It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. As Serenbe Playhouse prepares to open its 2020 season — with the Tony Award-winning rock musical Spring Awakening (March 18–April 12) — many wonder how it will survive the exit of founder/artistic director Brian Clowdus. Clowdus left three months ago to focus on his for-profit effort Brian Clowdus Enterprises.
Serenbe’s new leaders are confident they can build on the company’s reputation for ingenuity and boldness. Leading the eight-person staff now are managing director Mickey McGuire, 34, who’s been with the company for about six months, and associate artistic director Joel Coady, 31, who’s been on board for five years.
If Clowdus was the big idea man, Coady was the executor. “If Brian came to me and said, ‘I want to land a helicopter,’ it was my job to make it happen,” Coady says. “My job has been the logistics.” He now has a hand in casting and working with directors, as well, and expects the future to be more collaborative. “There won’t be one driving force but a lot of people driving the ship.”
McGuire spent 10 years in New York, working mostly off-Broadway as a director, stage manager and general manager before running Miami’s Seminole Theatre.
Serenbe Playhouse is widely known as an experimental, immersive, environmental theater (all shows are done outdoors) committed to producing adventurous new works and reinvented classics. It flew a genuine Huey helicopter during the climactic scene of Miss Saigon in 2016. It created a carnival, complete with games and rides, for Carousel, also in 2016. For 2017’s Grease, it re-created a drive-in movie theater. And for Titanic in 2018, it sunk scaffolding that represented the doomed ocean liner. New for 2020: rain insurance.
The staff and board will take a year to find the next artistic director. “Because our 2020 season was handled, we have a staff and our budget is set, we didn’t feel we needed to rush in and have a new artistic director, especially for such an important position,” says McGuire.
The interview process hasn’t yet begun, but the search committee has opened the process and is accepting inquiries and applications. McGuire says he expects the position to be filled by the fourth quarter this year, although it could happen sooner if the team finds the right person.
While Clowdus’ exit surprised the Atlanta theater community, it didn’t shock Serenbe insiders. “It was something he had in the works a long time,” McGuire says, adding that the process began in 2019 and included McGuire joining the team. He and Clowdus had been working together when the news came out.
Clowdus’ successor will have a job that is shaped differently. The new role will be a co-CEO relationship between the artistic director and managing director. Previously, Clowdus was top dog, with the directors of operations and sales/development reporting to him. The new Serenbe, still a nonprofit, will follow the more customary path. The artistic director will be in charge of all artistic decisions and the managing director in charge of all business decisions.
“We are able to fill a lot of roles,” McGuire says, “but when the new person comes in we’ll be looking for that person to partner with us on the vision for the company, through our brand and how we communication with patrons and audiences.”
Already the team is moving forward. When McGuire came onboard, Serenbe wasn’t sure what its winter 2019 show would be. Weighing the company’s determination, artistic capabilities and passion, they chose Narnia, which became its most-attended winter production to date. “Families could get behind it,” McGuire says, “and their children had read the stories. Even if you are the kind of person who comes for Sleepy Hollow or Hair or Titanic, there was enough of a story line that you could get excited about.”
Memphis-based Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley will direct and choreograph Spring Awakening, the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater rock musical that opens the season. The piece is based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play about students in late 19th-century Germany moving from adolescence toward adulthood. It includes strong language, adult situations and nudity. The Spring Awakening team includes several frequent Atlanta collaborators — Ash Anderson as intimacy director, Barrett Doyle as scenic designer, Erik Teague as costume designer and Maranda DeBusk as lighting designer.
Nichols and Bradley have worked all over the country, McGuire says, and became interested in Serenbe when they saw last season’s Shenandoah and Hair.
The four-show season continues with the comedy-drama Steel Magnolias (May 20–June 14), with Heidi Cline McKerley directing. McKerley, who has worked at multiple Atlanta theaters, will use an all-female production team to back the six-woman cast of Atlanta actors.
A reprise of the family-friendly Alice in Wonderland (June 4–August 30) will be followed by the 2013 Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots (July 8–August 9). Bubba Carr, Serenbe’s resident choreographer the past seven seasons, will direct. Clowdus handpicked the guest directors.
McGuire knows that some people may have doubts about a Clowdus-less company. “Of course the concern is there,” he says. “You never want to lose a talent and visionary like Brian. We now have people who have bought into that vision, everything Brian created for 10 years. You could tell people you weren’t going to pay them anymore, and they would still do it. They would follow you into battle and run into a wall. Brian has created that vision.”