When Tom Key was about four years old, his mother would answer the front door and find neighborhood kids with dimes lined up to see her son perform a show he’d written, directed, produced and was starring in in the backyard.
Nothing, and everything, has changed since then.
Key, now 69 and about to begin his 25th and final season as artistic director of Downtown’s Theatrical Outfit, plans to return to full-time writing, directing and acting. His successor will be named Friday on opening night of the Outfit’s Our Town, and the two will spend the next year together assuring a smooth transition at Atlanta’s second-oldest professional theater company.
It’s been quite a journey for the kid from Birmingham, one often shaded by the racism, injustice and violence he saw there in the 1950s and ’60s.
Key spent his 20s and early 30s as a freelance theater artist. He did a year as artistic director of the Birmingham Children’s Theatre. He did a year in New York. He got a degree in English from the University of Tennessee and spent a year teaching eighth-graders in Alabama. He returned to Tennessee for graduate school with three specific goals: to get a sense of where he was on the theater timeline, to learn about dramatic theory and to try writing and directing. He cowrote and toured with Cotton Patch Gospel.
On his first day in New York, he recalls, blushing with the memory, he visited the Times Square information booth to ask where actors auditioned. He was steered to Variety, which eventually sent him to Actor’s Equity. His first job came within two weeks (El Gallo in The Fantasticks at a New Jersey dinner theater).
By the end of 1985, Key was tired of the often-solo, itinerant lifestyle. He and wife Beverly were in their mid-30s with two sons and were trying to decide between giving New York another go or making a permanent home in Atlanta, where they’d spent a summer with Cotton Patch Gospel.
“I was really hungry to work with a company,” Key says, “and I wanted to get real comfortable in front of the camera, and I wanted to write something else. I had this image of New York as kind of like the state fair. You judge the prizewinning tomatoes there, but you don’t grow them in the soil of the midway.”
So Atlanta, it was. The Keys, now married 46 years, have three grown sons. Key became Theatrical Outfit’s artistic director in 1995. His first two shows: Phillip DePoy’s Appalachian Christmas Homecoming and Lost in the Cosmos, based on the Walker Percy book. One of his first decisions: to nearly triple what the Outfit paid artists. “I believed that was going to be the key to our success to be a major player.”
The beginning of the end
Three summers ago, Key and the Outfit board agreed he’d exit after the 2019–20 season. “I didn’t want to just quit,” Key says. “I wanted to finish, so [the theater] would be in great shape for a new person to take it on.” He asked himself: “What can I do to make sure it can evolve to the next step, to hand it over to people who can take it where I’m not going to be able to?”
That gave him an endgame, a focus and a finishing energy, he says. He concentrated on selecting the final season, a process that started with some 150 titles, was eventually winnowed to 30–40, then to 15–20 and finally to the last five or six.
And so, his final season begins with the ambitious pairing of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (Friday–September 29) and The Laramie Project (September 10–29) with 10 actors handling all the roles in two plays the Outfit calls “American classics.” Few would argue.
The Laramie Project, a 2000 piece of documentary theater, revisits the Wyoming town in which Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence post, beaten and left to die. Key recalled a New York Times review that compared the city of Laramie to Wilder’s Grover’s Corners. It opened a door for him.
“Either this is just too much, or maybe it’s a really good idea,” he recalls thinking. When he ran the concept past colleagues and friends, most responded with, “Oh. OHHHHH!”
“When you learn these new levels of cruelty,” Key, a man of deep faith, says of the events in Laramie, “it’s an adjustment to your life. It’s also an opportunity to learn new levels of grace and light.”
He knew early on that he wanted to do the sequel to Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, so holiday audiences this season will see what happens downstairs at the grand house, in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, also by playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
The season ends with Key’s well-known Cotton Patch Gospel (April 22–May 17, 2020) but not one Atlanta audiences have seen before. Key, who cowrote the piece with Russell Treyz and Harry Chapin (yes, that Harry Chapin), will be an ensemble member, not the lone cast member or even the lead character. To grousing about this change, he says, “Oh, really, a 69-year-old Jesus!?”
Three titles fill out the season: the drama Safety Net (October 16–November 10) by Atlanta playwright Daryl Fazio, which Key discovered as a judge for the Alliance Theatre’s Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab; the three-character comedy Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod (January 22–February 16); and Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-nominated Indecent (March 4–29, 2020).
“I really, really wanted to do Indecent,” Key says. “I thought we were the theater for it. I thought Mira [Hirsch] was the director for it.” His enthusiasm for the script — and Key is nothing if not enthusiastic — was cemented by the racism and anti-Semitism displayed during the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Indecent is “so, so healing,” he says, “and so instructive” as it questions what indecency is and asks, “What is right? What is wrong? What is human? Who has the right to say who doesn’t belong?”
Theatrical Outfit has relocated three times during the Key years — from the old Kress Five and Dime on Peachtree Street in Midtown, to Midtown’s 14th Street Playhouse (with theaters of 200 and 400 seats), to downtown’s challenging 833-seat Rialto Center for the Arts and, finally, around the corner on Forsyth Street to its home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, an intimate, acoustically sensitive 200-seat, LEED-certified space.
Early in his tenure, Key held three public sessions to speak the gospel of Theatrical Outfit. At a restaurant on Crescent Avenue, at Murphy’s in Virginia Highland and at the 14th Street Playhouse, he “essentially stood on a chair in front of an audience” to talk about what he saw for the future. He recalls a previous board member who walked away from one session, thinking, “This guy’s crazy. He just doesn’t realize.”
Or maybe he did.
Within his first two years, Key’s team had grown the Outfit’s annual budget from about $300,000 to $600,000. Today it’s $2 million. The Rialto years he recalls as “hard, very hard,” saying the space was a “tough place for theater.” But ever the optimist, he calls it “a great beachhead to prove that we could draw audiences downtown.”
He’s definitely bullish on downtown, referencing the changes he’s already seen and those he thinks are coming. “Being there day by day from 1999 until now, I’ve watched our block, our little core, come alive with business, with students, with shops.”
He envisions Theatrical Outfit becoming the Atlanta version of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., which has three performance spaces under one roof. “In 10, 15, 20, 25 years, there will be another space built,” he says. “We are going to be one of the early innovators, part of how downtown is coming together.”
Key — who’s 5-feet-10, 165 pounds and does 50 push-ups in one set most mornings — ran his 35th Peachtree Road Race in July. He speaks with the energy and enthusiasm of someone just beginning a journey.
If this Tom could give his younger artistic-director self one piece of advice, it would be this, he says: “Never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be afraid. Nothing helpful for you or for others ever comes out of fear. If you’re not getting hurt and failing, you’re not doing your job. Your job is to keep going and learning from the mistakes and always trusting that next time is going to be better. Eventually you’ll look around and be astounded by how wonderful the people who are sticking in there with you are. That’s where the real joy juice comes from being an artistic director.”
Those might be wise words for his successor too. Regardless of who it is, Key leaves sizable shoes to fill. He wears an 11D.