No one knows exactly when yet. Perhaps it will be this fall, or maybe in early 2022. As more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations and the CDC relaxes its guidelines on gatherings, the time will come when Atlanta theater companies can open to audiences that feel secure enough to attend in person.
After a year in which the pandemic rendered most theaters nationwide dark, save for small events and streaming content, this moment will feel celebratory. Even then, however, Atlanta’s theater companies will have much with which to contend.
Financial issues will be of paramount importance to some; others will deal with new faces, spaces or revised missions. All, as we’ve learned in the past 12 months, will need to address issues of racial inequality.
First, some context. Metro Atlanta has more than 50 professional nonprofit theater companies, which means they pay their actors and designers, have some level of full-time staffing and are governed by a board of directors. This includes everyone from the Alliance Theatre (a $16 million budget in 2019–20 and a full-time staff of 85) to Out of Hand Theater Company (a $312,000 budget and a staff of six). In its last normal season, the Alliance produced 12 shows, mostly on its two Woodruff Arts Center stages; Out of Hand works at the intersection of art, social justice and civic engagement, specializing in periodic salon performances in private homes and its monthly Equitable Dinners series.
We talked to 13 individuals and nine companies for this report.
Show me the money?
Year after year, Georgia ranks among the bottom-feeders in public funding for the arts, most recently finishing 49th out of 50 states and spending 14 cents per person per year. For theater companies, that means finding enough money to operate is a constant challenge, one exacerbated by the pandemic shutdown. “The economic realities of more than a year without significant revenue streams has been devastating to all of the city’s cultural institutions,” says Susan V. Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre. “We are all at the bottom of a very steep hill — and will be rebuilding for several seasons to come.”
Out Front Theatre Company, closed except for virtual programming, has had issues paying the full rent on its 149-seat space in West Midtown. Artistic director Paul Conroy, who founded the LGBTQ+ company, says he working to secure a grant (or two) to help out.
“Smaller/newer/less-mainstream companies are the ones that will miss out on financial opportunities from both foundations and sponsors,” Conroy says. “These are companies that are challenging the status quo of what work is done and how it’s done, and very often they are focused on marginalized voices. Longstanding companies may adjust their missions and programming slightly, but overall it’s these struggling, newer companies that are creating and doing the hard work from their inception.”
The challenge for True Colors Theatre Company, says artistic director Jamil Jude, will be balancing accessibility (affordable tickets, a plum location in South Fulton) with revenue. Its business model, usually buoyed in part by corporate partnerships, has suffered during the pandemic.
“True Colors does not benefit in the same way as our White colleagues from individual donations,” says Jude, whose company employs 13 (five are part time) and an annual budget of $1.42 million. “In fact most Black arts organizations receive a large percentage less in individual contributions versus their government/corporate support. Since our ticket prices are fairly low for theaters of our scale, ticket sales alone won’t help us fill the gaps left by corporate funding loses — not even if all of our shows are box-office hits.”
Envisioning the future
For some companies, moving forward will undoubtedly look different. And some we’ve come to know may not survive.
The board of Stage Door Players in Dunwoody last fall furloughed longtime artistic director Robert Egizio, citing both financial constraints and COVID, in a move that drew loud and harsh criticism from Atlanta actors, designers and technicians as well as Stage Door patrons who vowed never to return.
The board kept managing director Debbie Fuse on staff and, earlier this year, began advertising for a new artistic director. Its website lists one only other staff member, education director Grace VandeWaa. The company declined to share its budget figures.
“I’ve experienced that Robert has put the organization in a good place to move it on to the next level and it was time — from what I understand — to make a change in order to achieve that,” says board chair Don Boykin, who’s been on the job for only a few weeks. An offer has been extended to one applicant, he says, and the eight-member board hopes to announce the new artistic director later this March.
Boykin says he’s optimistic that Stage Door, which dates to 1974, will still be able to attract area talent. That is far from a certainty, however. Many Atlanta theater professionals say Stage Door is Egizio, and vice versa.
Aurora Theatre, the second-largest professional theater company in Georgia and Gwinnett County’s only professional performing arts company, is in the midst of a $34 million expansion that will create the new 56,000-square-foot Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, a project that COVID and weather have delayed slightly although substantial completion is expected by June.
When done, the complex will include a 500-seat theater, a 150-seat cabaret space, indoor and outdoor civic spaces, space for educational programming and offices, rehearsal space and an outdoor courtyard for 200.
Cofounders and artistic leaders Anthony P. Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence say they can’t program for the new space until they can have audiences back in force. At the moment, the mandated capacity is 30 percent. In its last full season, Aurora staged 13 shows on two stages with an annual budget of $3.1 million.
Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills may face the sharpest challenge. Under artistic director Brian Clowdus, who founded the company in 2009, Serenbe achieved national recognition for its innovative outdoor productions. Shortly after he stepped down in late 2019, however, stories of racism at the playhouse surfaced, allegations that prompted a metro-wide debate about racial equality in the Atlanta theater ecosphere.
A Serenbe Institute newsletter dated June 17, 2020, announced that the board of directors had temporarily “suspended all playhouse operations (including 2020 performances and productions), laid off the staff and planned to begin the work to rebuild a new, equitable, welcoming and diverse playhouse.”
Jennifer Bauer-Lyons, executive director of Serenbe Institute, which oversees the playhouse, says an announcement likely will come in April and that she’s not in a position to discuss details about Clowdus. She does say that Serenbe Institute is “humbly recommitting to produce programming that ignites courageous conversations and transcends barriers to human connection.” The company, she adds, has been “listening and will continue listening to artists and their experiences.”
Performer-educator Lilliangina Quiñones, one of those who went public with her negative experiences around Ragtime in 2019, says Serenbe has, indeed, listened to artists and created a task force in which artists, community leaders and an outside facilitator discussed the potential restructuring of the playhouse. After a few meetings, Serenbe developed a diversity and equity statement.
In 2018, the last full year Clowdus was artistic director, the playhouse did four shows (three were musicals) for audiences that totaled 35,000 on a $1.4 million budget.
The elephant in the room
Lisa Adler, Horizon Theatre cofounder and producing artistic director, calls Atlanta theaters’ move to an anti-racist reality “the elephant in the room,” one that audiences may not fully realize yet. “It’s impacted the theater community really deeply not only in Atlanta but across the country and everybody is taking it very seriously,” she says.
“I honestly think that is going to be one of the biggest things affecting moving forward. People are looking at predominantly White institutions now. We have a diverse staff, but we are [predominantly White]. Even though we’ve had a lot of diversity on our stage, that is not far enough to be truly anti-racist. That’s what we’ve been spending a lot of time over the pandemic dealing with, looking at it and creating a plan. It’s more than what’s onstage. It’s every area. How we relate to our audience? Who is in our audience? Who is on staff? How we interrelate.”
A watershed moment occurred in February 2020 when actors Cynthia D. Barker, Rob Cleveland, Lee Osorio, J.L. Reed, Diany Rodriguez, Terry Smith and Minka Wiltz — and 200-plus actors, artists and administrators — watched a play that grew from curated experiences about racial issues in Atlanta theater. The performance was part of Out of Hand Theater’s ongoing Equitable Dinners series, recently named to The New York Times’ Top 10 list of the best theater in 2020, the only non-New York company to make the cut.
As part of his research, Reed dug into company websites and schedules to see how many professional and semiprofessional productions took place in the 2019 calendar year. Of the 187 that did, 22 — or 12 percent — were written by people of color. “The reason we used that as a metric,” says Reed, “is that it is one thing to use bodies of color to tell stories written by White playwrights, but it means more to create space for writers of color to tell their own stories. Diverse casting is a step forward, but equitable season programming is the goal.”
“That data was the most talked about part of the play,” says Osorio, an Out of Hand artist in residence. Soon after, he, Barker, Reed and Rodriguez formed the Coalition for Racial Equity in Atlanta Theatre, designed to find ways to create a more equitable theater culture.
In June, CREAT and the likeminded I.D.E.A. ATL sponsored a virtual three-night Town Hall for Racial Reckoning attended by leaders from more than 50 Atlanta companies. Their job was to listen to artists willing to share personal experiences ranging from ignorance to microaggressions to blatant racism.
“We wanted to create a space that didn’t perpetuate any more harm,” says Reed.
On the first two nights, artists were invited to share grievances, Reed says. The third was to be a night of healing for the more than 750 artists who took part.
Quiñones, who helped facilitate the town hall, says it was held to provide a forum for a reckoning and to be a springboard for difficult discussions the Atlanta theater community needed to have.
“It was an eye-opening event and game-changer for sure,” says artist-administrator Charles Swint. “It woke me from a slumber of complacency. To hear the hurt of fellow artists was a punch in the gut.”
Since the town hall, he’s been working as a facilitator with Out of Hand’s Equitable Dinners to continue the conversation. “The work they are doing is so important to the understanding and healing of a broken system. Together we are working to create safe spaces to heal both sides of this discussion. The more space we give to hidden voices, the more our community can thrive.”
Some participants found the moment powerful, but we still don’t know what concrete changes it might bring. “Following the town hall, people in charge put out statements, started the work of putting out action plans, and we’re seeing how all of this is bearing out,” Reed says.
Toward a more equitable future
Osorio says he’s seen more inclusive spaces created and says that theaters producing virtual content have been more aligned with Atlanta’s diverse population. “Almost every theater I see has had more inclusive and equitable programming over the past year,” he says. “If you look at the digital work presented by the Alliance, Aurora, Theatrical Outfit, Horizon, Actor’s Express and Synchronicity, I think you’ll find that across the board the playwrights they’re producing and their casting choices are much more representative of metro Atlanta. I hope that trend continues and grows as we move into producing in person and that theaters will continue to invest in stories that match the demographics of the region.”
CREAT is pioneering a rating system to gauge what theaters have done and plan to do to diversify programming, administrative and production staffs, boards and policies.
Every organization will approach equity differently, says Adler, who has an annual budget of $1.4 million and a staff of eight. Nationwide she sees artistic leaders trying to figure out how to empower Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other artists/audiences of color and to include transgender and LGBTQ voices as well.
“Anti-racism,” she says, “extends beyond race.”
Marguerite Hannah, who’s been with Horizon for 15 years, was promoted to associate artistic producer in February and is charged with leading the company’s renewed focus on equitable programming. Her first initiative, the New Georgia Woman Project: Black Women Speak is tasked with creating four plays by Black women based on interviews with more than a hundred people. Staged readings are expected in the fall.
“It’s about how we come together as a community, recognize the mistakes we’ve made in the past and move forward, knowing that there are things we’ll have to do and adjustments we’ll have to make for staff and everyone that comes into the theater,” says Aurora’s Rodriguez, the only Latinx artistic director in metro Atlanta. “We also want to reflect the community with any new hires.”
Synchronicity Theatre, whose mission includes uplifting diverse voices, will embark on Phase 2 of its Designers of Color initiative, working with high schools, colleges, and professional theaters and artists to broaden the racial landscape for designers and technicians.
The Midtown company has created a Healthy Culture Committee — a blend of artists, staff and board members, says cofounder and producing artistic director Rachel May.
“This charge of ensuring that our organization looks like our city is definitely one we continue to explore,” May says of the company, which has an annual budget of $830,000 and a staff of eight. “We are focusing on all aspects of our organizational culture, not only who is in the room, but how we are in the room together.”
True Color’s Jude knows precisely how Atlanta artistic leaders can improve their numbers: Produce more plays by writers of color.
“Everything we’ve seen over the last 12 months has shown us the power of representation,” Jude says. “I have no concern on if we’ll see the change in the immediate future. I’m more interested in seeing how long we sustain the new expectation for equity. What will Atlanta theater look like in 2024? Will we have improved on where we expect to be when things open up in 2021?”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES: