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New direction

Susan V. Booth named Alliance artistic director


The departure of Kenny Leon as the Alliance Theatre's energetic artistic director leaves some sizable tennis shoes to fill. For 11 years Leon maintained a tireless and high profile as the leader of the Southeast's largest theater. "We had about 100 candidates for the position, from the U.S. and abroad, and it never would have received such a breadth of interest if not for Kenny," says Debbie Shelton, chair of the theater's board of directors.

Officially named Leon's successor on Monday, Susan V. Booth knows she's stepping into a big job. "I don't think anybody will ever replace Kenny," she says. "I think the trick is to succeed Kenny based on his inroads in the community. He's engaged with Atlanta in a very personal way. It's my job to keep those doors open. It's also my job to open additional doors."

Booth's name is already known to Atlanta's theater audience, as she's been a guest director of three shows for the Alliance. She's proved as comfortable with the edgy and provocative How I Learned to Drive as with the moving but more conventional Shadowlands, and proves an intriguing choice as the theater's new artistic leader. Coincidentally, her announcement comes at the eve of her latest directorial effort for the theater, Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, previews for which begin March 29.

An award-winning freelance director, Booth has directed plays for theaters from New York to La Jolla (one of which, Quake, is currently part of the 2001 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville). She has held the position of literary manager and director of new play development for Chicago's Goodman Theater, the city's oldest and largest resident theater. Originally from Ohio, she's lived in Chicago for the past 16 years, also serving as co-artistic director for the Theater on the Lake. She believes her experience in Chicago and across the nation has offered the ideal preparation for the Alliance job: "It was all, in retrospect, nicely calculated."

Shelton points out that Booth's prior work with the Alliance was ultimately not a factor in the board's decision. "We had a number of criteria during our search," she says. "Talent was first on the list, as well as artistic achievement, collaboration, community leadership, commitment to diversity and understanding of financial responsibilities. Susan not only met these criteria but was head and shoulders the best. She'll be a presence in the community that will be electrifying."

Booth herself projects a calm confidence, even though she remarks, "I'd be out of my mind not to be a little nervous." Asked why she thinks she got the nod from the board, she replies, "They know my work, and they know my belief that every time a play is produced, there must be a sense of 'event.' I have worked for a number of years in finding the right plays at the right time for a major theater, so I have a track record I'm very proud of."

Gus Stuhlreyer, the theater's managing director, says the development of new work will be one of Booth's major priorities. "Certainly there will be a more consistent commitment to new play development. Like any great company makes a commitment to R&D and makes sure it's not the first thing crossed out when times get tough, we'll be doing the same with new plays." Stuhlreyer adds, "She's also stated that she wants the Alliance Family Series to achieve national recognition, and she wants to boost our level of collaboration with other theaters at the local, regional and national levels."

Stuhlreyer hopes the theater's budget deficit of $1.35 million won't be a problem for her. "The deficit has been dealt with by the board, as we'll apply towards it the royalties we're receiving and will hopefully continue to receive from Aida. Aida's touring nationally, even as it continues to sell out in New York, and we should be able to retire the debt in the next three years. That makes Kenny's legacy a break-even one on an artistic basis and takes a load off the shoulders of the new artistic director."

Booth expresses a commitment to presenting a diversity of creative work, being well aware of Leon's achievement in reaching out to Atlanta's African-American community. "There's a model of a theater season that I'm so over: It goes 'white play, white play, Black History Month black play, white play.' That's not me. I have very catholic taste in scripts and subject matter. A not-for-profit organization has no business not reflecting its community".

Her selection comes virtually simultaneously with the theater's announcement of its 2001-2002 season, chosen by Kenny Leon, who will return in the summer of 2002 to direct The Wiz. "The new season was crafted without my participation, but I know all finalists were asked their opinions of selections, says Booth. "The Alliance and the Goodman have programmed in similar veins. It's an incredibly diverse and eclectic season, and it's one that I feel very comfortable advocating."

She adds, "I'll be directing Proof next spring, which is a wonderful serendipity because I'm coming from Chicago, and the play is set on a porch in Hyde Park." By then Atlantans will have gotten a closer look at Booth and her artistic vision, even as next year's Proof gives her a chance to revisit sweet home Chicago.

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