Call 2019 the season of exits. Six longtime Atlanta theater leaders left their jobs — or announced they soon would. Serenbe Playhouse cofounder Brian Clowdus left the nonprofit world to concentrate on his for-profit endeavor, Brian Clowdus Experiences. Kevin Gillese, artistic director at Dad’s Garage for 10 years, traded administration to be a full-time creative with the company. In May, Rosemary Newcott — who’d spent more than 20 years as the Alliance’s director of theater for youth and families — traded the daily grind for the freelance life. True Colors cofounder Kenny Leon passed the artistic director torch after 16 years. Vincent Anthony — after 41 years at the Center for Puppetry Arts — puts away the marionettes at the end of the month. Artistic director Tom Key, now in his 25th season at Theatrical Outfit, moves into a full-time life as an actor, writer and director in mid-May and already is working with his successor.
All tallied, these leaders have spent more than 130 years shaping Atlanta theater. Talk about a sea change, and an opportunity across the city for companies to chart a renewed course.
So as we celebrate the work these artists have brought us, let’s revisit the highest of the highlights in Atlanta theater’s past 12 months. We acknowledge large companies and small, as well as standard stages and on-site alchemy. And this piece could easily be twice as long. That said, here’s our rundown.
The Our Town / Laramie Project rep at Theatrical Outfit
It was an audacious choice. Two plays, both American classics. Ten actors playing all 23 characters in one drama and more than 60 in another. It was also a landmark achievement. Theatrical Outfit’s thrilling repertory is easily the pinnacle of 2019.
The Laramie Project personified the kind of kismet that doesn’t often commune with theatergoers. Under the inspired direction of Clifton Guterman, the documentary drama’s cast — Maggie Birgel, Allan Edwards, Michael Hanson, Asia Howard, Curtis Lipsey, Shaun MacLean, Stacy Melich, Mary Lynn Owen, Maria Rodriguez-Sager and Jayson Warner Smith — brought each of the 60-plus characters vividly to life with care and specificity.
Each actor owned each person he or she portrayed. Subtle changes — the putting on or taking off of a cap, a hijab, a red blazer, a judge’s robe or priest’s collar; an accent, the turn of a wrist, the realignment of a shoulder, the deepening of a voice, a stooping posture — delineated who was who and where we were in the story. Simply masterful work by all involved.
The script from New York’s Tectonic Theater Project leavened the tsunami of sadness that surrounded the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard by layering humor into nearly every Laramie resident we met. As with any city small enough to have characters writ large, they were funny, peculiar, hateful, kind, selfless, reflective, judgmental, forgiving, open and bighearted.
Guterman has said he feels a special kinship with Shepard. The two were born the same year and grew up as gay, nonathletic boys in small towns (Georgia and Wyoming, respectively), becoming slight men and potentially easy targets for the haters among us. Perhaps this bond helped imbue the Outfit staging with its rare magic. If you missed it, you not only missed the best show of the season but perhaps the best show of the decade . . . or a lifetime.
“This is the way we were,” the Stage Manager says early on in Our Town, “in our growing-up, in our marrying, in our doctoring, in our living and in our dying.” Sounds simple, yes? It’s anything but. Our Town is nothing less than the eternal story of humanity, something that, in eons of existence, we’ve never really quite put our fingers on. That’s what makes Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 masterpiece so elusive, so eloquent and, ultimately, so moving. Another inspired choice on the part of Theatrical Outfit. Director David Crowe — using the same 10 actors as in The Laramie Project) — cast a woman (the indefatigable Mary Lynn Owen) as the Stage Manager in a role historically played by a man. Our Town is universal, timeless and not all that easy to get right. The Outfit did Wilder proud, much to our benefit.
THE REST OF THE BEST
Frankenstein’s Funeral by Found Stages
Whether immersive theater is the flavor of the moment or here to stay, we can’t be sure. We do know, however, that five-year-old Found Stages likes to push boundaries. Its Halloween-season staging of Frankenstein’s Funeral took place in and around the creepily lit Gothic campus of St. John’s Lutheran Church. A team of 28 artists spent more than a year creating the show — which featured original music (live and recorded), special effects and holograms, and opulent period costumes by Jennifer Schottstaedt, who played Mary Shelley. The 75-minute experience was seen by just 40 audience members at a time. Those theatergoers saw Joseph Jong Pendergrast as the Monster, giving one of the more amazing performances of the year.
Grounded by Atlanta Theatre Club
Atlanta Magazine recently named the itinerant Atlanta Theatre Club the city’s best emerging company, and it’s easy to see why. The company, founded by actor/director/producer Rebeca Robles, has done just four titles in its three-year history, but each has made theatergoers and critics take notice. Its August staging of the Robles-directed one-woman drama Grounded, about an ace fighter pilot and drone warfare, featured a shattering performance by Courtney Moors in a minimalist staging (set by Elizabeth Jarrett, projections by Kimberly Binns) that only made the drama more visceral. We look forward to seeing what Atlanta Theatre Club does next — and where.
K2 by Catalyst Arts Atlanta
Catalyst Arts Atlanta does work like no else in town — small-size, often offbeat pieces that think big, with painstakingly specific, environmental and wholly immersive experiences. Its two-character K2, staged at East Point’s The Bakery in January, followed the trials of two climbers trapped on the second-highest mountain in the world, China’s K2. The Catalyst collective invited theatergoers to begin their adventure in a tent where they could drink Sherpa tea while being warned about the cold temperatures that awaited and offered the use of coats, blankets or sleeping bags. Once inside the playing area, an icy-blue wash (lighting by Maranda DeBusk) and fog cloaked Barrett Doyle’s set, which covered intrepid actors Joel Coady and Dan Ford in snow. This wasn’t just window-dressing. It all served the drama beautifully, making audience members acutely empathetic and putting them on a metaphorical precipice. The takeaway? That, for everyone, life on Earth is a matter of holding on.
ALSO WORTH REMEMBERING
Angry Fags at 7 Stages
Playwright Topher Payne first wrote this tragicomedy in 2013 when Barack Obama lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He revised it this year with the Trump era in mind, and 7 Stages wisely chose to produce it again. Angry Fags 2.0 remains a revenge story and a cautionary tale of good gay guys gone bad (steady-until-he’s-not politico Bennett, played by Gregory Hernandez, and his best friend, the witty and fashionable Cooper, played by Cody Russell). When one avenges a friend’s gay bashing, it sets in motion a string of events that cannot be undone. Director Kate Donadio MacQueen chose actors — Carolyn Cook, Kelly Criss, Brandon Partrick, Gina Rickicki, Parris Sarter — whose work eclipsed that of their predecessors. The 2019 version of Angry Fags is very much a play of, by and for our time. Carnage prevailed, and the ending kicked us in the teeth.
The Cake and The Wolves at Horizon Theatre
On paper, The Cake sounds like something well-intentioned but simplistic. At Horizon, it proved anything but. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, an Alliance/Kendeda alum and onetime This Is Us showrunner, grew up in the South and knows its people well. She introduces us to Della, a North Carolina bakery owner who first agrees, then declines, to make a wedding cake for her best friend’s (gay) daughter. The Cake debates the same question the U.S. Supreme Court did: Does a merchant have the right to refuse service based on religious grounds? Brunstetter smartly examines both sides, and her script provided a tour-de-force role for Marcie Millard as Della, who took home the Suzi Bass Award for best lead female actor in a play. Our review in June says that Millard “makes the most of her superb comedic timing and warm persona. She’s instantly likable but isn’t afraid to show the thornier, intolerant side of her Southern Baptist character.”
With The Wolves, playwright Sarah DeLappe and director Heidi Cline McKerley invited us inside “Planet Soccer Girl.” Nine of 10 cast members portrayed 16- and 17-year-old girls engaged in a season’s worth of pregame warm-ups for their indoor soccer team. They discussed teenage things — boys and makeup — but also such contemporary concerns as Chinese social media platforms and “keeping Mexican kids in cages.” And they did it all in perpetual motion — dribbling, kicking and passing soccer balls, stretching and doing lunges to prepare for the fight. For their environment was more battlefield than sports venue. The players had no names, identified only by number, and brought to angsty life by Katie Causey, Shelby Folks, Ebony Jerry, Shannon McCarren, Erika Miranda, Michelle Pokopac, Rebeca Robles, Jasmine Thomas and Anna Williford (with Megan Cramer as the lone adult, identified as “Soccer Mom”). “We look at these girls and go, ‘I can do that. I can get through tomorrow,'” McKerley said in an interview with ArtsATL. She wanted theatergoers to leave with a “renewed spirit of their own inner warrior.” Mission accomplished.
Conceal and Carry by Out of Hand Theater
Out of Hand Theater, now in its 18th season, describes itself as “creating shows, games and activities” throughout Atlanta. That’s accurate but humble. In its earlier days, the company did original pieces — playwright Steve Yockey’s self-help parody HELP! comes to mind — and classics (August Strindberg’s Miss Julie). But at some point, Out of Hand took a turn and began focusing on intimate, in-home performances. In Conceal and Carry (extended more than once and now running through February 15), actor Lee Osorio walks into a different living room in a different home every show. He sits on a stool in front of a small gathering and shares a monologue about gun violence. He talks about a father facing the death of his young son in a school shooting. His character, in the passenger seat, is being driven toward a possible confrontation with a gun manufacturer. The evening includes snacks and drinks, and patrons are encouraged to stick around to talk about the piece. Out of Hand also made news this year with its Decatur Dinners, a one-night event that featured food and hundreds of facilitated conversations about race and equity. Ticket buyers gathered in homes and at restaurants and other small venues to eat, drink and talk. Plus, the company unveiled a nifty new logo. Look for more news and partnerships from Out of Hand in the new year.
An Octoroon at Actor’s Express
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 play wickedly combines farce, sideshow and plantation drama with influences from 19th-century playwright Dion Boucicault, Br’er Rabbit, Gone With the Wind, Song of the South and Birth of a Nation. Got that? Just know that it’s easily the most hilarious and offensive show of Jacobs-Jenkins’ short but pretty spectacular career to date. The Actor’s Express staging included a black actor in white face (Neal A. Ghant), an Asian actor in black face (Ryan Vo) and a white actor in red face (Kyle Brumley). The playwright’s position is clear: Slavery was cruel, and there’s no need for sympathetic white characters. The only thing that suffices is a send-up. An Octoroon is either a reflection of how much theater audiences have changed or how much they haven’t. Think about that for a while.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. This 2012 British play about an autistic 15-year-old trying to solve a mystery won seven Olivier awards and five Tony awards, including best play of 2015. The mystery — a Horizon Theatre / Aurora Theatre coproduction — is based on Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestselling novel, so, obviously, it comes with a pedigree. Codirectors Lisa Adler (Horizon) and Justin Anderson (Aurora) did a masterful job of blending their visions to create one of the year’s more magical pieces, enhanced even more by a star turn from newcomer Brandon Michael Mayes. The show had its Horizon run in October but can be seen soon at Aurora in Lawrenceville (January 9–February 9).
HANDS OF COLOR at Synchronicity Theatre. First-time playwright Kimberly Monks delivered a tough, taut and haunting script that tells the story of a white man forced to walk in a black man’s shoes. Thomas (Justin Walker), an unadmitted but obvious racist, finds Robert (Enoch Armando King) “out of the place” in his neighborhood and becomes complicit in the man’s death. Through a bit of welcome magical realism, the world now sees Thomas as black, and he’s compelled to walk miles in Robert’s ill-fitting oxfords. His sort-of guide is the excellent Therecia Lang, as Robert’s young daughter. This world premiere proved incredibly timely in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, with sadly prevalent and frequent headlines about police killings of black men and black people having the police called on them.
MAC | BETH at Synchronicity. Producing artistic director Rachel May continues to prove that Synchronicity is one of the best theaters in America for showcasing work by women. Mac | Beth — reset in the present day by playwright Erica Schmidt, directed by Jennifer Alice Acker and performed by seven young women as fangirls of the Bard going wild in the woods — gave us not only an all-female take on a 400-year-old script but also a modern riff on real-life violence inspired by the Slender Man internet meme.
PARADISE BLUE and SKELETON CREW at True Colors Theatre Company. Playwright Dominique Morisseau has often described herself as the scribe for her native Detroit and has, in fact, written a trilogy of plays set in the Motor City. True Colors staged Detroit ’67 in 2015 and completed the trilogy this season, with Paradise Blue in October and Skeleton Crew in February. The two had several things in common — direction by Jamil Jude, who succeeded Kenny Leon as the company’s artistic leader; acting companies that included the considerable talents of Cynthia D. Barker, Keith Arthur Bolden, Asia Howard, Tonia Jackson and Enoch Armando King, among others; and point of view. Paradise Blue, set in the African American neighborhood of Black Bottom in the 1940s, examined gentrification through the eyes of a club owner (Javon Johnson), who must choose between staying open for his close-knit circle or taking the city’s money. Skeleton Crew, set in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession, sets its eyes on four employees negotiating life and an endangered auto plant. Pick one? We can’t, so we won’t.
THE ROOMMATE at Aurora Theatre. Playwright Jen Silverman’s piece about a gay woman who changes the life of her divorced landlady was an intimate dramedy featuring exquisite performances by Megan McFarland and Terry Burrell. This unpretentious gem sparkled brightly, helping light the way toward the $31 million Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center, which broke ground in 2019 and will one day become Aurora’s new home.
ArtsATL’s team of theater writers — including Susan Angeline, Benjamin Carr, Liz Dooley, Jim Farmer, Vivian Lee-Boulton, Marshall Mabry IV, Linda Sherbert and Kelundra Smith — contributed to this article.