By Carla Caldwell

It was late spring in 2004 and actors with Georgia Shakespeare were moments away from performing the first “Shake at the Lake” event at Piedmont Park.

The actors were ready. The stage was set. An audience of 800 packed the lawn. It was a perfect opening night.

Then it began to rain.

Georgia Shakespeare co-founder and artistic director Richard Garner strikes an impish pose beneath a portrait of the playwright.

It appeared that the actors’ planning and hard work would fall victim to an Atlanta downpour.

But something amazing happened, said Richard Garner, the non-profit theater group’s producing artistic director. The audience began working together to roll out, and hold up, an 80-foot tarp the actors had on hand to cover sets and other equipment.

The audience covered the sets and they used their arms, umbrellas and a few poles brought from behind the stage to hold the tarp over the actors and much of the audience.

The entire first act was performed under the man-made tent.

“It was a magical night,” Garner, said recently. “The audience was like a community working together. It was a great thing to see.”

By the second act, the sky had cleared and the tarp was rolled away.

“Of the 800 people who turned out, more than 600 stayed,” said Garner. “The audience stuck with us. Fortunately, they have stuck with us for 25 years.”

Georgia Shakespeare kicks off the official start of its 25th season in June with a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the company’s home, The Conant Performing Arts Center on the campus of Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven.

A downpour couldn’t stop the show in 2004, even though it was outside. Audience members grabbed a tarp and the show kept going.

It’s been a rewarding and adventurous ride, said Garner, who co-founded the company in 1985 with friends and fellow theater buffs Kirby McLain “Lane” Anderson and Robert Watson. They all had a background in theater and were involved separately in respected theater companies locally and across the country. All had ties to the Atlanta area and after studying a map and pinpointing the locations of other theater companies, decided that Atlanta could support a company that performed Shakespearean plays and other popular works.

The trio talked about locating at Stone Mountain, but decided against it because patrons would have to pay to enter the park and performances would have to compete with other events.

They choose Oglethorpe because Anderson was working with theater students there and, most importantly, Garner adds, because Oglethorpe wanted them. “The [school’s] president said that while the school might never have a big sports program like some of the larger universities in Georgia, the school could make a mark in the arts.”

The men made a commitment regarding their theater company. They would hire professional artists and support them through student interns, the shows would be presented in rotating repertory and they would hire and nurture local artists. The group, then called Georgia Shakespeare Festival, became the Professional Theater in Residence at Oglethorpe University and holds that distinction today.

Watson left after the second season to do non-profit work with at-risk teens. Anderson was with the company for five years, but after obtaining a degree in arts administration entered the corporate world.

Garner is still at the helm.

For the first 11 years, the company was without a permanent structure, relying instead on tents. The first tent sat 300 people, the second 350, and the third 400. Finally, in 1995, the company began working with Oglethorpe to build a permanent building in which the group could practice and perform. The permanent structure, which seats 509, is built to resemble a tent.

Actors with Georgia Shakespeare perform a scene from “The Merchant of Venice.”

Margie Cooper saw her first Georgia Shakespeare production in 1988 and was hooked. Since then, she has attended 30 different productions.

“I see a lot of theater and have season tickets at a lot of places. Georgia Shakespeare is right up there at the top as far as quality of acting,” said Cooper, who lives in Morningside and teaches at Montgomery Elementary School.

As a teacher, she also appreciates the theater company’s emphasis on education. Georgia Shakespeare professionals, working through one of the company’s many educational programs, have helped students at Montgomery stage their own Shakespearean performances. “The kids absolutely love it,” she said.

Georgia Shakespeare has over the years developed more than 12 educational programs serving elementary school-aged children to adult students. The company has won numerous local and national awards and received praise from some of the country’s most respected theatrical critics, including those with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

“Oglethorpe University and the Georgia Shakespeare Festival have enjoyed a strong relationship over many good years,” Oglethorpe President Lawrence Schall said in a statement released through the school. “Our students benefit from an on-campus professional theatre, and the theater becomes, more and more, an integral part of the theater program we offer — growing, getting stronger and is nationally recognized. We look forward to sharing our 175th anniversary with them as they celebrate 25 years.

The 25th season promises to be rewarding for both Garner and members of the theater company.

Among works the company will perform is “The Odyssey: A Journey Home.” The production, set for October, is Homer’s “The Odyssey” as adapted by Garner and the company. The performance, Garner explained, will be bookended by a soldier returning home from war in Afghanistan. The soldier’s struggles to get home and adjust to everyday life will be woven into the original story of Odysseus, who must overcome many struggles in order to return home after 10 years fighting the Trojan Wars.

The theater company will pair the performances with workshops and exhibits centered on services and programs available to help modern day soldiers adapt to the physical, psychological and emotional challenges they face upon returning home from war.

In the meantime, the company is gearing up to start its season with “Shrew: The Musical” (June 9-Aug. 8), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (June 24-Aug. 6) and “King Lear” (July 8-Aug. 7).

And if this season is like all the others in recent years, Garner said, patrons will reminisce about seasons performed in the tents out under the stars. Garner understands the nostalgia. He experiences it, too. Even so, he prefers brick and mortar.

“There is definitely a romance associated with the tents, but people forget how hot and muggy it could get. And I worried to death about the weather. I became an expert at reading clouds. I could tell what a cloud could do based on what it looked like and the direction it was coming from. Clouds were a big part of my life,” Garner said, laughing.

“It is definitely better without the rain and with air conditioning.”