The Alliance Theatre is Atlanta’s largest and most well-funded theater company, but like many arts organizations, it has experienced the crunch of the recent economic recession. In spite of the challenges, the Alliance has an ambitious season planned for 2012-13, with seven productions on its main stage, four on the smaller Hertz Stage and three Theatre for the Very Young productions in the Woodruff Arts Centers’ “Black Box.” The shows include major world premieres by Pearl Cleage and Alfred Uhry; big Broadway-style musicals “Zorro” and “Next to Normal”; the perennial “A Christmas Carol”; children’s shows “Charlotte’s Web” and “Real Tweenagers”; and hard-hitting adult dramas “Whipping Man” and “Good People.”
We caught up with Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth to discuss how the theater has managed to survive, and even thrive, during hard economic times.
ArtsATL: Especially in light of the deficit that your neighbors at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are facing, could you tell us how the finances are at the Alliance?
Susan Booth: My finance director would always have me preface this with “These are as yet unaudited results.” The fiscal year that we completed May 31, our 2011-12 season, we ended in a surplus. I’d like to be having this conversation in another couple of years and have that be utterly unremarkable. It’s still a relatively new thing, but the last two years we’ve ended in a surplus position. Our assumption going forward is that that is how we function now.
ArtsATL: What do you think is the key to making that happen for an arts institution during an economic downturn?
Booth: It’s a couple of things. There’s the dead obvious of not living outside your means. We really are a team management organization. I sit side by side with my finance director, my general manager, our marketing director and our development director as equal players at the management table. What that means is that we’re all responsible for one another’s results. It erases the notion of art vs. commerce and restores the working philosophy of art and commerce.
That sounds like a squishy philosophical notion, but it works for us. It’s how we’ve been structured for the last couple of years, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that we’ve ended in a cash-positive position. I also think we’re getting better at listening more astutely to what our audience is telling us while staying true to the demands of a very important mission.
The last piece of it is an area of really fantastic growth for us: our student matinees and educational programs. That’s a great area for growth because it has both short-term and long-term implications. It gives more of Atlanta ways to walk into our organization. Our summer camps are at a radically growing level of enrollment. Our adult offerings continue to grow in both supply and demand. Our education director, Chris Moses, is someone who is at that management table thinking about the theater’s growth and sustainability in the years ahead. I think that all makes a difference.
ArtsATL: Would you say that the Alliance has changed over the past couple of years given the challenges in the economy, and do you think any of those changes will be visible to audiences in the season ahead?
Booth: The way we changed back in the scary days of the recession, we created these staff SWAT teams where we would take people from different departments and have them work together on a common challenge: increasing education revenue, finding more innovative opportunities to partner with corporate entities. We would take a topic that could have a positive revenue outcome and rather than just placing it in our development or marketing department, we created an institutional opportunity and put people from production and artistic and education at the table. That not only got us through the deepest part of the recession, but I think it changed our DNA and how we work as an organization.
In terms of what the audience sees, it’s important to us that we’re putting the highest-quality work on stage, and that always has to be our first priority. If we find ourselves in a situation where we’re stinting on quality to balance the budget, then we’ve missed other opportunities to sustain ourselves. That just can’t be an option.
I feel like so many of our arts organizations are so much stronger now as a result of recessionary response. That may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I think what happened is that a lot of us paid critical attention to what was essential, what was sustainable and the way to carry those two things forward. I’m certainly not interested in a double-dip recession, but I think it ended up making the arts community stronger.
ArtsATL: Do you have an artistic accomplishment from the last season that you’re most proud of?
Booth: I think the partnership with the youth symphony on “Into the Woods,” because it gave us not only an opportunity to partner with our closest neighbors, but I also think it was an amazing way to put education front and center and not endanger the quality of the work. We got an email from one of the players’ dads a couple of weeks ago, and he had just dropped his daughter off at college where she is starting on a very selective arts track. He credits her participation in the Youth Orchestra and our production of “Into the Woods” as the reason she has this passion and has the skills to have been selected for this program. It’s one person, but it meant the world to me to hear that.
ArtsATL: What are you most looking forward to in the 2012-13 season?
Booth: I’m very much in the midst of it right now, and it’s Pearl Cleage’s play “What I Learned in Paris” [which closes Saturday, October 6]. It’s been this incredibly generous insider’s guide to contemporary Atlanta history. But it’s one of those remarkable pieces that, while it’s very particular in its time and place, it’s very universal in what it has to say about relationships. To learn from an insider’s perspective what was happening to Atlanta at a time of seismic change is kind of great. And Pearl is one of those artistic collaborators you just feel lucky each day to sit next to.
ArtsATL: Are you putting on any shows this season that are remarkably new or different from things Alliance audiences have seen before?
Booth: I think the one that’s really going to catch people is the play at the end of the season we’re putting on in the Hertz called “Whipping Man.” This is a play with three characters, set in the waning days of the Civil War, that takes a time and place we assume we know and approaches it from a radically different angle. It is in every best sense of the word a wildly provocative play. It’s one of those plays where the audience’s debate and argument and response is really an essential “second act” of the play. I’m pretty excited to see how people wrestle with that work.