“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was presented by the Alliance Theatre in an open-air stage, constructed inside the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Actors and audiences dealt with rain, heat and the occasional honeybee, but the setting enhanced the drama. CONTRIBUTED BY ALLIANCE THEATRE

Going off script

From malls to gardens to a church, theater in new places makes theater new

In a strip mall on Buford Highway, between a cellphone store and an H&R Block outlet, the folks at Aurora Theatre are throwing a party.

Starting March 21, there will be music, beverages, finger food, conversation and five bite-sized plays to choose from.

With no boards to tread, no scenery to chew, and hardly any space between the actors and the audience, it will be like theater in your living room.

About 7 miles to the southwest, the Atlanta Opera is to perform “The Barber of Seville” under open skies, where the Beltline crosses through the Historic Fourth Ward Park.

In Midtown, among giant topiary animals, besieged by heat, rain and the occasional honeybee, the Alliance Theatre built an open-air stage in the middle of the Atlanta Botanical Garden to present “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last September.

>> RELATED: See the AJC’s review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

All over town, the theatrical arts — from Shakespeare to Rossini — have been popping up in strange places.

Theater groups have different reasons for taking their work outside the fourth wall, but the result is often a new spin on familiar tales, and a way to reach a different demographic.

“With classic art, it’s a struggle to get new audiences,” said Brian Clowdus, founder of Serenbe Playhouse, in Palmetto, who has been staging outdoor theater for 10 years. His Civil War musical, “Shenandoah,” starring “American Idol” season five winner Taylor Hicks, runs March 13-April 7 under the open air. “Rather than trying to pull people into a museum or a theater, we’re pulling the art out of that environment, and putting it where the people are.”

Serenbe Playhouse founder and artistic director Brian Clowdus gives direction to Taylor Hicks (center) and Pilot Bunch (right) before the dress rehearsal of "Shenandoah" on March 12, 2019. RODNEY HO / RHO@AJC.COM
Photo: .

>> RELATED: Taylor Hicks has first big acting role in Serenbe Playhouse’s “Shenandoah”

For Juan Unzueta, director of cross-cultural programming at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre, the shopping mall experiment at Northeast Plaza on Buford Highway will not only reach a new audience, but will enable a new approach to theater.

There is a Latin tradition, originating in Madrid, of presenting a suite of short dramas in a festival setting. Last summer, Unzueta and Aurora co-founder Anthony Rodriguez visited Miami’s version, which Microtheater Miami puts on in shipping containers near the Centro Cultural Espanol on Biscayne Boulevard.

Actors, audience, drinks and music are all crammed together. “We were so inspired by the work being done, and we were trying to figure out how to create that sort of experience for Atlanta,” said Unzueta. From March 21-30, Teatro Aurora, the Spanish-language arm of the theater group, will launch a six-day Atlanta version. A cast of 10 actors will present five different plays, each about 10 minutes long, in staggered succession, with breaks for refreshments and live music.

Each play, most of which mix Spanish and English, will be repeated five times each night, and patrons can see several, for $7 a play, or $30 for all five. It’s like tapas for your mind.

Dad’s Garage Theatre takes that “smaller is better” approach to the extreme in its yearly fundraiser, an outdoor festival at which visitors can experience improvisational comedy one-on-one.

Along with booths offering craft beer and food, visitors can visit “Karen’s Compliments,” for a tailored compliment from the diminutive Karen Cassady, or hear spontaneously invented erotic fan fiction based on their favorite fictional character. “We have artist’s booths manned by our improvisers who give personalized improvised experiences,” said Matt Terrell, head of communications at Dad’s Garage.

All takes place April 6 outside the Dad’s Garage headquarters in the Old Fourth Ward. The event used to be BaconFest, but, in a nod to vegetarians, and people who just don’t like cheap side meat, Dad’s has removed the bacon, and turned the event into the Big Stupid Parking Lot Carnival.

“This is the same thing as BaconFest was, just without bacon,” said Terrell.

“Beulah Creek,” a production by Found Stages, was staged outdoors, beside a creek, in the Dunwoody Nature Center. Audience members sat on blankets and were given candles to help illuminate the setting. CONTRIBUTED BY FOUND STAGES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Found Stages, a theater company created in 2014, not only creates theater in new places, but uses those places to inspire new plays. Co-founder Nichole Palmietto said the group is writing a new “Frankenstein” play (a follow-up to a New Year’s Eve production called “Frankenstein’s Ball”) designed for the interior of the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Druid Hills.

Once she saw the Gothic church, she knew that it would be right for the Gothic tale.

The story will be staged like the highly successful, immersive “Sleep No More” in Manhattan, in which the audience roams through multiple rooms of a building, interacting with the cast, in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of evening.

“People are wanting an event,” said Palmietto. “They (want to) have an experience, and affect that experience, and feel that they’re part of it. Immersive theater can give them that.”

For the Atlanta Opera production of “Maria de Buenos Aires,” the company transformed a room at the antique store Paris on Ponce into a seedy tango club. The dancers and singers perform in an intimate space, inches away from the audience. CONTRIBUTED BY ATLANTA OPERA
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Even old forms change in the new settings.

“Often opera is designed to be grand,” said Tomer Zvulun, artistic director of the Atlanta Opera. “Often we will have an orchestra of 60 or 70 musicians between the audience and the stage, and the stage is huge: 55 feet wide, 60 feet deep.”

The effect is awe-inspiring, but also distancing. As an alternative, the opera company’s production of the Astor Piazzolla tango tale, “Maria de Buenos Aires,” running March 28-April 7, puts the action in a nightclub — actually, a dressed-up section of the Paris on Ponce antiques store called Le Maison Rouge. The dancers and singers are close enough to touch, as they swirl between the tables and chairs.

Said Zvulun, “It’s mind-blowing.”

>> RELATED: What’s coming in Atlanta Opera’s 2019-20 season?

Sometimes, producers are forced by circumstance to find a venue outside the norm. Clowdus, at the planned Serenbe community, has always staged outdoor shows there, because there’s no indoor theater.

Atlanta’s biggest professional company, the Alliance, was left without a home during the 2017-18 season as its Woodruff Arts Center facility was gutted and rebuilt. The company produced shows in 12 different locations scattered around town, including at the Atlanta History Center and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “We learned a lot,” said associate producer Donya Washington.

>> RELATED: How the Alliance scattered a season of shows around metro Atlanta

In particular, they learned that producing theatrical events off-site brings a host of difficulties. The Alliance cast was hampered by heat several times during last September’s outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the audience also occasionally suffered. The troupe fought back with cooling towels, fans and strategically placed jugs of water.

A May 2017 performance of Mozart’s “The Secret Gardener” by the Atlanta Opera was chased inside by rain, and last year’s scheduled Beltline performance of “The Barber of Seville” was postponed due to weather.

Plus, “in untraditional venues, you have to come up with all the elements that a theater will already have built into it” — lights, scenery, dressing rooms, a sound system — said Zvulun.

“But the challenges are the benefits,” he said. “The challenge of being outdoors is also the benefit of being outdoors. The challenge of not having scenery is the benefit of having the environment be the scenery; you don’t have to have the scrims to portray a garden, because you’re in a garden.”

Serenbe Playhouse has been presenting outdoor drama for 10 years, often using the space to create spectacular effects. In “Miss Saigon,” from 2016, the action included a Huey helicopter that landed in an open field, next to the audience. CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS / SERENBE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Finally, a new, unorthodox location might be just what a 21st-century customer needs to get his or her attention.

Producers, said Clowdus, “are starting to realize that consumers want experiences. They don’t want to sit and wait for things. They want the immediate.”

EVENT PREVIEW

• “The Barber of Seville” plays at 11 a.m. March 16 on the Beltline in Old Fourth Ward Park, but will also be repeated 17 more times at schools around Atlanta and will also be presented at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. May 18; 1 and 3 p.m. May 19. $15. Studio Theater, City Springs at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. 404-249-9965, atlantaopera.org.

• “Maria de Buenos Aires.” 7:30 p.m. April 4-7 (sold out March 28-31). $75. Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce, 716 Ponce de Leon Place NE, Atlanta. 404-249-9965, atlantaopera.org.

• Teatro Aurora: Festival de MicroTeatro. 7:30-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 21-23; Thursday-Saturday, March 28-30. Five shows, $7 per show; $30 for all five. Northeast Plaza, 3307 Buford Highway NE, Atlanta. auroratheatre.com.

• Big Stupid Parking Lot Carnival, 1-6 p.m. April 6. $10 and up. Dad’s Garage Theatre, 569 Ezzard St. SE, Atlanta. dadsgaragecarnival.com.

• Serenbe Playhouse’s “Shenandoah.” Civil War battle re-enactment begins at 7:45 p.m.; play begins at 8 p.m. March 13-April 7. $45-$70. The Horseman’s Meadow in Serenbe, 10950 Hutchesons Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. 770-463-1110, serenbeplayhouse.com.

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