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Can Dad's Garage bridge the generation gap in its second decade? 

With the departure of artistic director Kate Warner earlier this year, the playhouse finds itself at a turning point

In improv theater, the performers can become anything, from rugrats to codgers, from inanimate objects to washed-up celebrities. One thing they cannot do, though, is turn back the hands of time. Scott Warren, an actor and improviser at Dad’s Garage Theatre since 1999, recently noticed the years catching up to him.  

“In improv, it’s common to pick people up during scenes: ‘Look, this person’s flying!’ When we were performing a few weeks ago, I was playing a tree, and ‘the creatures of the forest’ climbed on me. At the time, I thought, ‘Look at me! I’m strong enough to support two improvisers!’  

“Then afterwards it caught up with me. I’ve been walking with a limp for the past two or three weeks. Tons of times, I’ll be onstage and forget that I’m a 36-year-old, out-of-shape nerd. Any time there’s any kind of dance choreography, my first response is 'Uhhh….'”

The demands of age and grown-up responsibility take a toll not just on Warren, but on most of the Inman Park playhouse’s long-standing core group of improvisers, staffers and other theater artists. “We’re kind of a collection of young adults in our mid-30s," says Warren. "Six or seven of us have babies, including [actor/playwright] Travis Sharp, who’s part of the Dad’s extended family. Almost half the ensemble has kids, and there are several married people and three divorced people.”

In one sign of the times, he adds, “A few years ago, before improv shows, everybody would be drinking beer. Now, before improv, everybody’s drinking energy drinks.”

An aging ensemble poses a potential challenge for a popular theater that’s been virtually synonymous with youth since its inception in 1995. Former artistic director Kate Warner says, “Dad’s is skewed toward younger audiences because of the programming, schedule and mostly the culture.”

According to one of the theater’s surveys, as of June 2009, 60 percent of Dad’s audience is under age 35. The rowdy ticket-buyers don’t always have the same frame of reference as the older players. Longtime performer Matt “Lucky” Yates, 41, whom Warren calls “the face of Dad’s Garage,” acknowledges that “[Co-founder] Chris Blair and I are notorious for dropping ’70s pop culture references that will flop so flat. With an older audience, you can get a home run dropping a Supertramp reference.”  

Knowing who’ll laugh at an improvised Japanese game show, and which audiences will appreciate a live restaging of a “Six Million Dollar Man” episode marks simply one of theaters’ adjustments. Dad’s Garage’s current transitions include its second search for an artistic director in five years while its older members walk a line between clinging to youth, putting away their childish things or finding new definitions for “adulthood.”

 
In 1995, six Florida State University graduates, plus a couple of friends from other colleges, descended on Atlanta and founded Dad’s Garage. Occupying the former home of Actor’s Express, the playhouse quickly built a reputation for energetic if scruffy stage plays, including such high-profile productions as the world premiere of O Happy Day! by the late Graham Chapman of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” As an improv theater, Dad’s emphasized not just the games familiar from “Who’s Line Is it Anyway?” but longer forms like the improvised soap opera “Scandal!” and irreverent features like “The Lucky Yates Show.”

Nearly a decade and a half later, most of Dad’s founders have moved on, although Blair and George Faughnan are still mainstays of the company, and Matt Stanton, though no longer an ensemble member, still performs with the troupe. Co-founder and artistic director Sean Daniels left the theater in 2004 to take a job with San Francisco’s California Shakespeare Theatre. He currently serves as associate artistic director of Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. At the time of his departure, he envisioned Dad’s as a theater by and for young people.

“When I left, I had thought that I didn’t want the organization to mature with the artists — that someone in their 20s should take over, announce that my ideas were full of shit and reinvent the place,” says Daniels, now 36. To drop an obscure 1970s reference, it sounds sort of like Logan’s Run, the cheesy 1976 sci-fi flick about a futuristic city controlled by computers that keep the population under 30 years old.

Rather than restrict the theater to the control of twentysomethings, Dad’s Garage chose Kate Warner as Daniels’ replacement, at once an example of promoting from within (since she was a longtime artistic associate) and bringing in an outsider (since she had no improv background). Warner put the theater on firmer financial footing and cultivated new plays by the likes of Steve Yockey and Lauren Gunderson.  

Warner found it hard to keep up the pace of the Dad’s Garage lifestyle. People deeply involved in any theater can face long hours and late nights of meetings, set constructions, rehearsals, opening nights, and bull sessions at the bar afterward. The Dad’s culture can be even more demanding, with late-night improv 52 weeks of the year.

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