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Arts Issue - Theater vs. the economy

Dad's Garage's Lara Smith and Out of Hand's Adam Fristoe on 'leaps of faith'

In 2011, three Atlanta-area theater companies launched "Save Our Theater" fundraising campaigns: Actor's Express, Georgia Shakespeare, and Marietta's Theater in the Square. Three years later, Actor's Express is going strong but the other two are not. Theater in the Square closed in 2012, and Georgia Shakespeare ceased operations last month.

Georgia Shakespeare's untimely end particularly reveals the challenges of mid-size theater companies in Atlanta. The company's productions of Shakespeare classics featured large Actors' Equity casts being paid union rates, in a state that ranks 50th in the nation for state apportionment for the arts.

Two Atlanta theater leaders look to the future in the wake of Georgia Shakespeare's closure. Lara Smith is managing director of Dad's Garage, which specializes in improv comedy and lost its longtime home in Inman Park in 2013. Dad's has launched a promising Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a new, permanent home in an old church on Ezzard Street. Adam Fristoe is co-artistic director of Out of Hand Theater, which has no permanent space but specializes in off-beat theatrical events, including White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at local homes and theaters through Nov. 22.

Smith and Fristoe discuss their companies' different approaches to theater, how to reach new audiences, and consider whether buying a "forever home" is a leap of faith in the city's current artistic and economic environments.

Lara Smith: We're getting that question a lot. When we rented our old space at 280 Elizabeth St., we treated it like our own home. We replaced the roof, we added an HVAC. When we had no air conditioning, I would work in my bathing suit. But when Inman Park turned around, we had no stake in the ground.

When we set out to find a space, we were looking for a rental — we didn't intend to purchase a space. It's really challenging to find an intown space that can accommodate a theater in a safe neighborhood. We considered about 20 spaces, six of them seriously. But this property is perfect for us, partly because it included a parking lot in the Old Fourth Ward. We look at this as securing the legacy of the organization. We'll bring 30,000 people every year into the area.

Adam Fristoe: What's the time frame?

LS: The Kickstarter campaign finishes on Nov. 11. We should close by the end of the year. The building has tenants through the start of 2016, and they'll pay our mortgage for 2015. Then we'll begin construction and hopefully move in by mid-2016.

AF: Not having a building makes us more nimble and innovative. The nature of our work is to make innovative new theatrical events, which range wildly. Occasionally, we'll work in a theater, but that's more and more seldom. If we had a permanent building, we'd have to do plays regularly, and then we'd be in the repertory theater model.

LS: We have about 30 productions a year, where other theaters have five or seven. For those theaters, if a show doesn't hit, they don't have a lot of margin, but we have 29 others.

AF: There are challenges that come with not having a space. Lots of fundraising can be tied to having a building. It's hard to stay in contact with your audience without a building. I feel I have to market to a brand-new audience for each show, but regular theaters do that, too.

LS: You say that not having a theater keeps you nimble and innovative, but we feel like having a space does that for us. We stopped referring to 280 Elizabeth Street as "Dad's" and started calling it "280 Elizabeth Street" because we'd always been there and identified with it, but our identity goes beyond the building.

AF: We struggle with branded identity, and not having a space is one of the reasons. From a broader business perspective, we wouldn't be able to make the things we want that way. We're more like a dance company. The structure of Out of Hand is very much like the way dance is produced.

LS: Was that intentional?

AF: It wasn't intentional at our founding in 2001, but we realized it after a few years. If we had a more robust economy, we'd love to have a studio space with a bar, but it's not viable here in Atlanta.

We're trying to make theater for audiences not reached by traditional theater. We love traditional theater, but that audience is dwindling. Some of them go to improv, some to go sketch, but tons of people go to football games, or weddings, or events. So we're trying to make events, and to take theater to people who wouldn't otherwise go. And we can make really exciting experiences different than in a traditional theater setting.

LS: We strive to do the same things, but we do them in totally different ways.

AF: To do what we want, we need the energy and performing style that comes up through improv, and we also need the highly trained crasftsman in acting and directing who comes up through the traditional system. Some of our shows, like Hominid or our upcoming Blackberry Winter, need an extraordinary actor with traditional theater chops. And in losing Georgia Shakespeare, we've lost this massive source of talent. To run a building with a repertory season like that —

LS: — with a full Equity company —

AF: I don't know how to change that.

LS: I moved to Georgia in 2007 and have always worked in the arts in a recession, with donations leaving.

AF: We opened our first show within a week of Sept. 11. We were like, "Oh, this isn't going to work out!"

LS: I think Adam is right. I don't know what Georgia Shakespeare could've done differently.

AF: When you're hit by a massive recession, and you lose the government cornerstone, what are you going to do? You have to quit producing, and then what? If Atlanta were a first-tier city, there would be more theaters that could support shows on the level of Georgia Shakespeare. These organizations thrive in other cities. I think it's an Atlanta-specific problem. It's disappointing.

LS: It's tragic that it happened, but on the flip side, theater as an art form is going to continue to exist. No matter how many theaters close, theater is one of the oldest art forms, and it's going to continue in Atlanta. Our two organizations prove that you can survive with two very distinct business models.

LS: We like to say we appeal to the young and the young at heart. We’ll see an older audience at the 8 p.m. show and a younger one at the 10:30 show. I’d say it’s diversified and expanded our audience, and our audience is aging with us. We’re definitely viewed as a young theater, but the core group of performers isn’t 20 years old anymore. We have people in their 20s and their 60s in our core group.

AF: It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.

LS: Or even 10 years ago. And it’s not all white and all men. It’s rewarding to us in terms of the work we do and the conversations we facilitate.

… We’ve got Dad’s Garage TV, our YouTube channel, and we show a lot of videos at our shows. At our improv show CageMatch, we have people text vote which team is better and have live tabulation. That’s about as tech-savvy as we get.

AF: For us, this competition from other media can be quite a problem. … There’s so much available, so to get a new thing into the fray, you have to do a lot of work. It used to be, we would do a traditional show, send out a press release, put up posters, get a stunning review, and the show sells out. Now, you have to put so much content out there just to get attention. You have to reach out while the show’s still being made. We already got the press involved in development of our show Blackberry Winter, so when we produce it in a year from now, that legwork will be done. I can’t just go “Hey, we’ve got a show.” I have to do the legwork well in advance.

LS: What “word of mouth” means is changing.

AF: It’s quite interesting and quite lively, but it’s a lot of work, which doesn’t go with the nimble, innovative model. I have this text message play I want to write — you’d get the messages on your phone, and the more you interact with them, the deeper you go into the story — but it’s a massive technical undertaking.



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