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.

Warner says, “I can do the late hours for a period of time — say, when I’m in rehearsals through opening. But the constant late hours are tough when you are also trying to balance other priorities in your life. For me, it became very difficult to be at the improv shows to show support for the ensemble, and balance that with the office hours and nighttime rehearsal hours and occasionally seeing Karen Parsons, her partner. And, of course, you don’t want to compromise the work, so eventually something has to change or shift.”

Warner left Dad's earlier in 2009 to become artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Boston. Currently, Warren, who'd been Dad’s interim artistic director during the search for Daniels’ replacement, serves as interim producer during the search to replace Warner. His duties include participating in the theater’s strategic planning, which — Dad’s being Dad’s — can mean using props around the theater to build a giant robot to represent the theater’s strategic goals.

Warren hopes the theater will have a new AD by fall, and expects that the 2009-2010 lineup, not finalized at press time, will feature all original plays generated in-house. He feels Dad’s theatrical programming should more closely reflect its identity. “We used to do plays you could see somewhere else, like Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party nine years ago. It was a lot of fun, but if you saw it at Actor’s Express, you wouldn’t be surprised. Mojo (the last show Warner directed) is a show that I’m proud of, which pushed the artists, but it could be done somewhere else. I personally think people want to get away from shows that could easily be done elsewhere.”

It’s hard to imagine any other local theater staging Fingertips: 21 Short Works Inspired by Our Favorite Band, the playhouse’s next production. Debuting July 10 on its smaller, more experimental Top Shelf space, Fingertips features contributions from Daniels, Yockey, Sharp, Stanton and members of the company in a tribute to quirky alt-rockers They Might Be Giants.

Yates welcomes a change in leadership. “For the past few years we took a misstep. Kate is extremely talented and should definitely be running a theater somewhere, but her style isn’t our style. So we weren’t moving forward. Dad’s is about entertainment — it shouldn’t be trying to teach anything. Let’s not do shows that we wouldn’t want to see, or charge what we couldn’t afford to pay. There should be less High Art and more High Fart.”

Not that Warren or Yates oppose scripted stage plays that come from outside the Dad’s circle and expand the playhouse’s artistic scope. Both applaud 2001’s 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, a satirical, subversive romp through the Oval Office, which raised the company’s intellectual profile and featured former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in attendance for one performance.

“Around then, we started to get a little bit older of an '8 o’clock audience.’ When we’d look into the audience, we’d see the reflections of their glasses,” Warren recalls. This summer, Dad’s cancelled the planned production of the musical boy-band satire Boy Groove rather than scramble to find a replacement director for Warner. In its place, the company's staging Beach Blanket Improv. Yates says the older audiences are eating it up.

“They don’t want to stay up as late, but they kick ass. A lot of times they’re as filthy as the twentysomething frat-house crowd,” Yates says.

If part of Dad’s audience seems to be aging with its members, the theater’s highly conscious of the need to rotate in new performers. “People will say, ‘We’re a bunch of old people. We can’t keep this up.’ I hate it when they say that,” says Yates. “But we’re very concerned about new ensemble members — it’s ‘new blood, new blood, new blood.’” 

In addition to its ensemble of about a dozen established improvisers, Dad’s maintains a “nonsemble” of nearly 20 performers, most of them former students from improv classes who tend to be in their mid-to-late 20s. Eve Krueger, 27, remembers seeing comedy at Dad’s Garage as a high school student and being bit by the improv bug. She worked her way up from classes to become a frequent actress in the theater’s stage plays, beginning with Sharp’s Lawrenceburg, a hybrid spoof of Star Wars and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” 

Krueger has found the “old-timers” to be supportive, unthreatened mentors. She recalls her first time performing a tap-out monologue, in which performers take turns telling a story in the voice of the same character. “Z Gillespie started the monologue with a really strong Southern dude character. When I tapped in and tried to emulate him it wound up really ... Irish. And not at all Southern. Or particularly male.” 

Krueger recalls that when Gillespie tapped her back out and resumed the story, “Instead of making a joke out of my obvious mistake, he justified what had happened and the character was Irish from that point on. It would have been so easy for him, or anyone else in that game, to throw me under the bus, but he didn't. Before I came to Dad's, I had played with people who would have done just that. And it felt great to know that no matter who you are, the people you play with will support you.” 

Meanwhile, after years of working at more mainstream theaters with bigger budgets, Daniels appreciates the value of maintaining the same ensemble over the years. “With people performing at Dad’s for 10 to 15 years, the audience learns their story and their triumphs in a way that you never learn about the guest actor that's in town for seven weeks.

“For example, the NBA does an incredible job of marketing its players, not its team, something we do the opposite of in theater. The NBA wants you to follow the stories of these athletes so that you have an investment in them. In basketball, we all love the rookie that comes off the bench to win the game. In theater, we apologize for the understudy that goes on to save the show. Is either more or less spectacular, given the odds of failure? I think in order to seem ‘important,’ we’ve taken ourselves too seriously and missed a great opportunity to create a bond with our audiences. What's great about Dad’s is that over time, while the performers have aged, and may ache more than they used to, they’ve also become family with our audience members.”

Still, the old-timers must strike a balance between the demands of art and personal life. Warren says, “I still play video games. I collect action figures. Nobody ever comes into my office without mentioning The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I turned 35 in 2007, though, and that’s when my health insurance shot up. I’m in the new bracket: 35 to death.”

Grown-up responsibilities caught up to Warren with a vengeance last year when his wife, Dad’s actress/improviser Sloane Warren, gave birth to twin boys. “Between having the boys and the stable situation at Dad’s, I’m literally the happiest I’ve ever been. The biggest change is the schedule. Once you have kids, that’s your schedule. The boys are kind of like the Borg: Every time you try something, they adapt and change. You can make them laugh one way, but if you try it again, their shields go up and you need something else.”

Yates has no plans to settle down and raise a family. “Have I thought about it? Yes. Do I want to do it? Nooo. I love kids — I do a kids’ show — but I have enough trouble keeping my head above water as a freelance performer. I don’t know if it’s a selfish choice. I’ve had several girlfriends who disagreed with me, but what can you do?”

Nevertheless, children point the way to Yates’ future. He’s proud to have launched an online, family-friendly puppet show, “Spook House Dave,” and says that the Dad’s children show, Uncle Grampa’s Hoo-Dilly Storytime has finally become popular after nearly a decade. Entertaining the really young audiences may even offer job security.

“Ultimately it’s puppetry and kids shows that jazz me. There’s always going to be kids, and parents will obviously want to take their kids to cool stuff.” Plus, the children’s shows lay the groundwork for another generation of audience members and potential improvisers.

In Logan’s Run, when citizens turned 30, crystals implanted in their palms would blink a warning signal. Yates’ example suggests that when you get older and your hand starts blinking, you should put a puppet on it.

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