Stage survivors 

Smaller theaters weather the decades

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Gerlach acknowledges that Onstage Atlanta used to produce its share of old chestnuts, too, with one of her first directing jobs there being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1981. "When I was working at Onstage they were doing more familiar plays, but I don't see the point of doing something that's been done over and over. It doesn't excite us and I don't think it excites the audience either." Forman loathes the idea of staging the umpteenth production of Steel Magnolias or Larry Shue's The Foreigner.

Beginning with their own creative adaptation of ALICE: In Wonderland, currently on the boards, Gerlach and Forman plan a less typical lineup for their first season, with some local debuts from tested talents. In 2001 they plan the Southeastern premiere of Impossible Marriage by Beth Henley, author of Crimes of the Heart, as well as the musical Blood Brothers by Educating Rita author Willy Russell. "I consider myself an American director, a meat-and-potatoes director, and we're interested in digging up lost or rarely done American plays," Gerlach adds. "We've already inaugurated an American Classics series, with I Never Sang for My Father scheduled for February."

Gerlach says she was originally drawn to Onstage Atlanta because it had a "thrust" stage, not a more traditional proscenium-style stage. "There are good things about the Onstage Atlanta tradition that I want to keep. You couldn't put a lot of scenery on the space they had, so you had to put actors on it. That led to an emphasis on actor-oriented scripts, and it's complicated to have a lot of people on a stage at once, but I kind of like it. Onstage Atlanta was always very open audition-wise, and we liked its open-door audition policy."

Fugate wants Stage Door Players to have a comparable acceptance of new performers and new plays, and he plans to revive the New Play Workshop he originally established at the theater and which led to the off-shoot of Koalaty Presentations, which cultivates local talent. "When I started the workshop in 1992, nobody was doing new work in Atlanta. From that you saw a fire: You then had Dad's Garage, Whole World Theatre, Horizon all doing new play projects. I hope that I started a little of that. I would love to expand and experiment here. We just have to go very carefully."

Part of going carefully means building up Stage Door's finances. "We're definitely in a rebuilding stage. When we get low on money, there's a tendency to cut the programs, and I want to rebuild the education program and the play readings," says Fugate. He describes a funding catch-22 for a small theater, in which a playhouse may attract more grant money by staging newer works and reaching to a broader audience but can conversely diminish the sale of tickets to its core audience.

According to Fugate, Stage Door Players, as a community playhouse with no paid staff positions, budgets about $3,000 per show for its season. For its part, Onstage Atlanta qualifies as a professional "non-Equity" theater, meaning it pays staff members and performers, but need not live up to the financial requirements of the Actor's Equity union. Forman estimates the theater's current budget as "under $100,000, perhaps as little as $65,000." (Compare that to the Shakespeare Tavern, an Equity theater with an operational budget of $575,000-$600,000 a year, or the non-Equity professional theater Dad's Garage with its budget of about $250,000.)

Fugate says the cavalry has ridden to Stage Door's rescue in the past. "We've gone bankrupt several times, but each time people have pitched in and kept the theater going, he says. "For a lot of people, since Stage Door was their first opportunity in theater, they'll come back and help us out."

Gerlach attributes Onstage's initial longevity to its relationship with St. Luke's. "I think it came from the volunteer base to begin with. For a while, the church patronage and a base of about 500 hardcore volunteers made it run and run and run." She credits Marc Gowan for keeping the theater alive after St. Luke's took the space back to expand its homeless mission. "The theater didn't produce for a year-and-a-half, but Marc made it through that, came back and resurrected the theater at the 14th Street Playhouse."

Onstage is undergoing its own reconstruction, says Gerlach. "There wasn't a mailing list per se when we got into our jobs -- it hadn't been updated or maintained -- so we're rebuilding all of that. Like all theaters, you're always chasing money. The night ALICE: In Wonderland opened, we did a benefit at the Atlanta History Center and it was very successful, and since then the fallout has been very positive."

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