Raise the roof 

New Atlanta theaters prove size doesn't matter

For want of a staircase, two opening nights were lost. Onstage Atlanta has postponed twice the premiere of Della's Diner IV: Blue Plate Special, the inaugural production in its new permanent theater in Decatur, over a dispute with its neighbor, Big Lots.

The 30-year-old Atlanta theater now occupies the former downstairs of Belk's department store in Suburban Plaza at the corner of Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road.

Scott Rousseau, the theater's artistic and executive director, says Onstage had expected Big Lots to give up some of its space to accommodate the theater's entrance and staircase leading down to the theater, but the discount store had other ideas.

The play is now expected to open July 19.

When it came to designing the space, Rousseau says he surveyed lots of theater folk in town and asked them what they'd like to see there.

Interestingly, the 16,000-square-foot space offers room for a much larger stage than Onstage has chosen to build. With a 70-seat permanent home for its Abracadabra Children's Theatre and a 108-seat main stage, Onstage emphasizes coziness over grandeur. Its interior will have kitschy, playful touches, with a giant wizard's hat providing the entrance to the children's theater and the main theater design staying consistent with the department store's original Googie architecture, the "space-age" style of the 1950s and 1960s.

Lavish performing venues like the Fox Theatre might get all the glory, but they sacrifice intimacy in the name of spectacle. Smaller spaces make you feel far more emotionally invested in a stage story, instead of simply being a passive spectator.

Theatrical Outfit is also demonstrating a penchant for smaller theaters in its expansion plans. The resident theater of downtown's Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, Theatrical Outfit purchased the Rialto neighbor, Herren's restaurant, in March with the intent of converting it into a 200-seat theater with a rehearsal hall and administrative offices. Currently the Outfit is in the design and planning phase and realistically expects the space to open in late 2003 or early 2004.

The smaller theater promises to give Theatrical Outfit far more flexibility than its home at the Rialto. Faced with the challenge of filling the splendid but huge 900-seat auditorium, the Outfit usually runs its plays for only a week, and most of them are proven crowd-pleasers like Cotton Patch Gospel. The Herren's space promises to give the theater more opportunities to stage newer, riskier fare that can run for longer periods.

Peachtree Playhouse, with its 120-seat storefront location on Peachtree Street, has been able to run its hit Peachtree Battle for nearly a year: The play is scheduled to close Dec. 21 after 16 months. With no room to expand, the theater company is building on its success by opening a "spin-off" theater a few blocks south, which is scheduled to open in mid-October with a revival of The Limousine Ride.

The new theaters of Peachtree Playhouse, Theatrical Outfit and Onstage Atlanta won't be palatial temples of the arts but more modest-sized performing venues. Which is to the good: When a play is close enough to touch, you're that much more likely to make a human connection.

Of course, theater companies can skirt housing concerns entirely and follow the example of Spontaneous Stage Theatre, which this September plans to stage its first production, Lysistrada, in a Virginia-Highlands grassy lot under the stars.

Out-of-Town Try-Out: Local playwright Steve Murray will have a staged reading of his new play Manna this month at Center Stage Theatre of Portland, Ore., where Chris Coleman, who produced some of Murray's first work at Actor's Express, is artistic director. The reading is part of the Just Add Water/West playwrights festival. Manna will have a full production at Actor's Express this upcoming season.

Exits: Red Chair Theatre, home of the improv comedy troupe Comedy Response Unit, will cease operation at the end of this month. Artistic Director Jennifer Caldwell says lack of funds to maintain its space is the primary reason for closing the 2-year-old theater, but it's also a creative decision, with many of the troupe members pursuing other projects. Two of its founders, Chris Pierce and Jim Karwisch, have gone on to found the long-form improv group JaCKPie Productions.

In addition, Caldwell, Pierce and fellow Red Chair member Meghan Kimzey, will be in The Moon Howler Chronicles by Atlanta playwright Kendra Myers, playing July 22-30 in Dad's Garage Theatre's Top Shelf Space, making the play a kind of Red Chair reunion show.

Entrances: Robert Drake is the new artistic director for Stage Door Players. Laurie Burnham continues as the theater's managing director and will be premiering Heart of the Matter, a play she co-wrote with Randi Rivers, Aug. 15-31... Tal Harris and Kasia Kowalczyk's Tal-Kasia Productions -- primarily a new, original film company -- plans to offer one theatrical presentation per year, beginning with Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, a co-presentation with Sensurround Stagings Sept. 13-Oct. 5.

Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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