What makes a great artist? For Neil Pepe, Atlantic Theater Company’s long-running artistic director, it’s not only a sense of confidence, but generosity, too. “What I’ve always admired in great artists is a sense of strength and bravery coupled with a deep-seated humility and honesty,” says Pepe. That observation has molded itself into the fabric of his leadership. “How those two things work together, creating an organization that has true strength of purpose—that is bravely trying our best to tell the most exciting, important stories that we can—while at the same time cultivating an environment of humility and honesty.”
Pepe, who runs the Atlantic alongside managing director Jeffory Lawson, and his wife, executive director of the Atlantic Acting School Mary McCann, says that the theatre’s mission has remained largely unchanged throughout the years: produce great plays, simply and truthfully, utilizing an artistic ensemble. The way that plays out, explains Pepe, is by empowering artists to tell stories on their own terms. “We find the truth of who they are and the story they want to tell,” he says. A director alongside his artistic leadership, Pepe intrinsically understands the artistic process and the kind of environment that fosters honest work.
The breadth of Atlantic’s mission is what allows the theatre to support a range of artists and stories—from Tony-winning musicals like David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ The Band’s Visit, to Pulitzer Prize–winning plays like Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. It’s frequently a home for world premieres; Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Homecoming Queen, Paola Lázaro’s Tell Hector I Miss Him, and Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, and Susan Birkenhead’s upcoming musical The Secret Life of Bees are just a few recent examples.
While Pepe says the theatre has made a concerted effort to throw the doors open even wider with the kinds of works it supports and audiences it welcomes, in its own organic way the Atlantic is constantly in conversation with the next generation of storytellers and theatregoers through its affiliate school. “It feeds us. And, like being a parent, it keeps you humble,” says Pepe. “The moment that you get too self-involved as a theatre artist, [you see that] young people coming up are looking to you for guidance. There’s a certain responsibility to keep checking whether the work is evolving and making sure that whatever mantle you’re trying to hand down is not calcified.”
Here, Pepe points again to the importance of humility and collaboration. “The moment you start giving back to people, there’s such a sense that everybody benefits and everybody grows,” he says. “The stories become richer and the community enriches.”