Johnny Drago has been a playwright and theatre maker in Atlanta for the past 12 years. His CV spans a wide swath of the Atlanta arts scene — pieces for the High, City of Atlanta, 7 Stages, Legendary Children, Dashboard — Drago has done it all as a playwright in Atlanta. His partner Erik Thurmond is a dancer for Core Dance, and traveled the world honing his kinesthetic voice before returning home to Atlanta. This month, they will bid Atlanta adieu and land in the Big Apple to make it big as experimental artists. Before they left for New York, ArtsATL sat down with the pair for an “exit interview.” We wanted to know what Atlanta had given them, and what was enticing them to leave.
ArtsATL: What is it about New York City that has convinced you to move?
Erik Thurmond: What I’m excited about in New York is being able to see more art: visual art, opera, dance. There’s going to be a lot more of everything which really excites me for inspiration and exposure.
Johnny Drago: I’ve never lived in New York before. Erik has. I had spent a lot of time and energy saying my life is in Atlanta, my work is in Atlanta and my friends are in Atlanta. New York is too hard. New York is too cruel. New York is too cold. But the more we tried together to wrap our brains around what would be next for us, we realized New York is it.
ArtsATL: Does where you are in your career affect your choice to move to New York?
Thurmond: The first time I was in New York I received incredible training and exposure to things, but I could not find the focus and drive there to create work myself. I couldn’t find the space or time. That’s what I’ve been able to find here in Atlanta. The first dance I made out of high school as a choreographer was here in Atlanta. Since then it’s multiplied. I’m thankful to have done that portion of my career here. But now that I feel more secure in myself as a choreographer, I feel like I can create work in New York. The mentorships I can find there and the institutions that can support my work and the audiences and the dancers I can work with. It’s going to be a really exciting opportunity to drop into New York from where I’m at in my career, as opposed to being fresh out of school.
ArtsATL: Johnny, do you think New York is a necessary step in your career?
Drago: It has taken me a very long time to get very good at what I do. Now I’m at a level where I can hit the ground running. The longer I’ve written the more experimental my work has become, and I feel like that is not the type of work that gets produced in Atlanta. In New York I can see the kind of work that I do. I can meet people who make similar work. Getting familiar with institutions that make this kind of work, that we don’t have here.
ArtsATL: What has Atlanta given y’all?
Drago: Endless opportunities to experiment. To make mistakes. To find creative fellowship and community.
Thurmond: I found so much space in Atlanta … literally space to be working and performing in. I became very grounded in Atlanta with all the trees and natural space. I’ve worked with incredible dancers and artists. I’ve built my resume as a professional dancer. I got almost all of my professional credit here through Core.
ArtsATL: What are the limitations Atlanta has posed to you?
Drago: The critical aspect is missing.
Thurmond: Atlanta doesn’t have a theater that is equipped for contemporary dance. In the way that it can constantly be showing dance in a successful, well-polished way. That’s a bummer for some. Johnny describes Atlanta like the Wild Wild West. My first studio space was the Druid Hills Baptist Church. That completely shifted the personality of my work, but something more beautiful emerged. The restraints help me solve problems and let these really cool things emerge.
ArtsATL: What are you going to miss about Atlanta?
Drago: The greenery.
Thurmond: The trees.
ArtsATL: What advice do you have for Atlanta?
Drago: The institutional model tends to have an attitude of “don’t change anything. Don’t do anything different. We have to push forward doing this same thing again and again. I don’t think that’s how art works. It’s not how theater works. What we are seeing now in the theater community is lots of younger people bubbling up and doing interesting things outside of the institutional model. To me, that’s gold. They are onto something new. That’s what this town needs really badly, especially in the theater.
Thurmond: My biggest advice is not to wait for opportunity, but to create it yourself. Specifically I think dancers can have this attitude of waiting for work. Waiting for a choreographer to approach them. Waiting for the right hand to shake. There’s something really liberating about deciding to make your own work. In Atlanta you will find people to give you a full round of applause.
ArtsATL: Any specific projects coming up?
Drago: I have some things going on in the next few months. I’ll be back here in Atlanta in the next few months for Designing Women Live. It’s at the Process Theatre at Onstage Atlanta. I have a play opening in Geneva, New York. Another play opening in Chicago. A reading scheduled for New York. We’re also looking at the kind of work we’ll make together as our joint dance/theater company.
Thurmond: My goal is to have something premiere around June. We have this piece we are working on together. I’ve had the opportunities to attend rehearsals with several choreographers I admire, so I’ll have that training going on. I’ll also be traveling to Israel with Core performing with them.
ArtsATL: Any last words?
Thurmond: Thank you to everyone in Atlanta who believed in us and supported us and came to our shows.
Drago: Yeah, so much kindness — thank you.