In Serenbe, Georgia, 30 miles outside of Atlanta, there’s a Playhouse that has landed an actual vintage Vietnam War helicopter in the fields of its Miss Saigon, sunken Titanic in its local lake, and parked ’50s autos as seating for a drive-in Grease. If you haven’t read about (or seen the photos of) Serenbe Playhouse before, buckle up. The regional theatre has made a name for itself through theatrical spectacle and nature-bound immersive productions that never show up on the same plot of its 1,000 acres of land. But spectacle and immersion are consequences of originality in the extreme, and a return to theatre’s amphitheatre roots.
Before Serenbe became synonymous with nature-set technical feats, there wasn’t even a plan to produce outdoors. “I’d love to say I had this vision from Day One,” says Serenbe Playhouse founder and artistic director Brian Clowdus. “We did it outdoors initially just out of necessity because there was no money and no facilities.” After courtyard performances of Romeo + Juliet, and john & jen and The Jungle Book in the woods in its inaugural season, the outdoor setting became the element generating all the buzz.
Ten years later, the site-specific aesthetic is the tenet of Serenbe’s productions. For each production, Clowdus chooses a location from 1,000 acres of land in Serenbe. A sustainable biophilic community founded in 2004, the town’s trails connect homes and restaurants with arts and businesses—and Clowdus has his pick of land as long as he restores it to the way he found it. His collaborators design sets for disassembly, typically built from reclaimed and recycled materials in order to reduce waste and environmental impact. But Clowdus’ model has made an art of location scouting for theatre—a practice previously relegated to television and film.
Though Serenbe has garnered a national name with its grandiosity, that’s not the driving factor behind Clowdus’ programming—for a single production or season. He chooses one show as a season anchor based on the strength of story and its adaptiveness to an outdoor location, and then considers its themes in order to choose other related works. In the past, he’s produced a Season of Rebellion with shows like Grease and Cabaret and a Season of Voyages with titles like The Little Mermaid, Titanic, and Peter Pan.
The 10th anniversary year meant a re-envisioning of Hair, currently playing through August 18. “We wanted to bring back the show that really defined us being site-specific and immersive,” says Clowdus, who first produced the ’60s musical in Serenbe’s fourth season. Woodstock’s 50th anniversary further justified an epic re-incarnation. Clowdus blueprinted the rest of his season from there. “It was almost ‘Season of Rock,’ but then I'm also looking at what's going on currently and trying to figure out what stories need to be told now,” he says. “It started becoming this conversation about America and our country and then it became titles like Ragtime and Shenandoah and Pocahontas.”
How It’s Made
The Serenbe take on any musical is unlike any other. Shenandoah emerged out of a Civil War re-enactment. Ragtime took place under a vaudeville tent on the water, a stand-in for the shores of Atlantic City. Hair is a re-creation of Woodstock in a wildflower meadow. “You’ll be able to rent a tent for the evening if you want to stay overnight,” says Clowdus. “For the actual weekend of Woodstock, we’re creating an all-day music festival.” Local and regional bands will play all day amidst stalls of vendors and Hair will headline on the mainstage at night. His ingenuity and immersion serve a quest for authenticity.
Pocahontas, which plays through August 4, attains a new level of legitimacy not only via its nature-bound setting, but as a new work. “For us, telling the story of America, we couldn’t have a season not representing Native Americans,” says Clowdus. “We’re telling the new Pocahontas with a complete Native American team—playwright, director, and designers.
“[The typical narrative] is a very inaccurate version of this woman’s life. So I was like, ‘Let’s tackle this and ask the hard questions and present it in a family atmosphere where it gets kids talking about this woman and her culture and her tribe.’
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
In the midst of revelation and conversation, Clowdus wants his audience to have an unforgettable time.
Clowdus operates from a philosophy of creating a 360-experience for his audiences. There is no moment when the curtain rises; once you arrive, you are in the show. The experience is a lens through which Clowdus hopes he can reinvent commercial titles and classic lit as they unfold in the places they’re meant to happen. “I think you have to give people a reason to come,” he says. Still, the experience always comes from a concept rooted in the material.
“I never want to do spectacle for spectacle’s sake,” he says. “For me, I cannot do Titanic without [sinking a ship in real water] because guess what? The main element of that story is how these people perished in the middle of the ocean. I couldn’t tell Miss Saigon without a helicopter because I wanted the actors and the audience to feel what it felt like to see that final helicopter fly away and know that you were done for. I just think there’s no way to accurately represent that emotional visceral level without having the actual things.”
More exciting: Serenbe attract audiences who don’t otherwise go to the theatre, building and retaining new audiences. That comes down to the way Clowdus sells his shows.
When you look at show art for a Serenbe production, it’s sexy and edgy. “I don’t think your marketing is a time to be subtle,” says Clowdus. “I’m so sick of producers and directors saying, ‘We can’t show dramatic photos’ or ‘That poster doesn’t really represent the story.’” He creates intrigue and gets personal, shifting the focus to one or two characters who look you straight in the eye.
If You Build It, They Will Come
His methods have delivered.
Clowdus’ productions have made Serenbe a destination. A town with a population of 700, the Playhouse serves 50,000 people each year. “Less than five percent of audiences come from our zip code,” says Clowdus. The company even enjoys season ticketholders from neighboring states. When Titanic played in 2018, “we had people flying from around the country just to see the show.”
Clowdus aims for a wide geographic reach and, more importantly, a broad ideological one. “My goal is to have as many different types of people in the audience this year as possible,” he says. “I’m someone that chooses to talk about politics through my art and when I say talk about politics, I do not like to go either way because I want everyone of every belief system.”
You may start chatting up your neighbor about the insanity of a helicopter taking off as part of the show, but soon—Clowdus hopes—you’ll end up talking about what that means. And that conversation, in Clowdus’ opinion, is most important between people who don’t agree. “If you have an audience full of peace-loving liberals, I don’t know what’s really going to change.”
With this mission Clowdus has found his niche—and that’s not just in Serenbe. “If you had asked me 15 years ago if I was going to be a site-specific outdoor producer, I would’ve just laughed in your face,” he says.
Now that the company has a decade under its belt, Clowdus feels ready for other directors to stage work at the Playhouse—though he warns it’s tougher than it looks. Aside from sunburn, wildlife, and weather that can delay tech, “when you come down here you’re not just telling the story as a director, you’re helping create a new theatre company from the ground up because every production is a new company where it’s like, ‘Where do patrons park? Where does the power go? Where do restrooms go?’”
Welcoming other directors to Serenbe feeds Clowdus’ goal to broaden perspectives and gives him time to pursue that endeavor in other parts of the country. “One thing I’m super passionate about is taking theatre and art to non-saturated markets,” he says. “There’s no Mamma Mia! going on in Chillicothe, Ohio, and guess what? There’s this really cool location that has water and sand. It just feels like Mamma Mia!’s meant to be there.”
By the end of 2019, his new outreach Brian Clowdus Experiences will have launched productions in seven states, including The Sound of Music in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and a new musical version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in Sleepy Hollow, New York. And he’s always dreaming up the next jawdropper for Serenbe.
“I’ve landed a helicopter, drowned people in the water, and the question I often get is: ‘How do you top yourself?’ And I think the way to do that is just being different,” he says. “Whatever you’re doing has got to be the best or it’s got to be completely different. For us, it was completely different. Now, we’re striving to be the best at it, too.”