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A stage odyssey

Leaders take flight and leave Atlanta theater in flux

There's a saying, often attributed as an "ancient Chinese curse," that goes "May you live in interesting times." The glass-is-half-empty reasoning behind the adage equates memorable moments with calamitous events. Times are unquestionably interesting on the Atlanta theater scene, where the latest development was Kenny Leon's July 20 bombshell that this would be his final season as artistic director of the Alliance Theatre. Leon's departure, effective next summer, is the latest in an artistic "brain drain" that has seen the loss of Actor's Express founder Chris Coleman and such valued performers as Peter Ganim.

But Leon views the glass as half full, even when acknowledging the revolving door at the Woodruff Arts Center, which has also seen the exit of Yoel Levi of the Atlanta Symphony and Ned Rifkin of the High Museum. "I think we're still in a place to grow. The arts institutions here are larger than individual persons. When you lose two or three leaders, it's time to move to the next level if you can embrace the values that we've had already."

Weir Harman, incoming artistic director for the Express, shares Leon's outlook: "The headlines about all the attrition from Atlanta's arts community, which are all about our frailty. But I think it's a time when we can show our strengths," says the 33-year-old Richmond native, whose resume includes stints at Seattle's Annex Theater and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn. "It's really kind of invigorating. It's an exciting moment in the cultural life of the city when we can start new conversations."

A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Harman recognizes that Coleman leaves some big shoes to fill, having made Actor's Express one of Atlanta's most acclaimed playhouses since its 1988 inception. "It's really daunting in the abstract, but I've gotten unconditional support from the Actor's Express board and within the theater itself," says Harman. "I think part of that is because what I have in mind is not such a hard right turn from the kind of stuff Chris had been doing. If I were proposing a radical departure, I'd probably have a mutiny on my hands."

He continues, "In other situations, I might think, 'I'm inheriting a subscriber base and an infrastructure,' but I also feel I've inherited an ethic about production and why we do theater in the first place. The through-line I read in all the work they did was placing a high premium on imagination, risk and resourcefulness in staging." Harman's first season includes such avant-garde work as The America Play by Suzi Lori-Parks and Joe Orton's black comedy Loot.

Harman will open the season on Sept. 14 by directing Pierre Corneille's The Illusion, freely adapted by Angels in America's Tony Kushner, and he has no shortages of ideas for the theater's future. "Next season we'll have a world premiere, possibly in co-production with a theater in another city. We might set up some writing residencies, so in my third year, we can have the world premiere of a show that was developed in-house. And I'd like to do co-productions with other Atlanta theaters."

Hearing Harman plan for seasons ahead helps emphasizes the extent to which Coleman and Leon each influenced Atlanta theater in past decade. Leon has seen the theatrical landscape change since he joined the Alliance more than a decade ago. "Since I started at the Alliance, the number of theaters have increased. You may have had one Actor's Express before, now you have an Actor's Express and a Dad's Garage and a PushPush," he says. "I think Atlanta's a great place to work, although, I don't know if the artistic community is as close as it once was." Nodding to the departure of artists like Coleman and actor/director Andrea Frye, he says, "The artists are more in transit these days, and have different area codes."

"The financial times appear to be tougher," Leon adds, "since there are so many theater companies, and so few corporations willing to make a long-term commitment, say five or 10 years, to a theater. We used to have two African-American theaters, Jomandi and JustUs. Now JustUs is gone and Jomandi is going through their situation."

After a financial crisis caused Jomandi Productions to cancel the second half of its 1999-2000 season, the playhouse is bouncing back with a new season that includes Five Guys Named Moe, Black Nativity and Ruby Dee's one-woman show My One Good Nerve. "With every property we're looking for a collaborative partner, an institutional one wherever possible," says artistic director Marsha Jackson-Randolph. "It does help financially, but it also helps lead us to exciting artists and new works."

That approach led Jomandi to Yo Alice, a musical, hip-hop version of Alice in Wonderland, with the Atlanta premiere planned for Dec. 14. Yo Alice is being developed with producer/choreographer Maurice Himes and Radio City Music Hall Entertainment, and comedian Sinbad is in talks to participate.

The new season, however, will continue without the participation of Thomas W. Jones II, producing director and one of Jomandi's founders, who left the theater to form Visionary Innovative Alliances, a production company that develops touring plays as well as compact discs. At the Rialto Theatre Jan. 5-7 VIA will present a showcase of its 2001 projects, including Jones' musical Birth of the Boom, a CD by Sonia Sanchez and blues musician's Theodis Ealey's multimedia concert "The Blues Is a Woman."

Some of the current transitions aren't quite so dramatic, such as the Jewish Theatre of the South relocating from the 14th Street Playhouse to the new Morris & Rae Frank Theatre at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody. "I'm thrilled to be back home, in our very own space. The days of schlepping are over," says artistic director Mira Hirsch. "It's a very comfortable 280-seat Proscenium style theater, with extra wide, cushy seats, which my audience will be particularly thrilled about." JTS inaugurates the playhouse with The Golem, opening Aug. 30.

Still, the events at the Alliance will set off ripples affecting other theaters. As Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre puts it, "The Alliance is the big guy in town. They're going to do what they do, and we have to adjust. If we're interested in the same show, the Alliance has to say no first. Kenny's been choosing more contemporary work lately, but fortunately his tastes and mine don't overlap much." Horizon, which begins its season with the musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change on Sept. 8, will see less involvement this season from Adler, who is expecting a baby in November.

Leon says that his choice to leave the Alliance didn't come easy. "Making that decision was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done emotionally. It was on my vacation, which is a time when I do a lot of soul-searching and think about where I am spiritually. I saw it was time to move on and to experiment with some new challenges and hopefully, God has something in store for me."

His last season will see Leon directing the new play Hearts for the Alliance Studio as well as Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten for the main stage starting Oct. 5. "It's great that I can do it as part of my last season," he says. "Margaret Ferguson, who was an important member of the Academy Theater and played Josie in the play, passed away last year. Her funeral made me think of a great artist and put me in mind of the play. I felt the power of her presence, which really made me want to do it."

He'll offer input for the Alliance's upcoming seasons to the future artistic director, but says, " I think it would be a mistake to plan a new season for someone else." He's proud of his choices for the new season, remaking "I always looked at the season that preceded it to plan the new one. Last year we ended with Blues in the Night, so I thought, 'how to continue on that?' We're excited to be doing Soul Possessed (opening Aug. 24), which is like an extension of Aida and Hot Mikado." The piece is written and directed by Debbie Allen, the choreographer best known for arranging the dance numbers of the Academy Awards every year.

Leon has yet to chose what he'll do next, but as a nationally recognized star of regional theater, the sky's the limit. "I love the stage, I probably want to explore directing independent film projects, and still want to act every two to three years. I might freelance for a year, but I'll need something more settled eventually." He feels a strong attachment to Atlanta and the work he's done here. "I feel I'm a huge part of the regional theater movement and want to take it to the next step. I really care about this place and working here — I am Atlanta." Whatever Leon decides, it promises more interesting times ahead.

?SeeCL's''complete schedule of the 2000-2001 theater season.??


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