ArtsATL > Theater > Exclusive: Theatre in the Square staffers, board members start new company sans Palmer Wells

Exclusive: Theatre in the Square staffers, board members start new company sans Palmer Wells

Palmer Wells founded Theatre in the Square 30 years ago says he feels "betrayed."
Palmer Wells, who founded Theatre in the Square 30 years ago, says he feels "betrayed."

Less than four weeks after Theatre in the Square’s board of directors opted to close the 30-year-old Marietta playhouse in March, board members and staffers from the defunct company began to lay the groundwork to open a new theater in the same location — without Square’s founder and producing director, Palmer Wells.

Wells, who has been adamant that Theatre in the Square could have survived financially, said he thinks the board knew about the new venture, called Trackside Theatre Company, when it decided to shut down his theater on March 19. “I feel betrayed by the board and some of the employees,” he said.

Paperwork to incorporate Trackside Theatre Company was filed April 11 with the Georgia secretary of state’s office by Susan Reid, who was education director of Theatre in the Square and was named interim managing director after Raye Varney’s departure. She will be Trackside’s producing artistic director, according to a grant proposal submitted to Marietta City Council. Timothy W. Bailey, from Theatre in the Square’s board, is the registered agent of the new company, while board Chairman Mike Russell is listed as interim board chairman of Trackside. A domain name for TracksideTheatre.org has been registered by Carceron, a company belonging to board member Chad Massaker.

Their vision is to have a more “family oriented” theater that incorporates programs for children in addition to adult fare.

Theatre in the Square, started in 1982 by Wells and his late partner Michael Horne, was known around the country for its fresh take on classics and its multiple world premieres. Even when it staged edgier fare, such as the gay-themed “Take Me Out,” audiences turned up. “Take Me Out” ran for a record 11 weeks and was the longest-running show in the theater’s history. Attendance was 50,000 to 55,000 a year, with annual grosses near $1 million.

After the company struggled financially in 2011, Russell announced on March 19 that Theatre in the Square was closing, saying that after “board deliberations and financial analysis,” it wasn’t feasible to keep the doors open. Marietta City Council had approved $30,000 to keep the theater afloat, but the board turned it down, saying it would be unfair to take the money when the board knew it couldn’t stay open much longer.

On April 25, Russell submitted a detailed, 14-page grant request to the same council asking for $50,000 for Trackside. The theater’s tentative schedule would raise the curtains in October.

A grant for Trackside is far from certain. Marietta City Councilwoman Annette Lewis said budget meetings begin this week with a final decision due next month. While noting that she can’t speak for the entire council, Lewis said that with “the very limited tourism funds we can award, I’d be hesitant to award an organization with no track record.”

Reached by telephone, Russell said there is little information to offer about the new theater. “Nothing is happening — right now there is no money,” he said. He said the decision to start Trackside was not made until after Theatre in the Square closed.

Working alongside Reid at the new theater will be Celeste Mercer, who was Theatre in the Square’s patron relations director and who also has worked with Reid at Aurora Theatre. In an email last weekend, Mercer said Trackside was the result of a “grass-roots effort [by] several volunteers” to bring a professional theater back to Cobb County.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Mercer said Trackside was the brainchild of her and Reid. “Susan and I had just gotten laid off and went to the unemployment office together,” she said. “We talked about it there. We both have such experience in theater, and we decided to go on a new career path.” Mercer’s goal, she said, is to be the new theater’s director of sales and marketing.

Wells said he has had no communication with the Theatre in the Square board members since the closing. He has seen Reid once, he said, at the Square’s wrap party just after the closing. All he knows is that Trackside Theatre could soon be in Theatre in the Square’s former space with much the same board of directors and someone else as artistic director. “At first, I was in disbelief and disappointed,” Wells said. “[Learning about this] seems like an act of betrayal. It’s a repulsive turn of events.”

He recalled that the final board meeting was conducted via teleconference and that he was the only person who wanted to keep Theatre in the Square going. “There was little discussion,” Wells said. “A lot of preparatory work had been done. The board secretary had been shredding documents the week of the meeting. I didn’t inquire what was going on, and I wish now I had.”

Wells said he had had no indication that he had done anything to make board members unhappy and is puzzled that no one approached him to be part of Trackside. “As far as I know, I have had a good relationship with them,” he said. “When Raye was dismissed, I even worked for free since February.”

Mercer denied that Trackside has excluded Wells or anyone else from being part of the new theater. She said hiring will depend on funding.

Reid said she and Mercer both were saddened by the loss of Theatre in the Square and have nothing but respect for what Wells and Horne established. “They are the reason art exists in the area,” Reid said.

Although three Theatre in the Square board members have helped organize Trackside, Reid said they are merely colleagues who have assisted them to get the company started and to make connections. She said that no board members have been officially chosen.

Both Reid and Mercer said that multiple locations in Cobb County are being considered. The grant proposal does not mention a specific location for the new theater company, but it does mention “the historic square in downtown Marietta.” And on that square happens to sit a vacant, fully realized theatrical space with two stages.

Philip Goldstein, the landlord of the former Theatre in the Square building and a member of Marietta City Council, confirmed that Trackside representatives have approached him about using the building.

Part of the mission for Mercer and Reid is to have a theater that is more “family oriented,” staging children’s programming alongside adult work. The tentative schedule seems to mix edgy and more conservative fare with the children’s programming.

If all goes according to plan, Trackside would open with a promising five-play season. It would debut with “Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly,” based on a children’s book, and include the radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life” over the holiday season. The rest of the schedule would comprise the adult drama “Tigers Be Still”; “HELP,” based on a story about the Beatles; and “The Red Velvet Cake Wars,” described as a lighthearted Southern comedy.

Reid said they’ve now learned that at least one of those shows is unavailable and said the proposed schedule is currently “just place cards” to give City Council members an idea of what the theater is about.  “It’s all changing constantly,” she said. “It’s changing by the hour.”

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