Following more than a year of shut down, the Dunwoody theater company Stage Door Players has hired a new artistic director to helm its upcoming season.
Willie E. Jones III – an actor, director, playwright, producer and educator from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program – has been brought on as the theater’s artistic director. He will help move the theater in a new direction, according to an announcement.
In an interview, Jones said that Stage Door hopes to diversify the types of programming the theater offers.
“We’re just looking to move toward a theater – at least on the artistic side – that is inclusive, that is welcoming, that is dynamic, that is challenging, that is entertaining,” he said, adding the theater will use different productions, methodologies and theories “that represent the diaspora of people in this beautiful city of Atlanta.”
The theater plans to reopen its indoor mainstage theater in August with the play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” said Jones. Then in September, the theater will partner with another company to put on a production of August Wilson’s “Fences” and hold William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Brook Run Park’s amphitheater. The mainstage season is set to begin Oct. 1.
The new hire comes following last year’s controversial decision to furlough Stage Door’s longtime artistic director, Robert Egizio. In a Facebook announcement from August of 2020, board members cited the COVID-19 pandemic and a 55% loss in Stage Door’s revenue stream as part of the decision. The majority (66%) of Stage Door’s income comes from ticket sales and season ticket subscribers, according to the social media post.
Many took to Facebook to voice their concerns about letting Egizio go. One commenter, Anne Hayden, called it “an appalling decision,” while Brandt Blocker expressed hope that Egizio would come back.
“People were very unhappy with the way the former artistic director – who was very talented – was shown the door,” said Meredy Shortal, former Stage Door Players board member and wife of former Dunwoody mayor Denis Shortal.
Shortal said she was a board member for five years before resigning last August, in part due to Egizio’s departure. She had concerns over the direction the company was taking and didn’t want the theater to lose its professional reputation along with Egizio.
“I see a lot of enthusiasm with this new group, but I don’t see a lot of experience,” she said. “That worries me.”
She said she also worried that the focus on programming for young people would move the theater away from offering entertainment geared toward adults. Stage Door Players started up its Summer Academy this June, which offers classes and camps for kids ages 10 to 18.
“Quite honestly, [there] needs to be more for adults to do in Dunwoody,” Shortal said. “We’ve got the soccer fields. We’ve got outstanding baseball fields and programs in the parks. But the professional theater, in my opinion, is gone.”
But while some expressed disappointment, others seemed optimistic at Stage Door’s new direction, particularly its promise to try and represent the city’s diverse population. In a September Facebook post, theater board members said keeping up with the “changing demographics” of the community is central to their plan.
“This is awesome! New leadership means new blood,” wrote commenter Diany Rodriguez. “I noticed there was no mention of the near complete and utter lack of racial diversity at this theatre … but, this gives you a chance to address it. Use this opportunity to do better. We’re watching.”
New direction for Stage Door
In an interview with The Reporter, Stage Door Managing Director Debbie Fuse said she hoped the community would enjoy the company’s new direction. Fuse said now that the theater is in a position to reopen, Stage Door plans to offer a variety of options for season ticket passes, and may rent out the theater space to better serve the community and bring in extra revenue.
“We won’t know until we start putting our information out there over the next 30 days,” Fuse said. “I think we’ll see a true picture of where things are headed. I think it’s going to go in a very positive direction.”
Fuse said the board is still ironing out details on how productions will move forward in a COVID-19 safe manner. She said there have been discussions about having performances for vaccinated people, or changing capacity limits.
“We’ll still have all the cleaning procedures in place that we’ve talked about through this whole pandemic,” she said. “We will continue to do that. It will vary depending on what’s going on, but I do see us probably having a combination of things.”
Jones discussed the possibility of broadcasting virtual programming for those who aren’t yet comfortable with coming back to the theater – or for those whom a theater might not have been accessible for in the first place.
“I think virtual programming is very much a possibility,” he said.
Fuse said more details about what the board has been working on, not only artistically but behind the scenes as well, will start to roll out shortly. She said the mainstage season has “pretty much been chosen,” and there are ideas to incorporate things like cabarets and other fundraising opportunities.
“It’s going to be very busy for us,” she said. “It’s exciting what we’re doing and where we’re headed.”