As the new City Springs Theatre Company prepares for what is shaping up to be a booming debut season, the story of the once-secret musical company’s origin can be told.

Last year, a small group of Sandy Springs residents attempted to lure the popular Atlanta Lyric Theatre to move from Marietta Square to the new City Springs civic center. The idea shifted to creating a new company, which now has sold nearly 3,400 subscriptions for a Broadway musical season set to open in September. And now the new City Springs Theatre Company is set to join another long-established company, Act3 Productions, in jointly promoting a downtown “arts district.”

The City Springs Theatre Company’s leadership team includes, from left, Executive/Artistic Director Brandt Blocker, Associate Artistic Director Shuler Hensley and Managing Director Natalie Barrow. (Special)

The 1,070-seat Byers Theatre within the Performing Arts Center is the mainstage home of the Sandy Springs Theatre Company, and the 350-seat Studio Theatre will serve for its smaller productions and arts education programs.

The idea of the professional musical theater company came from four Sandy Springs residents and long-time arts supporters: Jan Collins, Steven Hauser and Peggy and Jerry Stapleton.

Initially, they talked of inviting an existing metro Atlanta theater company to take on the role of resident professional theater company — specifically, the Lyric Theatre. They contacted Brandt Blocker, the Lyric’s recently departed managing artistic director, who had left town for Hong Kong, where his wife has a new job.

Blocker say he told the founding four that he could not speak for the Lyric, but he doubted the company would relocate, given its large following in Cobb County and role as a staple in the community.

His question to them: “Why don’t you start your own theater organization in Sandy Springs?”

They thought it was “a great idea” and asked for his help. He offered his assistance as an advisor for the venture.

Hauser, an attorney retired from Coca-Cola, handled all the legalities of establishing the company as a nonprofit organization.

Meanwhile, Blocker began assembling a leadership team. He contacted Natalie Barrow, with whom he had worked and who was former director of arts education and community outreach for ArtsBridge Foundation at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. She became an advisor and soon the company’s first employee as managing director.

“I leapt at the chance to be part of what I knew would be a highly successful arts organization in metro Atlanta and doing what I love,” said Barrow.

Bright on Barrow and Blocker’s radar was Shuler Hensley. A Marietta native, Hensley is a Broadway, film and TV actor who won a Tony Award in 2002 for his performance in a production of “Oklahoma!” He is also the namesake of the Shuler Hensley Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards, which Barrow managed and produced as part of her work at the Cobb Energy Centre.

They believed Hensley’s participation would give the new outfit immediate and enviable credibility. When Blocker asked him to take on the role of associate artistic director, the actor did not hesitate.

The City Springs Performing Arts Center, where the new theater company will perform later this year. (John Ruch)

“I have always wanted to be part of a new theater in Atlanta and I was ecstatic to be able to help form an original season with a brand-new company,” Hensley says. He plans to be involved in all aspects of the theater including teaching, performing and directing both young and professional local talent.

“I’ve seen the level of talent we have here in Georgia and I want to promote it,” he said. His goal is to create a pathway between Broadway and Atlanta to bring top talent here and send local talent to the Big Apple to help further their careers.

Meanwhile, Blocker was thinking of leaving his own theater days behind, but could not resist the call. In October, he was the last to sign on the dotted line as a founding officer – executive/artistic director for the new theater company. He still visits Hong Kong as his wife completes a final year of work there.

The organization has been assembling its staff and, to date, has nine members from business manager to in-house choreographer and costumer and technical manager.

The company will produce full-scale Broadway shows, beginning with its all-Broadway-musical inaugural 2018-2019 season taking the stage in September. In addition to mounting top-quality professional Broadway productions, a key element in its mission is to offer extensive arts education programming for students and educators pre-K through college, as well as community enrichment activities for all ages. On the docket are student matinees, hands-on training, master classes and summer programs. Arts education programs are in the works to be offered this fall.

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‘Unbelievable’ sales

The entire Performing Arts Center, located at Johnson Ferry and Roswell roads in Sandy Springs, will host a wide variety of performances expected to be announced later this month — including special season performances by the Atlanta Ballet and Atlanta Opera. A special grand opening series is scheduled for August.

The City Springs Theatre Company has been selling its own season subscriptions since March 1 and has far exceeded a reported goal of 500 subscriptions. Barrow said on May 8 that almost 3,400 season subscriptions had been sold, and 197 people had become “founding patrons” at a minimum donation level of $5,000 for a total of $1 million.

Blocker calls the sales “unbelievable.” In all his years in theater, he says, he has never seen anything like it. Seventy percent of the subscriptions are from Sandy Springs residents.

Added to the coffers was a $500,000 founding donation from Trisha and Ken Byers, who also secured naming of the Performing Arts Center’s main theater.

Act3 collaboration

Since the City Springs Theatre Company was announced late last year, many fans of local theater wondered whether it would be competition for Act3, a community theater mainstay for over 15 years. Mary Sorrel, Act3’s executive director and board chair, said many patrons have asked her whether Act3 would be pressed into closing its playhouse in the Sandy Springs Plaza shopping center at 6285-R Roswell Road, virtually across the street from City Springs.

In fact, Sorrel said, the two companies plan to collaborate and cross-promote each other to develop an “arts district” in downtown Sandy Springs.

“We’re very, very different,” Sorrel said.

“We embrace what we are, a small, black-box theater” with intimate performances, she said, while City Springs Theatre Company will perform large shows. “They’re going to be all about the big Broadway stuff,” she said. The organizations share a key contact: Jan Collins, who is on Act3’s board and is a founder of the City Springs Theatre Company.

“We have had great meetings with Act3” and hope to collaborate, Barrow said at a May 8 Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce event.

Sorrel confirmed that, saying the two companies will do “anything we can to promote each other.” And they hope to work together to get restaurants and bars to offer discounts or special menus to patrons with playbills or tickets from their shows.

Act3 will continue in its playhouse — a gift from the shopping center’s owner that was just reconfigured for better seating. The new season there will be announced next month. The youth performances in the PAC’s Studio Theatre is the one venue change Act3 might make.

Enoch said Act3 has been asked to join the grand opening performance lineup.

“We’re going to do something,” Sorrel said, adding that Act3 is attempting to get rights to a certain performance that cannot yet be revealed. “We’re very excited about it.”

–Judith Schonbak with John Ruch