night during Oklahoma! it was not going to stop raining. I was on site. We gave the audience an opportunity to come sit in the barn with the orchestra and see a concert version of Oklahoma! Everyone wanted to stay and see it. They loved it, got an experience no one else had and then they came back and saw the full production.”
Not every artist, however, has what it takes to work in the outdoors. “There are designers and actors who flourish in this environment and there are actors who need to be inside that I will never work with again,” he laughs. “The environment attracts a certain type of artist. There are certain people I cast over and over. They get it. But any diva is going to become more of a diva in this type of uncontrolled environment. They are used to air-conditioning and being treated like an ac-tor, but that is not possible when you are doing a show in a barn. Others say there is nothing like looking up at stars you don’t have to imagine.”
While Serenbe Playhouse has found a niche with its outdoor, immersive theater, it’s also developed a reputation for staging creative, high-quality work — and taking chances.
The kind of work Clowdus stages is event theater, something he has always been passionate about and thinks contemporary audiences are drawn to. “We are creating theater that is not your typical theater,” he says. “We are seeing an audience that doesn’t go to theater. They are looking for an event, something that breaks down the wall. You have to hold onto the audience you have, but you have to be in audience development as well. A new young crowd is looking for an experience.”
Next season Clowdus will stage a musical that seems right up Serenbe’s wheelhouse — Man of La Mancha — and one that doesn’t seem the likeliest choice, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita.
“I have always been into her story, her transformation,” Clowdus says. “We have found an incredible location. It feels like an Argentinian village. You will walk through an Argentinian wooded area to arrive to the set.” This will be the first outdoor version of Evita, yet it wasn’t easy to acquire. “Any time there is a national tour it’s hard to get the rights,” he says. “I really fought to get the show.”
But an earlier battle to acquire Oklahoma! paid a dividend in the quest to land Evita. “There was concern from a high level at Rodgers & Hammerstein that we were going to take Oklahoma! in a too dark or too sexy way, and there were some frightening conversations that happened before opening.” Ironically, Rodgers & Hammerstein holds the rights to Evita as well, and they eventually okayed it for Serenbe.
Working with Rodgers & Hammerstein on Oklahoma!, and making it successful, made it easier to snag Evita and to get permission to do an outdoor version. “It definitely gave me a good talking relationship with them,” he says. “We got so much national press off of Oklahoma! that we were on their radar. Those first productions after the [Evita] national tour, I think they wanted to be in key places where they could get national press off of it.”
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is also in next year’s repertoire. Clowdus’ take will be “stripped down and sexy,” staged on a new location on recycled shipping containers.
Although Clowdus has a bucket list of shows he’d like to produce, there are some he concedes will never make sense outside. Yet just as he’s spent much energy making his programming vital and unique, he has worked hard to market Serenbe and make it stand out in a crowded theater community.
“It’s been a hell of a lot of work,” he says. “I do think as a young company, we have to fill a niche that isn’t already being filled around in the community.”
He has also learned to not compare himself to other theater companies. “I focus on how Serenbe can be better and build on what we are doing,” he says. “Comparing yourselves to others can be toxic. I am looking at how we can be competitive with what we’ve done. We have to ask, Why are people going to drive 40 minutes from Midtown to come to Serenbe? Because what we are doing is being done in a unique environment, and it’s being done in a way that is not being done anywhere else.”
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Funding for this series is provided by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.