Atlanta's 39-year-old Alliance Theatre became one of the leading theatres in the country long before it was named the recipient of this year's Regional Theatre Tony Award, which is accompanied by a $25,000 grant sponsored by Visa.
The original home of such classics as Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize–winning Driving Miss Daisy and Tony Award-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the Alliance has, in recent years, become a major testing ground for new musicals in development. Past Tony-nominated shows like Aida and The Color Purple started life here. And Alan Menken's Sister Act, which premiered in Los Angeles last fall, was co-produced by the Alliance and the Pasadena Playhouse. Next season boasts brand new productions of John Patrick Shanley's hit play Doubt and Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, but it starts out with another new tuner, The Women of Brewster Place, based on Gloria Naylor's beloved novel and composed by Tim Acito (Zanna, Don't!).
Susan V. Booth has been at the artistic helm of the Alliance Theatre since 2001, when she took over from Kenny Leon (Broadway’s Radio Golf and A Raisin in the Sun). The Ohio native had spent years on the Goodman Theatre's artistic staff and freelance directing around the country when Leon recommended her for the job.
This interview is courtesy of TonyAwards.com, which has a content partnership with Playbill.com. TonyAwards.com: Congratulations on the Tony Award!
Booth: It's a lovely time to be the Alliance Theatre. There's a real paradigm shift that happens when this kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval happens. It makes us all walk a little taller.
Q: What sets the Alliance apart from other regional theatres?
Booth: We take with equal weight the imperative of a national theatre with a local address. It's of absolutely equal importance that we're doing work that matters to our immediate community — that it's available, accessible, and resonates with their lives. The best, most visible example is The Color Purple, a piece that couldn't be more ideal for an Atlanta audience that grew up thinking of Alice Walker as their own storyteller. It is a Georgia story, so the sense of ownership of that narrative is pretty deep here.
Q: Who was the driving force behind it?
Booth: Scott Sanders, the producer, had been wooing Ms. Walker for quite some time and was determined to do the show in a way that met with her approval. He knew that we had premiered Aida and so had some history with commercial partnerships. We sought him out and told him about our audiences.
Q: And what are they like?
Booth: Our audiences look like our city. That's unique and it's something of which we're all fiercely proud. We have a remarkably sophisticated audience that explores work of different cultures, generations, and ideologies.
Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment prior to winning the Tony?
Booth: Our Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, where we invite MFA students from around the country to submit work. The first year that we presented a winning entry [2004–05], we invited artists from that season to meet our community. Onstage were the winner, Daphne Greaves, and playwright Marsha Norman, who was Daphne's teacher at Juilliard. They were standing next to each other because they were both about to have world premieres. [Norman wrote the book for The Color Purple, which premiered that year and, later, in 2006, garnered her a Tony nomination.] Marsha was so proud of her student; she was like a beaming mama.
Q: New work has always been a big part of the Alliance's mission, hasn't it?
Booth: We develop new work at all levels of the organization — new musicals, new plays, new works from students, works for teen audiences. It's not a ghettoized developmental program. And we don't do exclusively new work either. I'm always interested in the conversation when a graduate student's work sits next to George Bernard Shaw. It broadens people's understanding of what's canonical.
Q: What's next?
Booth: We're in the nascent stages of creating a partnership that will allow us to develop more musicals in a workshop setting. We'll road-test them in a sort of black-box, music-stand fashion, then take them into our larger space. We had a great relationship with Peter Schneider — who directed Sister Act and knows a few things about producing [he produced The Lion King and Aida on Broadway] — and are exploring ways to make the developmental process a little more humane for the institution and the artist.
Q: Will we see more of Sister Act?
Booth: It will absolutely have a future life. Right now the question is, which side of the pond will that be?
Q: What do you like best about leading the Alliance?
Booth: I moved here from Chicago having no appreciation of the breadth and depth of the arts community here. It's so rich. The one thing that was missing was an awareness of it outside of Atlanta. Boy, am I grateful to the Tony Awards for shining some light on that!
To visit TonyAwards.com's Newsroom, click here.
Andy Buck is an associate editor at Playbill.