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Stage survivors

Smaller theaters weather the decades

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In attracting audiences, raising funds and creating quality work, every theater faces a struggle, especially nowadays, and most especially in Atlanta. The front lines of this battle can be the smallest playhouses, the little community and non-Equity theaters, with the ground troops being the actors and behind-the-scenes volunteers who labor for peanuts at best, finding their work to be its own reward.

The dedication of its participants, and the lower budgets involved, can be a tiny playhouse's secret weapon. Two of the Atlanta area's modest-sized theaters, Onstage Atlanta and Dunwoody's , are also among the city's oldest, having been quietly producing plays for nearly three decades while more ambitious, attention-getting theaters have come and gone.

Both theaters have weathered recent financial crises, and their boards of directors have installed new artistic directors at their helms. Scott Fugate at Stage Door Players and Deb Gerlach, along with producing director John Forman, at Onstage Atlanta all have high hopes for the future, tempered by the realities of their situations.

Each theater rose from modest beginnings in the early 1970s, with neither having a permanent home. "Onstage Atlanta started in 1971 at DeKalb Little Theater and performed at such places as the Decatur courthouse and Callanwolde Art Center," recalls Marc Gowan, Onstage Atlanta's former artistic director. "They found the basement beneath the sanctuary at St. Luke's Episcopal Church and began performing there. Then the church purchased an import car garage on Courtland Street, and we rented the space from them for years and years. It was a great relationship."

Stage Door Players was started in a bank by the Dunwoody Women's Club, says Fugate. "[It] was their little thing for a while. Then it was based at DeKalb Community College, and since 1988 it's been at North DeKalb Center for the Arts," where it's currently presenting its 27th season.

As an actor, director, writer and producer, Fugate has toured the U.S. and 14 other countries, but his life in the theater began at Stage Door. "My parents live in Dunwoody, and I did a one-act there when I was in high school in 1976, and at that time it was a huge deal. From there I got work at the Alliance, and that started my career." He adds, "Then in 1992, I came back from studying in England. Stage Door just happened to be the first theater I walked into. I said, 'Hi, I have a master's degree in theater,' which is what they love to hear, so they immediately put me to work." He's been artistic director since August, as his predecessor, Adriana Warner, had to step back due to a battle with cancer (which Fugate says has gone into remission).

He feels his experience is representative for people breaking into theater. "I consider my vocation to be nurturing talent, and I consider Stage Door to be a nurturing theater, a place for new actors to get exposure. Most of Atlanta's actors got their start at Stage Door Players. Nunsense has an actress named Marcie Millard [who's playing] Sister Mary Amnesia, and I told her she's the reason I'm at Stage Door, so I can work with people like her, who are just starting out."

Speaking of the oft-produced Nunsense, the closeness of a community theater's ties to its audience may heavily influence the content of the plays they produce, which explains why their seasons can seem forever plaid, emphasizing done-to-death musicals, Agatha Christie-esque whodunits and "safe" comedies from Neil Simon and his imitators. "There's only so far you can go in Dunwoody," Fugate admits. "A lot of different artistic directors have come and gone, and every time one of them tried something closer to the cutting edge, our audience would go away."

Explaining that his own creative sensibility is closer to the output of PushPush Theater or Horizon, Fugate says that in Dunwoody, "There's a fine line between keeping the old subscribers and attracting new audiences. It means doing 'cutting edge Neil Simon,' if there is such a thing. I love to see stuff with a gritty, rough quality, but here it has to be pure and light, plays for people who are under 18 or over 60. I want to push that, and our board of directors trusts me, but I'm not going to walk in and say, 'I want to do my new musical version of The Respectable Prostitute.'"

He adds, "Deb Gerlach directed what I think was one of the best things we've ever done, which was a production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in the early 1990s. And every night people would walk out before intermission."

Ironically, that production would have a bearing on Onstage Atlanta's future, as Gerlach explains. "John Forman and I had done high school drama together in Detroit but hadn't seen each other for years. Then we interviewed for directing Skin of Our Teeth within 15 minutes of each other. I saw his resumé and said, 'I think I went to high school with this guy!" I got the job and he didn't, but it seems to have worked out for the best -- we've been living together for about seven years."

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