Start-up costs 

The challenges of staying a theater company

It's not that hard to start a theatrical company. You just need a group of dedicated people, a name and, ideally, some kind of mission statement. In the 21st century, a website doesn't hurt, either.
The hard part, though, can be staying a theater company, to be able to pay rent, find like-minded collaborators and generate financial support -- not to mention putting on plays. The case of Actors Theatre of Atlanta illustrates some of the challenges that theatrical start-ups routinely face.

Actors Theatre of Atlanta was founded by transplants, notably Jay Freer and his wife Rhoda Griffis, New York actors disillusioned with working in the Big Apple in the early 1980s. They moved South and in 1985, their newly formed company held its inaugural performance, Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, at the now-shuttered Performance Gallery.

Though well-received, Actors Theatre's first production was very nearly its last. Freer recalls that the combination of limited performing venues, competing career opportunities and the countless details involved in the endeavor put Actor's Theatre on hold. He compares starting a small theater to taking a crash course in business, public relations, economics and management, while having to train a new work force (the cast) every six weeks.

At the time, Freer took a job at Lovett High School to support Griffis' acting -- she's gone on to land small roles in films and big ones at the Alliance Theatre -- while the rest of their cohorts went separate ways. When Lovett opened its comfortable 650-seat Post Theater in 1996, Freer saw an opportunity to bring Actors Theatre back for summer shows when the playhouse was unoccupied. The company returned last summer for a repertory of Neil Simon's Chekhov tribute The Good Doctor and Lee Blessing's hostage drama Two Rooms.

The productions met the company's expectations, but plans to follow them up were nearly derailed after Sept. 11 and the subsequent economic downturn. Nearly all theaters nationwide saw diminished attendance, but Actors Theatre was badly hurt when its major corporate sponsors withdrew funding.

In 2002, the company faced the prospect of staging no show at all, but in mid-June, at virtually the last possible moment, what Freer calls a "significant grant" came through from the McLatchey Foundation, a local organization that supports nonprofits, named in memory of a deceased Atlanta attorney. Consequently, from Aug. 8-24 Freer directs Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, in which Griffis plays a renowned writer who sees her protege, played by Mary Lucy Bivens, become a rival.

To audiences with just a casual interest in theater, a two-character play running for 12 performances at a high school may not seem like much. But Collected Stories represents a single step for the theater toward such goals as having a resident company of 10-12 actors, productions throughout the year and eventually its own permanent space. Instead of grinding to another halt, Actors Theatre is proving that it hasn't lost precious momentum.

Summer Stock: The 2002-03 theater season unofficially begins Aug. 14, with the opening night of Dirty Blonde at Theatre in the Square. Summer seasons tend to be lulls, but I did learn a few things.
1) Don't give plays subtitles. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of the most powerful, portentous titles in our culture. But it's arguably diminished by its subtitle, "Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem." Likewise, "Scenes from a Pretended Life" don't do anything to enhance Clive Barker's perfectly adequate title The History of the Devil, and "An Urban Fairy Tale" is much too blatant and on-the-nose for Beautiful Thing. Only a spare, descriptive subtitle is necessary, like Della's Diner IV: Blue Plate Special or Carrie White: The Musical.

2) Don't give roles quirky names. In theater, characters named Lucifer or Antipholus are commonplace, but as this summer showed, even supposedly ordinary folk can have handles like Dog, Hoke, Flap, Booley, Dalliance, Burl and Ste. You know they've gone to extremes when you find the most familiar monikers (Julia, Sylvia, Hugh Evans) in Shakespeare.

3) Don't plan your premiere around construction schedules. The premiere of Onstage Atlanta's new space was twice delayed due to disputes over its front entrance, and by opening night it still wasn't ready, the contractor exceeding his deadline by, alas, only a matter of hours. Audiences were required to enter through the back.

Entrances: The Southeast Playwright's Project, in conjunction with Theater Emory, offers a weekend of works by new writers at Emory University's Rich Building, Aug. 17-18. The mini-festival will feature readings of five full-length plays, at least seven one-acts and several 10-minute plays. ... Atlanta's The Mighty Rassilon Art Players, which shares members with The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, will present "Welcome Back Potter," an original musical parody that combines the Hogwarts school from the Harry Potter books with the Sweathogs from "Welcome Back Kotter" Aug. 31 at Dragon*Con.

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


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