What's Happening in the Hills of Georgia? How Theatre is Being Re-Invented in the Immersive Outdoors

News   What's Happening in the Hills of Georgia? How Theatre is Being Re-Invented in the Immersive Outdoors In the secluded hills of Georgia is a community surrounded by trees, grass, the stars and, well, shows. Out in the woods, Serenbe Playhouse is redefining immersive, outdoor theatre — putting Oklahoma! in a farm, The Wizard of Oz on a road of yellow bricks and Evita in the open air.

A scene from <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">Evita</i> at Serenbe Playhouse
A scene from Evita at Serenbe Playhouse Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

Brian Clowdus is behind the magic happening in the South, which began seven years ago when he took a trip to visit his sister living in Atlanta and was encouraged to check out Serenbe, the 1,000-acre residential and commercial community located in Chattahoochee Hill Country.

A scene from <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">Evita</i> at Serenbe Playhouse
A scene from Evita at Serenbe Playhouse Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

"I visited on the 4th of July seven years ago and got this really weird gut feeling and saw an opportunity for a theatre company," he explained. "I sent a blind email…not knowing a soul. I pitched the idea to them and, lo and behold, they liked the concept, and we produced our first season seven years ago as a three-show summer season, and now here we are six years later producing a full year-round season of six shows, which is kind of bizarre — but good bizarre."

This summer, Serenbe produced Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, a world-premiere adaptation of The Secret Garden and an open-air production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita (which currently runs through Aug. 16) in addition to Man of La Mancha, The Sleepy Hollow Experience and The Snow Queen earlier in the season.

Aside from the sexy, sharp and chic promotional/production shots by Clowdus' sister, BreeAnne, the company is enticing audiences by sending them to the woods — and a different part of the property each time, at that.

"With a 1,000 acres, we have a 1,000 performance opportunity locations," said Brian, "and we have a commitment to never use the same location twice, and even if we do use a location that's close to another one, we'll put it in a different area so that you don't recognize it. That way, when audiences come, each time they're coming to a new show, they're experiencing a different venue because we really set up a new theatre space in every performance location that we produce them."

To find Evita, the company's current production, theatregoers must follow small green signs that point them past the farmhouse (where Oklahoma! was staged, and the show's Curly came barreling down the countryside singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'") and the yellow-brick road (where The Wizard of Oz played between two picket fences with audience members on both sides). A small bridge, built above a lake, transports audiences to the countryside of Argentina.

A scene from <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">Oklahoma!</i> at Serenbe Playhouse
A scene from Oklahoma! at Serenbe Playhouse Photo by BreeAnne Clowdu

A two-story raised stage has been built for Evita; small white lights hang from the trees to illuminate the iconic balcony of the Casa Rosada. Audiences sit around the action, and cast members frequently reside in the "wings," where tables are set up for the people of Argentina when Eva's in the spotlight. Trees surround the entirety of the stage, as if Buenos Aires lives somewhere in a secret hideaway.

"The material and the environment are chosen hand in hand — that's really key to Serenbe Playhouse," explained director Clowdus. "Of course, a long list of titles make complete sense outside that I'm dying to do, and then there are also locations in Serenbe that I'm obsessed with but I haven't found the right show, and I think Evita is a prime example of that. I was obsessed about open-air function room, and then when we got to season six, and we decided to do Evita, it made sense in that space. Basically, we'll anchor a season around our huge musical, so we anchored this season around Evita and came up with this idea that all of the shows have a sense of transformation."

Both local and New York talent are the transformative force behind the Serenbe productions. The company commits to hiring local and national actors as well as up-and-comers — this year, five performers who recently graduated college made up the Serembe apprentice company and performed throughout the entirety of the season.

Atlanta actress Randi Garza stars as Eva Perón with Broadway actors Charlie Brady (South Pacific) and Chase Peacock (American Idiot) as Ché Guevara and Augustín Magaldi, respectively. Garza's Eva is sexy, contemporary and fiery — think a belty Lady Gaga without the smoke and mirrors, but as "Rainbow High" and "dressed to the nines" as could be.

Although next season has yet to be announced, Clowdus teased that it will be a season of "surrender," with bigger productions than Serenbe has ever seen — after all, a fair may spring up somewhere in the woods and, later in the summer, audiences may catch a glimpse of a helicopter.

Evita runs through Aug. 16 in the round; click here for more information, and check out exclusive behind-the-scenes photos by Evita's Garza.

(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

Watch footage from the electrifying staging below:


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