Above,  from left: actor and playwright Tom Key, Jeff Watkins of the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, David Thomas of ART Station, Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre Co., and Michael Hidalgo of ART Station. Photos by Phil Mosier

People who bring Atlanta theater to life

Lisa Adler, co-founder and producing director, Horizon Theatre Co.

Lisa Adler left the vibrant theater scene in Chicago and came to Atlanta. But in the early ‘80s, she noticed something was missing: contemporary theater. She believed Atlanta was missing performances that addressed current issues in modern times with relatable characters.

It was a dream both Adler and her husband, Jeff, were willing to bet on.

“The first play we did we used $1,000 of our wedding money,” she said with a laugh.

With the help of a producer who also wanted to create original work, the seeds for the Horizon Theatre were planted. The show that started it all was “Bonjour, La, Bonjour” by Michel Tremblay — a French-Canadian play Adler had first seen at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. “At the time we were growing up, the Steppenwolf Theatre was the hot, young place with all the great young talent that people wanted to be part of,” Adler said.

The couple received heavy praise for their efforts. A second performance soon followed – “Top Girls,” a 1982 play by Caryl Churchill about women in the workplace. “Caryl Churchill was a very cutting edge, popular writer at the time,” Adler noted.

Adler was inspired to run the show because she was determined to showcase plays by and about women.

“Both of those plays had never been done in Atlanta,” Adler said. “And we were looking to bring fresh voices to Atlanta.”

From there, multiple plays snowballed into a season. Atlanta’s theater community showed its support as 300 season tickets were sold that first year. Adler now holds the title of co-founder and Co-Artistic/Producing Director of Horizon Theatre.

The troupe sought original works.

In Horizon’s early days, Adler saw the potential in a story submitted to her on onion skin paper by a local college student. The notes detailed the young Black woman’s experience of being raised by the many women in her life during the 1960s in the segregated South.

“It wasn’t really a play, but I was like. ‘You’ve got something.’ This girl can write,” Adler recalls.

With a little work, that heartwarming story, “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” by Shay Youngblood, premiered on the Horizon stage in 1988, and had two additional runs at the theater. It thrilled and entertained audiences and was performed nationwide.

Youngblood continues to have a thriving career. This and people waiting in the rain for Horizon performances, are memories Adler holds close to her heart.

In addition to laugh-out-loud comedies, such as “Avenue Q,” Horizon also has addressed sober topics, such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, human trafficking, gentrification and autism. Adler said the variety in their programming reflects Horizon’s mission.

“To connect people, inspire hope and promote positive change through the stories of our times,” Adler said.

Being a contemporary community theater means reflecting the community the Horizon Theatre is in, Adler said. “It’s a goal of ours to put different races, different ages on stage together,” she said.

Adler has seen Horizon’s audiences grow from being mostly white viewers to a 60% white audience and 40% people of color. That number grows to 85% when an African American focused show is performed. But Adler said the Black Lives Matter movement is holding them to a higher standard.

“Black Lives Matter has also hit our community really, really hard. That has been very stressful and emotionally draining for everybody in the community,” she said. “There’s been a lot of accusation of theater being too white, nationally. Locally a lot of anger and frustration coming out over many, many years of what people feel like is racism. Even though there’s a lot of diversity in the work in Atlanta, a lot of the producers are mostly white people.”

Adler said the current power dynamic and culture in theater is under debate about how to make it better. New tools are being utilized, anti-racism plans are being created, meetings and trainings are being held.

The pandemic has also stalled live theater. “This is the longest time in my entire adult life that I haven’t done a play. And it’s very strange,” Adler said.

The Horizon Theater has weathered the storm with a July furlough, a Paycheck Protection Program Loan and money in reserves. But she fears layoffs might be unavoidable.

Adler hopes the shutdown will teach people about the value of live theater. “With the pandemic, people realize what it brings to the community. When you can’t go, suddenly they realize this arts community thing is kind of important,” she said.

In the meantime, the Horizon Theatre is experimenting with new ways to present entertainment — streaming performances and interactive programs. Adler is optimistically commissioning work for a return to safe, in-person acting in January.

“What’s exciting to me is the opportunity to create a world. People walk into an environment, and you create everything that happens to them,” Adler said. “You’re responsible. You take them on a journey. And the ability to create that world and impact people is addictive.”

— by Tiffany Griffith

Jeff Watkins, Artistic Director, the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse

Jeff Watkins learned early to play to the crowd.

When he was very young, his father worked as a professional magician and ran a magic shop in Texas. Young Jeff would watch his dad perform close-up magic (the kind with card tricks and disappearing balls) at magicians’ conventions and other gatherings.

After college, Jeff took up street magic for a while himself. With a freshly minted college degree, including a minor in theater, he moved from Texas to New York to make his fortune in show business. He auditioned for acting jobs and paid for groceries by doing sidewalk shows. “Washington Square was the most fun,” he said. “Wall Street is where I made the most money.”

Like most starting actors, he spent much of his time just looking for work. He landed a job with a six-actor company that toured the northeast in a van and a car and staged shows in schools and community centers about various literary figures. In the early 1980s, he headed west to Chicago to join some college friends who were organizing a theater group there.

A couple of years later, as Watkins was driving from Texas to New York for yet another audition, he stopped off to visit a friend in Atlanta. She ran a group that staged readings of Shakespeare’s plays in local bars. When his friend decided to move to New York herself and leave the Atlanta Shakespeare Association behind, “I said can I have it?” Watkins said.

Watkins became the group’s artistic director. In 1984, the group staged a production of “As You Like It” in a back room at Manuel’s Tavern, a storied Atlanta watering hole where politicians, cops and journalists gathered. One early show, Watkins said, was a political fundraiser.

Playing Shakespeare in a barroom turned out to be a revelation. Watkins saw what he thought his productions should be — directed to the audience and, for lack of a better word, entertaining. “I had been a street performer,” the 64-year-old said. “I know in my stomach — I know in my gut — when it’s working with an audience. I cannot be dissuaded from that.”

He calls his style of presentation “Original Practice,” meaning he stages plays as he believes they originally would have been performed. Productions follow the text, employ no dramatic modern sets or updated sound effects, and use only fabrics and clothing from the period. His actors don’t pretend there’s not an audience sitting just a few feet away. “At Manuel’s, I said this is the vibe I’m after,” he said.

At first, his plays weren’t always popular with critics who thought Shakespeare should be treated seriously and updated to reflect modern times, he said. But his shows found an audience. Watkins’ company has staged Shakespeare for more than 35 years. It has presented more than 230 productions of Shakespeare’s plays, he said, and twice preformed the full “canon” — 39 plays attributed fully or in some form to Shakespeare.

“I’ve done more Shakespeare than anybody else on the North American continent,” he said one recent afternoon as he sat on the porch of his Decatur home, “and maybe more than just five or six people in the U.K.”

In 1990, the company moved into the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse at 499 Peachtree St. in Midtown Atlanta. The 200-seat Tavern staged more than a dozen plays a year until the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close in March.

Watkins doesn’t know when his troupe will return to live performances — mid-next year, he guesses — but he has plans to expand so he can someday do even more of the kind of plays his fans have nicknamed “Shakespeare for NASCAR fans.”

And he’s convinced that sitting back with a draft Guinness and watching a sword fight from your bar table as you dine on shepherd’s pie is the best way to see Shakespeare. “What I’ve created connects to the audience,” he said. “If you think Shakespeare isn’t your playwright, you need to spend more time at the Shakespeare Tavern … and this beer will help.”

— by Joe Earle

Tom Key, actor, playwright, director

Atlanta actor Tom Key has never been one to shy from a difficult topic, conversation, decision or role.

At 70, he’s still at it. After retiring in June as artistic director of the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, Key is auditioning for film and TV work, has gotten involved in social causes and is hopeful he’ll be back on stage in Atlanta again by the spring of 2021.

The author of the “Cotton Patch Gospel,” a show that reimagines the story of Jesus set in the rural South of the mid-20th Century, also is contemplating writing another play. “I am working to develop a writing habit,” he said. “I’m about two months into it. I want to get to the point where I’m writing every day, because the times are so challenging.”

He wants his new project “to show that what unites us is greater than what divides us, and that we all belong to each other.”

Key grew up in Birmingham. In 1963, when he was only about 13, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in his hometown and the deaths of four young girls in the bombing showed him powerful, horrifying lessons about race and the need for community. “My whole view of reality was changed,” he said. “It was a formative experience.”

Fast forward to 1968. Key made friends with a roommate who was a young man of color and made plans to bring him home at Thanksgiving. No, said his shocked parents. If you do that, we’ll stop paying for your tuition and your car.

“So, I took them up on it,” he said simply. “We maintained a civil relationship, but there was a real gap or wound that was just there.”

After moving to Knoxville, he emerged from the University of Tennessee in the late 1970s with an undergraduate degree in English literature and a graduate degree in theater.

“Cotton Patch” followed. It started as a one-man show and flowered into an off-Broadway musical. Key toured with it, eventually landing in Dallas for a two-year stint with a theater company there.

In 1986, Key and his family moved back to Atlanta. About a year later, he was offered a job as artistic director an off-Broadway theater in New York. He decided to stick with Atlanta, his “home place in the South,” he said, because he felt it offered a better environment for broadening his directing and writing skills and perhaps starting a small theater company. “New York theater is like the state fair where the tomatoes are judged,” he said. “But the tomatoes are not grown in the soil of the midway.”

He carved out his reputation through extensive work at the Alliance Theatre and through touring “Cotton Patch” and “C.S. Lewis on Stage,” a one-man show based on the British writer. Film and TV opportunities came along.

An artistic director’s job came calling again in 1995, this time with the Theatrical Outfit. It encompassed a grab bag of duties from picking out, casting and occasionally acting in and directing plays to forming and encouraging creative teams. Key also functioned as a public advocate and money-raiser for the theater.

The theater’s plays ran the gamut, but more than a few tackled thorny questions related to race, sexual orientation or faith. “I always ask the question, ‘What do we need to have a conversation about right now?’ And sometimes the answer was, ‘We really need is to have a good time right now.’”

The longtime Atlanta theater veteran recounted how presenting envelope-pushing productions sometimes occasioned pushback.

In some places where “Cotton Patch” was being staged, fundamentalists took out ads in local newspapers calling it “blasphemous” and urging people to stay home.

And Key remembered how a 1982 run of the play at the Alliance Theater featured a live discussion following each performance.

One night got especially ticklish. “A woman in the front row asked, without any hesitation or apology, why I made the Klan a bad force in the story because it was an organization founded to protect Christian women and children,” he recalled.

Key said he paused for what seemed a long time, then as slowly and carefully as possible, he explained the Klan’s role in the lynching of Jesus “in the same way that bombs are defused-slowly and carefully.”

The longtime Atlanta actor said over the years he was asked to join productions that espoused a stance or an opinion and sought to demonize those who deviated from it. He always politely refused, he said.

“I turned down a play about the Holocaust because with it came a vision that we are animals just surviving and humanity has no moral basis. It wasn’t just that I disagreed with the idea, I literally would not know how to play that role.”

Now he returns to writing. “I plan to write about the human condition,” he said. “I believe fundamentally in the core of my being that we are part of a story that’s going to end well, even when we’re in the worst of times.”

— Mark Woolsey

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

Tiffany Griffith

Tiffany Griffith is a journalist based in Atlanta.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.