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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."

Gerlach acknowledges that Onstage Atlanta used to produce its share of old chestnuts, too, with one of her first directing jobs there being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1981. "When I was working at Onstage they were doing more familiar plays, but I don't see the point of doing something that's been done over and over. It doesn't excite us and I don't think it excites the audience either." Forman loathes the idea of staging the umpteenth production of Steel Magnolias or Larry Shue's The Foreigner.

Beginning with their own creative adaptation of ALICE: In Wonderland, currently on the boards, Gerlach and Forman plan a less typical lineup for their first season, with some local debuts from tested talents. In 2001 they plan the Southeastern premiere of Impossible Marriage by Beth Henley, author of Crimes of the Heart, as well as the musical Blood Brothers by Educating Rita author Willy Russell. "I consider myself an American director, a meat-and-potatoes director, and we're interested in digging up lost or rarely done American plays," Gerlach adds. "We've already inaugurated an American Classics series, with I Never Sang for My Father scheduled for February."

Gerlach says she was originally drawn to Onstage Atlanta because it had a "thrust" stage, not a more traditional proscenium-style stage. "There are good things about the Onstage Atlanta tradition that I want to keep. You couldn't put a lot of scenery on the space they had, so you had to put actors on it. That led to an emphasis on actor-oriented scripts, and it's complicated to have a lot of people on a stage at once, but I kind of like it. Onstage Atlanta was always very open audition-wise, and we liked its open-door audition policy."

Fugate wants Stage Door Players to have a comparable acceptance of new performers and new plays, and he plans to revive the New Play Workshop he originally established at the theater and which led to the off-shoot of Koalaty Presentations, which cultivates local talent. "When I started the workshop in 1992, nobody was doing new work in Atlanta. From that you saw a fire: You then had Dad's Garage, Whole World Theatre, Horizon all doing new play projects. I hope that I started a little of that. I would love to expand and experiment here. We just have to go very carefully."

Part of going carefully means building up Stage Door's finances. "We're definitely in a rebuilding stage. When we get low on money, there's a tendency to cut the programs, and I want to rebuild the education program and the play readings," says Fugate. He describes a funding catch-22 for a small theater, in which a playhouse may attract more grant money by staging newer works and reaching to a broader audience but can conversely diminish the sale of tickets to its core audience.

According to Fugate, Stage Door Players, as a community playhouse with no paid staff positions, budgets about $3,000 per show for its season. For its part, Onstage Atlanta qualifies as a professional "non-Equity" theater, meaning it pays staff members and performers, but need not live up to the financial requirements of the Actor's Equity union. Forman estimates the theater's current budget as "under $100,000, perhaps as little as $65,000." (Compare that to the Shakespeare Tavern, an Equity theater with an operational budget of $575,000-$600,000 a year, or the non-Equity professional theater Dad's Garage with its budget of about $250,000.)

Fugate says the cavalry has ridden to Stage Door's rescue in the past. "We've gone bankrupt several times, but each time people have pitched in and kept the theater going, he says. "For a lot of people, since Stage Door was their first opportunity in theater, they'll come back and help us out."

Gerlach attributes Onstage's initial longevity to its relationship with St. Luke's. "I think it came from the volunteer base to begin with. For a while, the church patronage and a base of about 500 hardcore volunteers made it run and run and run." She credits Marc Gowan for keeping the theater alive after St. Luke's took the space back to expand its homeless mission. "The theater didn't produce for a year-and-a-half, but Marc made it through that, came back and resurrected the theater at the 14th Street Playhouse."

Onstage is undergoing its own reconstruction, says Gerlach. "There wasn't a mailing list per se when we got into our jobs -- it hadn't been updated or maintained -- so we're rebuilding all of that. Like all theaters, you're always chasing money. The night ALICE: In Wonderland opened, we did a benefit at the Atlanta History Center and it was very successful, and since then the fallout has been very positive."

Gerlach and Forman hope to eventually start a major capital campaign in the future with the goal of getting a new permanent space. Forman dislikes the image of theaters begging for money with "hat in hand." "We don't want 'sponsors,' we want partners -- people interested in getting a return on their investment. The biggest goal we have now is marketing and letting people know we're here. We need money -- we're not out of the red yet. It's going to be an interesting ride."

Familiarity is said to breed contempt, but with many community theaters nationwide, familiar productions can breed a content subscriber base. The new blood at both Onstage Atlanta and Stage Door Players is eager to bring fresh ideas to their long-lasting theaters, even if it may occasionally mean hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

Onstage Atlanta's ALICE: In Wonderland plays through Dec. 30 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 172 14th Street, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. $18-$23. 404-733-5000. Nunsense plays through Dec. 23 at Stage Door Players, North DeKalb Center for the Arts, 5339 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sun. $14-$18. 770-396-1726.

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