Barbara Cole 

A Lesson Before Dying director

Honored in Creative Loafing's Best of Atlanta issue in 2003, Barbara Cole Uterhardt is one of the city's most interesting and reliable actresses, but don't expect to see much of her on stage in early 2008. She has recently taken the newly created position of artistic company manager of 35-year-old Onstage Atlanta, where she's directing the play A Lesson Before Dying (Jan. 25--Feb. 16). Plus, as associate artistic director of Process Theatre, she's helping to organize the company's Play Day fundraiser for Jan. 20.

Can you explain the artistic company manager position, and how you came to fill it? Onstage Atlanta went through many changes in the past two years. Former artistic director Scott Rousseau left and we had a new management team in for less more than two months while I was there directing M. Butterfly. OSA Board Chairman Barry West and the board decided to have a "town hall meeting" about the future of the theater, and everyone agreed that we needed to have a feasibility committee to determine what we needed. I was on it, and I said that we need to have more than three people on staff. We needed people to answer phones, clean the toilets, take care of everything you need in a theater. So we put together an artistic company of 14 artists who can also continue to run the theater, and I knew I could manage that because of my experience with Soul-stice Repertory. I liked "Artistic Company Manager" rather than "Artistic Director," because the latter implied that I'm the head honcho, but I'm more on the artistic side of things. We will have formed an executive committee by the end of the season.

What's the advantage of having an artistic company? A lot of actors and artists say, when they put on a play, that with three weeks of rehearsal and a four-week run, by the time everyone gets to like each other, the show is done. With the artistic company, a lot of the same people will be working together in the upcoming shows, and that way we won't be starting from scratch each time. They're Renaissance people – artistic-minded people who also have day jobs in marketing, or have a passion for writing grants.

What does this mean for the future of Onstage Atlanta? At the town hall meeting we had discussions about what Onstage Atlanta is. Are we a community theater or a semiprofessional theater? I feel that community theater is excellent, but sometimes we've been the one, sometimes we've been the other, and the audience doesn't know what to expect. I think we're going to be leaning a lot more toward semiprofessional in the future. My watchword for the future is "consistent," that we have consistent product and consistent production values. And that won't just make us more money, but will build more consistent audiences.

Can you explain Process Theatre's second annual "Play Day" fundraiser? It's like a 10-hour walkathon or Jump Rope for Life, except that it's a daylong reading of new plays. Every single reader has a pledge form and $25 minimum to participate. We feed everybody, and they read two to three plays at a time in different parts of the building, so the audience can hear a different play every hour. The person who raises the most money gets a prize package of gift certificates for theaters and restaurants. Not all readers are actors, which is always tons of fun. Sometimes the people who aren't actors give the best reading. Last year we raised more than $3,000 for the Process Theatre's season, which isn't bad for one day's work.

Are you nervous about directing A Lesson Before Dying, a famous African-American story? Yes. (Laughs.) One of my actors commented on me being this cute little blonde directing a harsh African-American show. When I read the play, I wept like a little baby, and could see it visually, so I knew that I could do it. The play isn't just "African-American studies" – the lesson of the title is about love, learning and the crazy state of Louisiana in 1948. It's OK for me to direct the show because I feel like, as a director, I'm strong at creating relationships in characters. It's daunting, yes, but it's very exciting.

Your husband, Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt, is also a stage actor. Do you enjoy working together on stage? We do like working off each other, but it's a little bit scary. We have found that me being his director does not work that well, though, so we try to avoid that. We have enough drama in our home life.

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