Above: Pearl Cleage, playwright in residence at Alliance Theater, is a major force in Atlanta theater. SPECIAL

People who bring Atlanta theater to life

It’s been a long, dark spring and summer for Atlanta’s theaters. Metro playhouses turned out the lights months ago to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unable to gather audiences in their theaters, actors, directors and playwrights were left to wait out the pandemic and hope for the safe return of live theater.

Several Atlanta theatres are trying or planning new ways to reach audiences. Some are going digital and streaming shows online. Others propose new ways of staging: The Atlanta Opera plans to perform “Pagliacci” this month in an open-sided tent with masked audience members clustered in small groups; The Alliance Theatre wants to start its 52nd season in November with shows staged in several different ways, including a drive-in version of “A Christmas Carol.”

We thought this (presumably brief) pause before curtains start to rise again across the metro area would be a good time to meet some of the people who create Atlanta theater.

We present a half-dozen metro Atlantans who have devoted their careers to building theatrical groups and bringing stirring performances to the community. Their paths to Atlanta’s stages have varied widely — from writing plays to acting in plays to building an audience by staging Shakespeare year-round.

Let’s hope they will be able to turn on the lights in their theaters soon.

Pearl Cleage, playwright in residence, Alliance Theatre

Playwright. Essayist. Novelist. Poet. Political Activist. With so many titles next to her name, it’s a wonder that Pearl Cleage can recall specific details about her first night in Atlanta back in 1969.

She went to see Black Image Theater put on a play. Cleage remembers the actors wore jeans and black turtlenecks. They talked about the Black community and what needed to be done in the post-Civil Rights Era.

“And I thought to myself, ‘I’m home!’” Cleage said. “’This is exactly the kind of theater I love.’”

The new city welcomed her with open arms. Cleage credits the encouragement, as well as Atlanta’s lively political and artistic scene, for much of her creativity.

“People wanted me to write what I know. And that’s the best gift that a place can give you,” Cleage said. “To make you feel like you’re able to be deeply rooted in that place and reflective of that place. And I hope that’s what I’ve been able to do in Atlanta.”

She would go on to write many plays and books — love letters to the community that fascinates her the most: Black women.

“Because I’m a Black woman. I know myself, so I feel that I know those characters and I want to see women like the women that I know, like the women that I see, on the stage. Because their lives are so interesting,” Cleage said. “I could write those stories forever.”

Though her stories center around women of color, Cleage believes the themes are universal and relatable. But to address gender, race, sexual preference and economic disparity in American society, she had to learn what it means to be a brave storyteller. Especially after an editor excoriated her debut novel.

“To tell the truth, fearlessly,” Cleage said. “To not always feel that as an African American writer, I have to write noble women who are always correct, who are long-suffering matriarchs. Those are not the only stories we have to tell.”

The book that the editor criticized was 1997’s “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” — the story of a young Black woman diagnosed with HIV. It went on to be featured in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and it became a New York Times bestseller.

Cleage’s play, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” (1995), was directed by Kenny Leon and starred her Howard University classmate, Phylicia Rashad. The Cosby Show actress gave such a believable performance, an audience member reached out to catch her as she portrayed a staggering, drunken 1930s nightclub singer.

Her play, “Flyin’ West” (1992), was featured at The Kennedy Center. It told the story of African American pioneers, starred the late Ruby Dee, and became the most produced new play in the country in 1994. But Cleage calls it all icing on the cake.

“The moment I will always treasure is the first time we had an audience of 200 people at the Alliance Theater,” she said. “And people went crazy. They gave it a standing ovation. They laughed at all of the stuff I hoped they would laugh at.”

Cleage also remembers her critical father praising the performance, and it brought tears to her eyes.

More than 50 years have passed since Cleage made Georgia her home. She still sees America battling some of its same social demons, including in the theater community, where there is still room for diversity.

“There’s a lot of holding these theaters’ feet to the fire and to say, ‘Okay, we love the rhetoric, but what are you going to do about it?’” Cleage said there needs to be voices for women and people of color on every level of a production. “These are great American theaters, and they need to be about the business of telling great American stories.”

Even as the coronavirus has stalled the theater community, Cleage says she’s inspired to write faster. “All of us, by doing the best work we can possibly do, we make those audiences hungry for more good work,” Cleage said. “It’s very important to me that this theatre community thrive. And I’m always grateful to be a part of it.”

Among the shows put on hold by the pandemic is Cleage’s latest work, “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous” (2019) — a hilarious and poignant story about getting older, as told by an aging actress. And with age, Cleage hasn’t lost any of her spunk either. She’s currently exploring film noir.

“It’s been fun for me to see if I can write a bad girl.”

—Tiffany Griffith

Michael Hidalgo and David Thomas, co-founders, ART Station

ART Station, a cultural mainstay in the ever-changing landscape of Stone Mountain Village, has been pummeled by the global pandemic. Every employee was furloughed, except for one who takes care of the historic building, which houses a 150-seat theater, a cabaret theater, five art galleries, classrooms, production and administrative space and gift shops.

Co-founders David Thomas, the center’s president and artistic director, and Michael Hidalgo, its producing director and designer, are now “working pretty much as volunteers,” Thomas said.

Two productions of the nonprofit’s professional equity theater company and its summer arts camp were cancelled, along with its biggest fundraiser, the March 17 “Raising of the Green.”

From left, ART Station founders Michael Hidalgo and David Thomas SPECIAL

ART Station programs have served more than 50,000 patrons and students in past years. As of now, there’s no telling when the facility will reopen.

“We’re in a really weird place because we’ll be the last kind of business to open up because of what we do, which is bring people together,” Thomas said.

“All of our training and all of our experience for at least the last 30 to 35 years has been just that — to bring people together for live theater,” Hidalgo said. “Our hands are not only tied behind our backs, our legs are tied together too. We can’t even walk, let alone run.”

It’s a tough spot for these two partners in work and in life who are used to blazing through 20-hour days filled with projects, both at home and at work. Together since they met, and married since 2015, when they were legally able to do so, they live within walking distance from ART Station in a 1940s bungalow they’re renovating.

These days, much of their time is spent applying for business grants and loans and working toward the day they can finally stage their on-hold productions of “Murder for Two” and “Looped.”

“There’s one word that really summarizes what we’ve been doing. That’s planning. We always plan,” Hidalgo said. “David’s a huge dreamer, and I try to make it realistic. What we do normally is plan, but this is abnormal planning. … It keeps us challenged.”

Thomas and Hidalgo seem to thrive on challenges.

They met in 1983 in graduate school at Virginia Tech and worked together in outdoor theater in Wilmington, N.C., before moving to Atlanta in 1984.

“I was working in insurance to pay the bills while David was living the dream, doing arts stuff,” Hidalgo said.

Thomas was traveling around the state to consult with arts groups as grants director for the Georgia Council for the Arts. He had been thinking of opening an arts center in Midtown Atlanta, but “I came to an arts festival in Stone Mountain … and I saw the Trolley Barn and I just got tingles,” he said.

The Trolley Barn, at 5384 Manor Drive, was built as a trolley station and streetcar barn in 1913, part of a streetcar line from Stone Mountain to Whitehall Street in downtown Atlanta.

Thomas was dazzled by the old brick building, but, “It was in horrible, horrible shape,” he said. “The roof had caved in. You had to wear a mask to go in there. It was full of asbestos.”

And yet, he forged ahead, forming a founding group of artists, government, corporate and community leaders that raised $3.5 million to renovate the building for an arts center. The theater company Thomas founded in 1986 moved into the building in 1990.

Historic restoration and renovations have continued since, including a project primarily completed in Oct. 2019 that replaced 11 brick archways lost to asbestos removal, renovated the lobby and installed and added all new seats to the theater.

A Fox Theatre Institute grant funded another major improvement completed after the center shut down in March.

“We now have a brand-new stage with a brand-new turntable inserted in the stage, which is fabulous. Nobody’s seen it yet, but we’re very much looking forward to showing that off,” Hidalgo said.

—Donna Williams Lewis

Where to Find Theaters Online

For current information on when individual metro theaters plan to reopen their main stages and whether and how they are presenting theatrical events now, check their individual websites.

7 Stages Theatre: 7stages.org

Act3 Playhouse: act3productions.org

Actor’s Express Theatre Co.: actors-express.com

Agatha’s A Taste of Mystery: agathas.com

The Alliance Theatre: alliancetheatre.org

ART Station: artstation.org

Atlanta Lyric Theatre: atlantalyrictheatre.com

Atlanta Opera: atlantaopera.org

Aurora Theatre: auroratheatre.com

City Springs Theatre Co.: cityspringstheatre.com

Dad’s Garage Theatre: dadsgarage.com

Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner Show: thedinnerdetective.com/atlanta

Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre: earlsmithstrand.org

Found Stages: foundstages.org

Georgia Ensemble Theatre: get.org

Horizon Theatre Co.: horizontheatre.com

Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Co.: truecolorstheatre.org

Legacy Theatre: thelegacytheatre.org

OnStage Atlanta: onstageatlanta.com

Out of Box Theatre: outofboxtheatre.com

Out Front Theatre Co.: outfronttheatre.com

Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre: facebook.com/pnotheatre

Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse: shakespearetavern.com

Synchronicity Theatre: synchrotheatre.com

Stage Door Players: stagedoorplayers.org

Theatrical Outfit: theatricaloutfit.org

Village Theatre: villagecomedy.com

Tiffany Griffith

Tiffany Griffith is a journalist based in Atlanta.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.