Atlanta theater gets recognition

While “The Color Purple” brought Atlanta’s Alliance Theater some green when it transferred to Broadway, the announcement last week that the company will receive this year’s regional theater Tony Award is giving the 39-year-old venue something even more valuable: recognition.

Susan V. Booth, Alliance’s artistic director for the past six years, says she hopes the award will change people’s perceptions of what’s on offer south of the Mason-Dixon.

“I don’t think people realize what a diverse, strong and thriving cultural community there is in the South,” says Booth. “There’s an association with cultural communities in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest and radiating out from Chicago, but I think it’s a surprise for people to discover there is this really robust, healthy arts community down here in Georgia.”

The commercial theater community is also taking note — especially in the Alliance’s work with musicals. Though the theater drew some attention when Disney marched through Georgia with “Aida” in the late ’90s, Booth has nurtured a more interconnected relationship with commercial and not-for-profit theaters, with tuners such as “The Color Purple,” “Sister Act” (a co-production with the Pasadena Playhouse, helmed by ex-Disney topper Peter Schneider), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (the tour was mounted at the Alliance) and the upcoming “The Women of Brewster Place,” based on Gloria Naylor’s novel and co-produced with D.C.’s Arena Theater.

“I love the symmetry of it,” says Booth. “The Arena was the first regional theater to ever receive the Tony award, and now we’re working in partnership with them on a premiere.” (Arena’s a.d., Molly Smith, will helm the new show, which premieres in Atlanta in the fall before transferring to D.C.)

Since 1976, other Southern theaters honored with the Tony have included the Actors Theater of Louisville (Ky.) in 1980 and Houston’s Alley in 1996. The Alliance — the largest nonprofit in the Southeast, with a subscription base of 14,000 and an operating budget of $11 million — is the first from the Deep South to be presented the trophy, which is recommended by the American Theater Critics Assn. and awarded by the American Theater Wing.

“Perhaps the award is in part recognizing the fact the Alliance has played a role in those past and upcoming projects,” says managing director Thomas Pechar, who heads the org. But he also points to the theater’s commitment to new non-musical work as well as shows that speak to a diverse audience, including the city’s African-American community.

This season, Alliance produced Darren Canady’s “False Creeds,” and the 2007-08 season will feature the premiere of “In the Red and Brown Water” by hot newbie scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose plays are receiving attention at regionals across the country. But significant preems — Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night at Ballyhoo” and Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” — were also a hallmark during the tenure of former a.d. Kenny Leon, who headed the theater from 1990 to 2000. The current team also includes associate a.d. Kent Gash.

“I think it’s a wonderful acknowledgment of the great work they’ve been doing for a very long time,” says “The Color Purple” producer Scott Sanders. “Starting with Kenny Leon’s work and certainly now with Susan’s, the Alliance has become a real force in its own city as well as in the industry in the development of new work. Certainly years ago, Atlanta would not have been viewed as one of the key prestigious markets to develop new work. The Alliance has shown the commercial producing world that the city is a viable player when it comes to deciding where to break in a show.”

The Tony trophy also can be used to parlay extra dollars.

“From a practical standpoint, it allows us to make an even stronger case to funders for the value of the Alliance locally, regionally and nationally,” Pechar says.

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