When Stage Door Players’ board of directors furloughed longtime artistic director Robert Egizio last fall — citing a significant loss of revenue in the midst of COVID-19 — no one knew what to expect next from the Dunwoody company. The vision may now be taking shape.
The company has changed its name to Stage Door Theatre and hired Willie E. Jones III as artistic director. Jones began work remotely in March, and moved to the area a few months ago.
Jones, 22, graduated in May from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. actor training program and has worked as an actor, director and playwright. He has executive produced the Blackness Is . . . Theatre Arts Festival in Minnesota and cofounded the Twin Cities’ MN Black Theatre Circle, the Educational Theatre Extension Program and the Quarantine Bakeoff Playwriting Competition.
He was looking for something more permanent and closer to his family in Florida when he saw the Stage Door listing on Indeed.com.
He was a nervous when taking the job, he says, but is confident he can lead the company. “There is so much history,” he says. “This theater is almost 50 years old, and the history is not lost on me. I was excited for the challenge and am up for it. I think it’s a time to take the theater to the next level.”
Stage Door now calls itself a “classical repertory theater company” and plans to offer Shakespeare in the park in a few locations. The new season was announced at the Dunwoody Fourth of July parade. The first live performance since the COVID-19 lockdown will be a two-weekend run of Becoming Dr. Ruth in August. Stage Door has been dark since The Glass Menagerie closed in February 2020.
The company’s ambitious 48th season looks like this:
- Romeo and Juliet, September 30-October 24.
- A Halloween Cabaret. October 27.
- A Christmas Carol, described on the Stage Door website as a “comedy.” No specific adaptation is listed. December 3-19.
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. February 4-27, 2022.
- Valentine’s Day Cabaret. February 14, 2022.
- The Pirates of Penzance, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. In April 2022, no specific dates given.
- Twelfth Night; Or What You Will. July 1-24, 2022, at Brook Run Park Amphitheatre as part of what’s being called the “Dunwoody Shakespeare Festival.”
- A new-play festival. August 5-28, 2022.
- The Tempest, September 4-5, 2022, also at Brook Run Park as part of the Dunwoody Shakespeare Festival.
Jones will direct Romeo and Juliet and codirect A Christmas Carol.
In choosing the lineup, Jones says he looked at previous seasons and tried to determine what the community loved. “I looked at all the theaters around town and the friends I had at True Colors Theatre Company and I thought, ‘What is the niche that is not being met?’ That helped balance the ability to move Stage Door into the next phase while not forgetting where we came from.”
Jones also has worked on the budget and met with Dunwoody city officials. He sees the bulk of his role, he says, as answering questions the community raises, serving the Dunwoody and greater Atlanta area, responding to events that are going on in society and providing top-notch entertainment.
“I am a fan of escapism, and I have plenty of friends who think theater is a place for serious theater,” he says. “I think it’s about striking a balance while providing your audiences those conversations that matter but also helping to distract them from a hard workweek or moment in their life.”
Besides Jones, the only other full-time Stage Door employee is managing director Debbie Fuse, who has been with the company since 2018. Part-time staff includes Kelly Johnston, who began this week as assistant artistic director, technical director/stage manager Allison Cash and technical director Lila Chapman.
As the new face of the company, Jones is certainly aware of Egizio’s tenure with Stage Door and all he accomplished. “It’s big shoes to fill ,” he says, adding, “I am always about learning from those who came before me. It’s a matter of looking at the seasons he was putting together and talking with people to get a firsthand account of the impact he made — and trying to elevate all those things he brilliantly instigated.”
For many in the Atlanta theater community, Egizio — who was with Stage Door for more than 15 years — was treasured. Some actors and patrons, to protest his furlough, have vowed not to return. Jones is aware of that, too. “Honestly, I have not really thought about that,” he says. “We have not held open auditions. A lot of this predates me, so for me, it’s a matter of seeing what the landscape is and moving from there.”
Donald Boyken, who chairs the eight-member Stage Door board, declined to comment for this story.
Others in the theater community have balked at a recent Indeed.com ad looking for a Shakespeare director for the company, with the description, “No experience required, first-time directors welcome.”
“When I said ‘no experience needed,’ I meant in terms of directing experience,” Jones says. “It meant that I was willing to consider people who are high-school theater directors, or have only served as assistant directors, etc. I want people to know that Stage Door is a place where they can gain experience, where they can learn, where they can take risks. The hardest part of what we do is getting our foot in the door, and if we’re going to make Stage Door a place that’s open to a more diverse array of artists — who are often overlooked and therefore cannot gain as much experience — then I saw it as necessary to ensure that potential directors knew that Stage Door is accepting of first-timers.”
It’s important to make the company more inclusive including in its casting, Jones says. That’s become increasingly essential — and requested — in the past year.
“I think it’s every theater’s mission to put a mirror up to nature. So for me it’s important that diversity and inclusion are something we strive for. One of the great ways to show diversity in the world of classical theater is by putting up faces that aren’t normally associated with classical theater. It’s a priority to make everyone feel welcome and make them feel safe in the theatrical environment.”