Theater Review - All I want

An Atlanta theater wish list

Theaters always want something.

Performing companies don’t just seek financial assistance in tough times, but are perpetually looking out for material items. Troupes often run “wish lists” in their programs, asking for donations of things as small as period props to as large as a whole new playhouse.

But there are some things that aren’t quite so tangible, yet could bring great benefits to the Atlanta theater scene. Here are a handful of notions for gifts that wouldn’t fit under a Christmas tree.

A Breath of Fresh Air. Cities like Minneapolis cultivate better theater in part because they have worse weather, and thus fewer outdoor activities to compete with the arts. Atlanta should make a greater effort to turn its pleasant climate into a cultural asset through more outdoor shows. Some groups, like Atlanta Classical Theatre and Spontaneous Theatre Company, stage them already, but why not something from the city’s bigger companies — and which use Atlanta itself as a thematic backdrop?

One of the indelible theater experiences of my life was seeing Trojan Women at Nashville’s Centennial Park, enacted before the park’s full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Imagine, say, Driving Miss Daisy produced outdoors at Piedmont Park, near the actual streets on which Hoke drives Daisy. Such a show could dovetail nicely with an event like the Atlanta Dogwood Festival.

A Campaign. Atlanta’s best-known locale probably remains Hartsfield Airport. How to make the most of that? The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau implemented a smart idea by debuting a 90-second promotional ad on United Airlines west-bound flights, and thus informing more than a million passengers a month about the city’s arts. Just as United Airlines helped the project by offering discount advertising rates, so could our own Delta Airlines follow suit, giving a boost to the cultural atmosphere of its home city.

A Club. Earlier this year Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth told me that the difference between Atlanta and her previous home of Chicago was that theater there seemed a greater part of the city’s everyday discourse. How to replicate that here? Perhaps by borrowing a page from Chicago’s own Oprah Winfrey, and applying her highly successful book club idea to live theater.

Just as casual, “grassroots” book clubs tend to be the most fun, so would groups dedicated to seeing and discussing new plays each month. The Atlanta Coalition of the Performing Arts has a comparable organization already in place. “Scene Stealers” features discount group tickets, post-show discussions with the casts and even dessert receptions. Still, a true club would have to gather without the show participants, in order to more freely exchange feelings and become more than a passive audience of plays.

A Package. Small theater companies and freelance artists have notorious difficulties finding health insurance. Such situations can be disastrous when the uninsured fall ill although they can also bring out the best in the artistic community. When Neighborhood Playhouse’s former executive/artistic director Sondra Nelson was stricken with bone cancer, a group called “Friends of Sondra Nelson” raised more than $12,000 for her medical expenses. A partial remedy could be a group benefits package that offers life, health and disability insurance to staff and artists of theaters that are individually too small to interest insurers, but together would be sufficiently large enough to get more complete coverage.

A Silencer. New York City, recognizing that cell phones can be the bane of modern life, recently voted into law a ban of “the use of mobile telephones in live theaters, cinemas and all places of public performance,” subject to a $50 fine. Such laws may be hard to enforce, but simply putting their language on a poster outside the theater entrance would reinforce the “turn off your phone” pleas of the curtain speech.

Of course, that law wouldn’t address other forms of distracting behavior. Last spring a woman single-handedly ruined a Soul-stice Repertory’s production of Death of a Salesman, staged in the round at 7 Stages’ Back Stage Theatre. I can only assume this person was drunk as, within arm’s reach of the cast and in full view of the audience, she talked, sighed, tapped her foot and even exclaimed, “What an asshole!” at a volume that no one could miss.

I think a Shakespearean punishment would suit such misdeeds, and I propose bringing back the stocks, those wooden-framed devices with the holes for wrist and neck. Set them up in the lobby and lock in noisy offenders until after the show. That would set an example that nobody would soon forget. Go medieval!

Change of venue

Tim Cordier’s live, late-night talk show rings in the new year with a different name and fresh surroundings. Called “The Culture Barn Show” when held at The Art Farm earlier this year, it resurfaces as “Alive in Little Five” at 7 Stages beginning Jan. 4, and on the first Saturday of every month at 11 p.m. The “season premiere” features such artistic notables as artist R. Land and rock band Yes Virginia.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??