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New push city 

After 10 years, PushPush signals new turn

For Tim Habeger, running Decatur's PushPush Theater means being as much traffic cop as artistic director.

Consider a recent Monday night at the Decatur playhouse. Actors Justin Welborn and Claire Christie were rehearsing a short comedy about the Inquisition for Holiday on Thin Ice III, PushPush's assortment of seasonal comedies. In another part of the building, actor Josie Burgin-Lawson and playwright Hank Kimmel prepared a short play for Savage Tree Arts Project's The Ho Ho Show. Savage Tree co-founder Kristi Casey hung artwork for another of the company's numerous multimedia shows during the holidays. Members of the Dailies film collaborative group held a meeting about final cuts to The Signal, a feature film recently accepted at Sundance Film Festival. And then Doug Dank called trying to find rehearsal space for his improv comedy show.

That's a busy, though not unusual, night for PushPush, given that the theater regularly presents stage plays, live music, documentary screenings and comedy shows, as well as productions from "homeless" theater companies. Whenever Habeger feels overwhelmed by providing a hub for Atlanta's young, scruffy and experimental companies, he tells himself, "OK, just take a breath, it'll be fine."

Over the past decade, PushPush Theater has expanded to being more than just a small theater company with an experimental bent to a kind of constant collaborator with other local artists. Consequently, PushPush observes its 10th anniversary by reorganizing under the name New Street Arts, "a collective of new Atlanta performing arts and filmmaking groups," Habeger explains. Named in part after the playhouse's address on New Street, the new group will be synonymous with the performing space, while PushPush Theater will be one of numerous resident companies.

Imagine a Ferst Center for underground performers.

Despite being one of the smaller of Atlanta's main theater companies, with a modest budget of $150,000, PushPush's influence extends further than mainstream audiences may realize. Shelby Hofer, PushPush's founder and former managing director (and, incidentally, Habeger's wife) estimates that in a given year the company collaborates with up to 300 artists of all types, through rentals, collaborations and official PushPush productions.

The newest, highest-profile sign of PushPush's wide-ranging influence is The Signal, a psychological thriller movie produced by POP Films but inspired by Dailies Film & Video, an independent, grassroots filmmaking group that's been working with PushPush for nearly five years.

"The Signal is pretty much the ultimate commercial version of Dailies," says producer Alex Motlagh. "We took some ideas from an unfinished Dailies project, and it mutated into its own thing. The way we wrote and workshopped it was the same as any Dailies project."

The Signal plays at the Sundance Film Festival at midnight, Jan. 22.

You might say that what the independent fare of the Sundance Film Festival is to the mainstream movies at the mall, PushPush's programming is to more established theater.

"We'll never be the place where you go to see Dancing at Lughnasa or whatever the big hit is," says Habeger. "We still have the mission to be, in effect, the experimental 'back space' for Atlanta theater."

The experiment began in 1996 as an extension of theater workshops begun at 7 Stages. Before the company even took the name PushPush, Habeger and Hofer produced a version of Murray Mednick's Joe and Betty at the Highland Theater, an unheated, dilapidated space, during some chilly weeks of winter. During the funny, fractious drama, audience members warmed themselves with quilts and hot potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil.

You don't soon forget an evening of such pure guerrilla theater.

Whether at its tiny original space in Sage Hill or its bigger but still intimate playhouse in Decatur -- its home since 2003 -- PushPush has always been the kind of place where you might see five actors perform Henrik Ibsen's massive, difficult Peer Gynt over two nights, or festivals of exciting but little-known playwrights like Adam Rapp. Even when they stage one of their "Reinventing Classics" productions of a show like Much Ado About Nothing, the company's artists focus on unusual approaches -- hence the name "PushPush."

Habeger acknowledges that such offbeat shows frequently lose money, yet PushPush relies on its box office for more than 65 percent of its income. The company stages so much work partly out of financial necessity during a time when most theaters are slumping.

"By increasing the number of offerings per week," he says, "we have barely been able to keep going."

Nevertheless, Habeger believes that PushPush provides a vital resource in Atlanta theater. "I'm probably more connected to Atlanta theater than anybody, and I still hear about new companies starting up. But most only have undergraduate university education. There used to be much more internships and apprenticeships in the arts in Atlanta. Without that kind of foundation, how can you grow?

"If they ran a Blimpie's, they'd get more training."

Habeger has faith that PushPush's workshop approach to production can provide theater people with the equivalent to continuing education and make them more viable as artists living -- or at least based -- in Atlanta.

New Street Arts is so new that the theater hasn't changed its signage yet, and the management alterations will be gradual. New Street Arts' board plans to hire a facility director and managing director, and Habeger hopes this will allow him to focus more on the creative side while bringing in new blood, and maybe even expand the facility to open another, larger performing space.

Habeger and Hofer appreciate the irony of talking about expansion at a time of small audiences. "We feel really responsible for providing the New Street Arts building now," Habeger says. "We're getting more requests than ever."

Perhaps the title Holiday on Thin Ice feels a little too true for comfort. But at New Street Arts, there's always room at the inn.

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