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Aug/Sept 2004

Arts and Entertainment
Exploring Atlanta's Cultural Scene
by Emily Horton

Pilobolus at Ferst Center for the Arts.
In the true nature of a thriving metropolis, Atlanta is a city that displays, unapologetically, the telltale signs of multiple personality disorder. And perhaps nowhere does this eclectic melting pot of moods gel more prominently than on the bustling set of the arts and culture scene. Innovative, feisty and out-of-the-box, it has enjoyed explosive growth over the last decade, giving city-dwellers with a penchant for punchy theater, heart-wrenching musical scores or passion-wrought dance little excuse for relying on "Seinfeld" reruns for life lessons and weeknight entertainment.

Atlanta's arts and culture scene boasts astounding diversity--the number of established and burgeoning theater groups in itself could render a drama fiend's schedule perpetually booked.

"The fact that we represent 151 organizations in 16 counties demonstrates that there is a great diverse variety in theater, dance and music, and a lot of it is in people's backyards," said Kim Patrick Bates, executive director of the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts.

The sheer volume keeps arts-goers busy, but it's the caliber of the work that keeps loyalists coming back again and again. And it's what is putting a stamp on this Southern-chic city as one of the premier arts cities in the nation. Atlanta has built an arts scene that, some theater transplants say, rivals (but doesn't mimic) the offerings in larger cities long steeped in a tradition of nurturing the arts and fostering its growth-among them, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and, yes, even Chicago.

A Passion for the Play
Anchoring the theater scene for over 30 years, the Alliance Theatre at the Woodruff Arts Center has set the region's standard for work of the highest caliber. Fittingly, the philosophy of the Alliance, under the direction of former Chicagoan Susan Booth, reflects the vision of many of Atlanta's arts g roups: "Though each season we produce classics, it's important to us to produce new plays and treat them with the same amount of reverence and respect that we would a classic, renowned piece."

A must-not-miss for their coming season: the world premiere of Broadway-bound "The Color Purple," a dynamic blues, jazz and gospel-inflected musical version of Alice Walker's poignant novel.

Although the Alliance may set the gold standard, it doesn't set the pace--Atlanta's arts scene lives on the edge, and standard performances are few.

"There's a strong spirit of adventure in theater around town, and a willingness to try new things," said Robert Garner, artistic director and co-founder of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival. Garner's approach to the Shakespeare Festival is hardly conventional. Case in point: next season's production of Shakespeare's hardly known "Coriolanus" draws parallels to fascist Italy of the 1920s.

Garner's philosophy is to give his directors carte blanche to court their inspiration. "Our approach is to treat Shakespeare as though he's a new playwright. We try to get ideas across in a way that today's audiences can relate to," he said.

Another director shaking up classic (albeit much more recent) material is Kenny Leon, fresh from his Broadway directorial debut of the Tony Award-winning "A Raisin in the Sun." Leon is back home in Atlanta, ready to put on the show he's been thinking about for years--Langston's Hughes' "Tambourines to Glory." It's the third and final show of the inaugural season of Leon's new company, True Colors.

True Colors is an all-inclusive theater company whose mission is centered on preserving and refreshing African American classics while embracing all cultures. He and colleague Jane Bishop teamed up to build a theater experience that reflected values that "looked like the world."

Committed to pushing the envelope a bit, 7 Stages Theatre in Little 5 Points enters its 25th year this fall as Atlanta's flagship institution for edgy, imaginative work. In general, these aren't performances you would bring your Southern grandmother or your kids to. Do come prepared to have your thoughts and your inhibitions provoked.

This fall, look for the season debut "Maria Kizito," a world premiere of the gut-wrenching telling of the 1994 Rwandan massacre by a Sovu nun, and the season finale "Wizzer Pizzer," a trippy version of "The Wizard of Oz" in which drag queens and lesbians seek conversion in a supposed therapy clinic.

Perhaps the greatest praise of late, however, has gone to greener, but incredibly fresh companies presenting the exciting work that marks the city as a breeding ground for cultural distinction. PushPush Theater in Decatur takes ultimately successful artistic license with classics works by such playwrights as Tennessee Williams, and devotes as much time to experimental new works that have rocked the theater scene of late.

Fresh-on-the-scene Fly-by Theatre has intrigued audiences with its intense, poetic interpretations of theater that merges the body and voice within one performance. Seventeen-year-old Actor's Express continues to splinter boundaries with extremely diverse, adventurous programs bolstered by contemporary and classic works from some of the world's most accomplished and promising playwrights.

Less intense, perhaps, but no less entertaining, improvisational theater is gaining ground as a distinctive genre in its own right. Awkward pauses aren't quite as hilarious anywhere else. One of the most noteworthy, Midtown's Whole World Theatre's riotous improv sketches paint lucrative portraits of, well, whatever you want--as long as you're loud enough.

Theater-thirsty suburbanites tip their hats to Atlanta's outside-the-perimeter endeavors, as well. Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell opens its five-play, 12th season to a loyal following of subscribers who will settle into its cozy theater for a solid program of comedy, satire and romance. "We deliberately make our program wildly eclectic," artistic director Bob Farley said. "You never know what's coming from one season to the next."

In the heart of Marietta's historic district, Theater in the Square has earned acclaim for its well-executed renditions of Broadway hits and other classics, and Duluth's Aurora Theatre continues to gain ground with its thoughtful selection of musicals and plays.

Lest you eschew traditional theater but would prefer an alternative to traipsing into town for your comedy fix, Roswell's Funny Farm Comedy Club pulls in comedic sensation-status acts (Bob Saget, Paul Provenza and David Brenner have been a recent few), as well as newer national headliners with a knack for humor.

Music and Movement
Many a dance enthusiast would readily testify, right hand held high, that a powerful dance performance could knock the wind out of a theatrical performance any day. These aficionados are biased, of course, but it still remains that dance, with its ability to convey beauty, love, passion, rage, humility and sorrow without so much as one spoken word, is at once an intensely complex yet simple form of expression.

McCoy Tyner at Rialto Center for the Arts.
"Dance is one of the undiscovered gems in Atlanta," notes Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts Executive Director Kim Bates. "There are so many really talented groups out there that people just don't know about."

Atlanta Ballet, of course, plays beautiful homage to traditional ballet while flirting with more innovative works, such as last season's sexy-folksy collaboration with the Indigo Girls, "Shed Your Skin."

"What inspires us comes from our mission to connect with the community," Artistic Director John McFall said. "There is a passion in touching the hearts and minds of the audience."

Still the preeminent culturally diverse dance group, Ballethnic Dance Company fuses classical ballet with other ethnically influenced dance forms in its lyrical, sometimes racy, works.

But the most exciting stuff in dance right now is that it's growing. Modern and contemporary dance companies are taking audiences' expectations for a ride that is continuing to gain momentum.

For the past 20 years, Several Dancers Core has peered into the mechanics of humanity, offering up introspective work that has brought such pieces as "Messiah" to the table along with one unorthodox piece expressing the artistic genius of Georgia-grown author Flannery O'Conner in the eponymous piece, "Flannery O'Conner."

Beacon Dance has become the poster company for avant-garde work that challenges the definitions of dance, and Zoetic Dance Ensemble is helping to raise the bar in Atlanta for modern dance with high-energy, entrancing movement that can haul a viewer into sensory overload.

Bridging academia with mainstream Atlanta, Georgia Tech's Robert Ferst Center for the Arts dishes out a dizzying collection of works each season, anchored by its signature series of smooth jazz. The offerings are impressive--Ferst's 2004-2005 series brings the celebrated modern dance company Pilobolus, the comic drag ensemble Les Ballets Trockadero and the pop-meets-opera phenomenon Amici Forever.

Bonnie Rideout at Ferst Center for the Arts.
Downtown, Georgia State University's Rialto Center for the Performing Arts takes a similar approach that yields an incredibly strong international showing with a name in straight-up jazz. Groove next season to the undulations of modern dance troupe Urban Bush Women and Putamayo's singi sensation "Latinas: Women of Latin America," and wind down with the season's highly anticipated finale, directed by legend Margaret Whiting, the "Johnny Mercer Review."

A select few of the city's university-tied venues give music center stage, placing a much greater emphasis on vocal and instrumental performances in their programs.

Slightly less lauded locally but no less deserving of praise is Spivey Hall, on the campus of Clayton College & State University, whose visually captivating, nationally acclaimed hall hosts some of the most riveting jazz, choral, chamber and instrumental music in the city.

Just in its second season, Emory's Schwartz Center aims to breathe new life into the campus arts scene--and if its offerings prove to stand up to its top-notch, architecturally outstanding performance facilities, the Atlanta arts community is in for a luscious treat.

Atlanta is rife with cutting-edge, boundary-bursting arts groups, but classic venues garner a wealth of appreciation, among them, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the Woodruff Arts Center. With a deserved dedicated following, the ASO pays tribute to a well-devised menagerie of classics, but remains committed to livening up the score with new works, such as last season's ravishing "Lord of the Rings Symphony."

The Atlanta Opera, fed by a population craving the passion of one of the world's most respected art forms, gives us conviction that Atlanta is riding the wave of a markedly sophisticated arts scene.

Woman and Child Reading, the High Museum.
Woman and Child Reading, 1977 unique lithographs on paper 64.8 x 47 cm (25 1/2 x 18 1/2). Collection of Professor and Mrs. David C. Driskell. Copyright Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA; NY, NY.
The Gallery Scene
While theater is often raucous and music sometimes thunderous, it seems incredible that visual arts can say so much without making even a whisper. And for anyone vying for a quieter, less intrusive version of cultural entertainment, visual arts can warrant a long, long pause. Still, Atlanta's offerings are relatively undiscovered. "The Atlanta visual arts scene is thriving. It's at a very strong stage of development," said Bill Nigut, executive director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition. "We have a wonderful gallery scene. It's just not on the radar screen."

Grant Park's Young Blood Gallery, for instance, showcases the edgiest of edgy work with cartoon and graffiti art, while countless galleries throughout the city house work by both emerging and already distinguished artists. Among them, Ann Jacob Gallery, Marcia Wood Gallery, Pangaea, Fay Gold Gallery and Bennett Street Gallery are all worth seeking out. It could take months of serious gallery hopping to explore all of them thoroughly.

Certainly not undiscovered, but a must for anyone who claims a fondness for still eye-candy, is the High Museum of Art, also in the Woodruff Arts Center. The High draws considerable crowds for its ever-changing, wonderfully diverse exhibits and vast permanent collection. This fall's exhibits will include private collections of works by Monet and Picasso.

The Atlanta College of Art, also part of the Woodruff Arts Center, gives a heads up to the future generation, where the fresh, contemporary works of its students reside.

If you're a neophyte to the Atlanta arts scene, the sheer magnitude of offerings admittedly can seem a little daunting. If you haven't found your niche yet, keep exploring. In this theater, everyone has a box seat.

Arts and Entertainment Venues in Atlanta

Theatre & Stage

Actor's Express: Culturally diverse, philosophical program of works. 404-607-7469.

Agatha's - A Taste of Mystery: Murder-mystery dinner theatre. 404-875-4321.

Alliance Theatre: High-caliber renditions of Broadway hits and up-and-coming works. 404-733-4650.

Atlanta Lyric Theatre: Orchestra-backed musical theatre. 404-377-9948.

Aurora Theatre: Family-friendly feel-good plays and musicals. 770-476-7926.

Center for Puppetry Arts: Lifelike theatre and exhibits based exclusively on puppetry. 404-873-3391.

Dad's Garage: Interactive improv and hilarious unconventional theatre. 404-523-3141.

Fly-by Theatre: Poetic performances merging words and movement. 404-499-8354.

Funny Farm Comedy Club: Stages nationally known headliners and up-and-comers in Roswell. 770-817-4242.

Georgia Shakespeare Festival: Fresh interpretations of works by Shakespeare and other playwrights. 404-264-0020

Georgia Ensemble Theatre: Eclectic mix of lesser known hits and new works. 770-641-1260.

Horizon Theatre: Reflective works with a Southern bent. 404-584-7450.

The Punchline: One of the city's longest-standing stand-up venues. 404-252-5233.

PushPush Theatre: Experimental, inspirational performances by a brave young company. 404-377-6332.

7 Stages Theatre: Out-of-the-box theatre inspired by real-life issues. 404-523-7647.

Theatre in the Square: Solid classics and new works by established and emerging artists. 770-422-8369.

Theatre of the Stars: The best of Broadway. 404-252-8960.

True Colors: Negro American classics that embrace all cultures. 404-588-0308.

Whole World Theatre: Improv in a series of unpredictable comic sketches. 404-817-0880.

Music & Dance

Atlanta Ballet: Energetic, classical ballet performing classic works and inventive collaborations. 404-873-5811.

Atlanta Opera: Beautifully staged production of well-loved operas. 404-881-8801.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Outstanding performances from classic and nouveau composers. 404-733-5000.

Ballethnic: Culturally diverse fusion of classical ballet and ethnic dance. 404-762-1416.

Beacon Dance: Thought-provoking, cutting-edge modern dance. 404-377-2929.

Ferst Center for the Arts: Creative mix of smooth jazz, dance, vocal and instrumental performances. 404-894-9600.

Kennesaw State University College of the Arts: A wide variety of musical performances. 770-423-6650.

Rialto Center for Performing Arts: Culturally diverse array of traditional jazz, dance, instrumental and vocal numbers. 404-651-4727.

Schwartz Center: Stunning hall hosts instrumental and vocal performances plus the visual arts. 404-727-5050.

Several Dancers Core: Passionately executed, creative contemporary dance. 404-373-4154.

Spivey Hall: Captivating choral, chamber and jazz music. 770-960-4200.

Zoetic Dance Ensemble: Intelligent, athletic contemporary dance. 678-966-0253.

Visual Arts

Ann Jacob Gallery: Contemporary works from regional, national and international artists. 404-262-3399.

Atlanta College of Art: Contemporary art reflecting various cultural and aesthetic influences. 404-733-5050. www

Bennett Street Gallery: High-profile home to contemporary paintings by prominent local and national artists. 404-352-8775.

Fay Gold Gallery: Acclaimed collection of works by Southeastern artists. 404-233-3843.

High Museum of Art: Acclaimed array of contemporary, modern, classic and ethnic art. 404-733-4400.

Imagine It! Children's Museum of Atlanta: Unconventional hands-on learning for kids. 404-659-5437.

Marcia Wood Gallery: Contemporary paintings and mixed media from emerging, established and acclaimed artists. 404-827-0030.

Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia: Inventive collection of Georgia-grown contemporary work. 404-881-1109.

Young Blood Gallery: Organic gallery housing graffiti, cartoonist and other edgy works. 404-627-0393.

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