The biggest news in Atlanta theater in 2020 was that we had any theater at all.
The year began with great promise — Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at Actor’s Express, Paula Vogel’s Indecent at Theatrical Outfit, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play at True Colors Theatre Company. Then, of course, COVID-19 sat its big fat self down on everything, and theater as we knew it vanished.
We could lament what was lost — Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans and Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (both scheduled at Theatrical Outfit), an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (pushed to spring/summer 2021) at Synchronicity) — or celebrate the innovation the pandemic demanded. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention.
What we have seen is A Christmas Carol from the Alliance Theatre, this time as a drive-in radio play; Dad’s Garage’s full-throated foray into Twitch.tv; Synchronicity’s 4×4 series of one-woman plays fully staged for flesh-and-blood and Zoom audiences; and any number of virtual readings, dramas, musicals and conversations, some more successful than others.
So this year’s wrap-up is more a collection of highs and lows and less of a best–of adventure, although it has some of those elements, too.
COMINGS AND GOINGS
Jon Carr, once Dad’s Garage’s marketing director, rejoined the company in January as artistic director, and left earlier this month to lead The Second City companies in Chicago, Hollywood and Toronto. Dad’s alum Tim Stoltenberg moves from Los Angeles to Atlanta via Wisconsin to take Carr’s place, at least on an interim basis.
In one of the biggest tragedies of the year, artistic director Robert Egizio was thanklessly furloughed by the board of Stage Door Players and, ultimately, shown the door. He guided the Dunwoody company, firmly pigeonholed as community theater before his arrival, into a metro-wide home at which actors and designers wanted to work. His dismissal continues to stoke protests on social media and elsewhere from theater professionals and Stage Door patrons who vow never to return.
Perhaps the most inflammatory exit began in late 2019, when founding artistic director Brian Clowdus stepped down from Serenbe Playhouse, ostensibly to work on his for-profit enterprises. Serenbe earned a national reputation under his leadership but apparently not all was well. In June, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum, allegations of racism, sexism and abuse were leveled at Clowdus and his company by former employees, apprentices, performers, directors and designers. A week later, the playhouse’s parent organization announced via Facebook that it had suspended all operations, laid off remaining staff members and planned to begin the work of rebuilding a new, “equitable, welcoming and diverse playhouse.” The playhouse and Serenbe Institute have been silent ever since.
And we said goodbye to puppeteer Bobby Box, who died in January at age 61. During a 22-year career at the Center for Puppetry Arts, Box directed, wrote and adapted scores of shows, including Charlotte’s Web, The Shoemaker & the Elves, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Quixote, Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Live Faust, Die Young and the acclaimed Anne Frank: Within & Without, which was considered his signature work.
“I was looking through my flash drives and folders and papers and I couldn’t find anything with Bobby,” said Michael Haverty of The Object Group. “Then I realized — everything he gave me is in my heart. It’s about how to treat people kindly, how to listen to people’s stories and bring joy to the workplace.”
More than any other company caught in COVID’s clutches, Synchronicity Theatre produced a virtual show that truly felt like being back inside a theater. The show: Stiff. The writer and cast: Sherry Jo Ward. Stiff, a poignant, hilarious, autobiographical piece of theater, details Ward’s experiences with Stiff-Person syndrome. She’s been living with the progressive and debilitating disease since 2015. It impacts the trunk muscles, causes extreme rigidity, painful spasms, impaired mobility, and a heightened sensitivity to noise and stress.
She entered the stage in her wheelchair, played a few riffs on a harmonica pulled from her pocket, looked us squarely in the eye and said: “I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be HILARIOUS!”
Hers is a simple story, simply told with minimal staging, crisp and evocative language, plenty of self-deprecation and Ward’s don’t-feel-sorry-for-me approach. She makes difficult subjects approachable, encourages our laughter and makes us feel. That she performed from a wheelchair only made it more poignant that the weeklong run in October was her last. The work is getting too hard.
The return of Soul-stice Rep, in a 2.0 version, is also reason for optimism. The company produced an annual repertory of classics at 7 Stages from 1992 to 2002. It was called “Soul-stice” because the shows were staged each December, during the winter solstice. Heidi McKerley helped lead that effort and is partnering with husband Jeff McKerley on the 2.0 version. Soul-stice 2.0 held three nights of Zoom readings to raise funds in October. We look forward to seeing what’s next — and hopefully doing so in person.
THEATER AS SOCIAL ACTIVISM
Ahmaud Arbury was chased and killed February 23 while jogging in daylight by Brunwick vigilantes. Breonna Taylor was fatally shot March 13 by Louisville police storming her apartment. George Floyd was murdered March 25 by one Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck and others standing by.
They were 25, 26 and 46. And Black. And like much of the rest of the nation, Atlantans took to the streets. Theater artists gathered at high noon June 7 for the Atlanta Artist Solidarity March, a protest organized by the 270-plus Black Leaders Advocating for Cultural Theater (BLACT), with support from 7 Stages, Dad’s Garage and Theatrical Outfit.
“How do we express ourselves as artists?” organizer Brittani Minnieweather asked. “We raise our voices as theaters and individuals.”
Toward that end, BLACT and CREAT, a sister organization (named the Coalition for Racial Equity in Atlanta Theatre became more visible. They sponsored three nights of Zoom sessions to challenge all-White casting processes, season selections, grant applications and the like. CREAT awarded its first Sow & Grow grants — totaling $10,000 — to nine African American/Black, Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian artists.
Out of Hand Theater moved its monthly Equitable Dinner events — which include a short theater piece and moderated conversations about race and equity — from dining tables to the virtual world. The project helped land it on The New York Times’ 2020 best-of-theater list.
DARK HOUSES PROJECT
It seems appropriate to dim the lights on 2020 by revisiting Dark Houses, the summertime photo-essay effort by Atlantan Michael Boatright. His goal: shoot as many of metro Atlanta’s shuttered theaters as he could.
And so he took us onstage, backstage and into the seats at more than 20 playhouses left empty in mid-March — 7 Stages, Actor’s Express, the Alliance, Aurora Theatre, Dad’s Garage, Horizon Theatre, Out Front Theatre, Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, Synchronicity, Theatrical Outfit and True Colors Theatre Company, among them.
Boatright wanted you to look at his photos, of course, but also to act on them — by donating to your favorite company, to the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival’s Artist Relief Fund, to C4 Atlanta’s Artist Lost Gig Fund or the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund.
“The thing I’m trying to bring out is the sense of emptiness and loss represented by these empty theaters,” he said of the August project. “It’s easy to lose sight of the sheer vastness of the impact.”