Whether it was sitting enthralled at a tech rehearsal or staged reading, attending an opening night, delivering photos to an appreciative performer, or offering hugs and support, Alan and Susan Stiefel made embracing Atlanta theater makers their passion for decades.
On September 30, 2020, Alan learned he had cancer. His doctor said that without a miracle, he’d likely live four more months. No miracle came. He made it one day shy of the four-month mark, dying from anaplastic thyroid carcinoma on January 29. Alan Stiefel was 81.
The Atlanta theater community responded en masse on social media when it learned of Alan’s illness and again at a Zoom memorial held in his honor on February 4.
“Knowing it was coming doesn’t make it any easier,” Haylee Scott, in stage operations at the Alliance Theatre, said in a Facebook post. “How lucky was our theatrical community to be so adored and championed by this sweet man? Who in the world will force us to stop working for a minute during tech and sit us down so they can feed us (and make us a plate for later)? Who will be so rapt by our line of work that they’d willingly come watch us during tech, and then take us to dinner and ask us how we did every little thing? Our community lost a titan of a man. Our biggest cheerleader. Our constant ally. None can fill his most precious, wildly generous shoes.”
Tales of tech rehearsals – when lights, sound and costumes are added to the action onstage — filled many memories shared on Facebook.
“It was a bear of a show,” actor Mary Lynn Owen recalls. “And there’s never enough time, of course. And tech weekend began way too early in the morning, with all of us exhausted, still figuring out blocking, still figuring out — everything. I’d barely signed in when I heard the news: ‘The Stiefels are here.’
‘The Stiefels are here? NOW?’
‘Yes. And they brought bagels.’
“And sure enough, Alan and Susan were huddled up on the front row of the theater where they stayed for most of the day, watching as we stopped and started and called for lines and cursed and ate bagels in between. ‘This can’t be fun,’ I thought. ‘It’s like watching someone . . . mop.’
“Oh, no,” Alan told me later, “We love this part.”
And this from actor Natasha Drena. “They saw some rough techs of mine. One in particular (that I won’t name), but I was like, ‘We’re gonna cancel previews, right?’ Alan and Susan watched with love through every moment. He did say (quietly) on opening, ‘You came a long way since I saw you last.’ Those were the best words, cuz he knew, and I knew, that we were ready, it was just one of those techs.
FROM NATIONAL TOURS TO INTIMATE STAGES
Alan and Susan Stiefel loved theater. Susan saw her first Broadway show — the original South Pacific, can you imagine — at age 5 and once met the great Helen Hayes. She met Alan on December 2, 1980, at a young-single-parents group in suburban Chicago. She was divorced; he was separated. They’d see national touring productions from time to time, and married October 1984. When they moved to Atlanta four years later, they gravitated toward Theatre of the Stars and the Broadway series at the Fox Theatre.
Susan eventually took a job not far from the Alliance Theatre. The Stiefels had never seen a regional production but decided to try the company’s Angels in America. Immediately afterward, They bought season tickets and became volunteers. Actor/stage manager Deadra Moore introduced them to other theaters.
They were smitten.
The more they saw, the more season tickets they bought. They became Suzi Bass Award judges (Atlanta’s version of Broadway’s Tonys) and dropped their Fox tickets in favor of Atlanta’s smaller companies. “We liked it better,” Susan says. “It was more intimate.”
The actors “became like a surrogate family for us, because none of our children or grandchildren live here,” Susan says. “Our experience was that the more we got to know the people, the more we could appreciate” the work.
And then Alan began taking photos. “He was the unofficial photographer for many companies’ opening nights and spent time printing them and making copies for the actors,” Susan says. He carried envelopes of photos in his briefcase to deliver to performers the next time he saw them.
That Alan became such a theater fan shocked his children. “At one point they said, ‘We think Dad likes this more than you,” Susan recalls. “It was eye-opening, an area he had never experienced. Going to tech rehearsals was an education for us. Each rehearsal was different. It was like attending a class, and we were fascinated. They all made fun of us for liking tech rehearsal, but it gave us a bigger appreciation of opening night. Alan grew to love it so much he wanted to discuss it with people after. After we retired, it became our way of life.”
The Stiefels saw hundreds of productions and many stand out. One of those was the Actor’s Express musical Spring Awakening in 2011. They had tickets to the national tour at the Fox Theatre a year earlier but couldn’t attend. They went to Freddie Ashley, the Express’ artistic director. When he saw it, he wanted to stage it — more appropriately, it’s a small show — in the Express’ 145-seat venue.
The Stiefels were so thrilled that they asked to attend a tech rehearsal and see firsthand how a production comes together. That surprised Ashley. “Who in the world wants to watch a tech rehearsal?,” he asked at the Zoom memorial. “They are slow. They are tedious. I thought Alan and Susan would be bored, but they weren’t. That became a tradition.”
Ashley most remembers the Stiefels’ unwavering optimism. “We live in a constant state of inconstancy and instability and things change rapidly and oftentimes not for the better,” he says. “So when you have two people come into your life and offer that constant, stable, unrelenting support and love and warmth, it is comforting to a degree that I don’t think anyone can understand unless they’ve been in that situation.”
“THEY HAVE SIMPLY ALWAYS BEEN THERE”
A friendship grew after actor Jacob York met the Stiefels. “I really got to know them after my wife, Galen [Crawley, also an actor], and I got engaged and they said they wanted to take us to dinner. We hung out and got to know them. I will always remember Alan’s pictures. It’s hard nowadays to have tangible proof of someone’s affection for you, but Alan going to all of these openings and taking these photos and bringing them to you in envelopes with your name on it was a physical sign of love.”
In late 2020, the Stiefels were honored with the Suzi Bass Lifetime Achievement Award. A few days after Alan’s death, the Alliance Theatre honored the Stiefels with the first Kathy Bernhardt Volunteer of the Year award. The Jennie T. Anderson Theatre in Marietta dedicated a seat to him. Onetime Atlanta actors Veronika Duerr and York are working on a video tribute.
“They have simply always been there,” says Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth. “Their always-supportive and judgment-free presence made all of us feel like the sun was shining on us. The photos made that manifest.”
Alan wasn’t initially aware of his impact on others, Susan Stiefel says, but she let him know. “He was amazed at what [theater artists] considered his influence over them. It was from his heart. He gave them encouragement just by smiling or giving them a hug or taking a picture. He didn’t realize his lasting influence on them. When Alan is proud of something it beams from him. He was the kindest person I ever met in my life.”
A time will come when COVID-19 eases and theater companies will be able to do live productions again. Susan looks forward to that time but knows it’ll be awkward and sad without Alan. Many Atlanta artists have offered to take her back and forth to shows, however, and she realizes she’ll get to see lots of the smiling, appreciative faces she’s not seen in a while.
Actor Parris Sarter met the Stiefels in 2017, while doing Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. Two years later they saw her in The Grown Up at Out of Box Theatre. “That show meant a lot to me,” Sarter says. “It was a little show, and it was exciting to see them in the audience. To see Alan’s face and the twinkle in his eye . . . that twinkle was real.”