Matt Torney, a Belfast native and associate artistic director in Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre, will be the new artistic director at downtown Atlanta's Theatrical Outfit. He is seen here with wife Amber McGinnis and their new daughter, Isla May Torney. CONTRIBUTED: MATT TORNEY

EXCLUSIVE: Matt Torney named new artistic director at Theatrical Outfit

The Theatrical Outfit will announce today that Belfast native Matt Torney will serve as the theater’s new artistic director.

Beginning next summer Torney, 38, will replace Tom Key, the polymath writer/director/actor who over the past 25 years has shepherded the theater company through dramatic growth.

Key, 68, announced earlier this year that he would retire from his leadership role at the end of the 2019-2020 season, and that the Theatrical Outfit was engaged in a national search for a new leader.

That search drew 56 applicants — most of them from outside Atlanta — and led them to Torney, currently the associate artistic director of Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Torney, in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the excitement of coming to Atlanta and joining the Theatrical Outfit is “intoxicating.”

Matt Torney currently serves as the associate artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he directing the season opener, "Doubt," by John Patrick Shanley. He is seen here with Sarah Marshall (center) and Tiffany M. Thompson, (right). CONTRIBUTED: MATT TORNEY

When he became aware that the Atlanta theater was looking for a new leader he was attracted by the mission of Theatrical Outfit. The company’s motto is “starting conversations that matter,” and Torney liked “the idea that the work they do has a civic connection, that it’s a way to build community, a kind of a civic gathering space.”

Then a serendipitous meeting occurred.

Last spring Torney’s wife, filmmaker Amber McGinnis, was premiering her feature, “International Falls,” at the Atlanta Film Festival, and appeared on the red carpet with the film’s writer, Thomas Ward, a playwright whose work has been produced by Theatrical Outfit.

Standing in the lobby of the Plaza Theatre, watching the red carpet activities, was Tom Key, a big fan of Thomas Ward. As Key introduced himself to McGinnis she said, “I know who you are, and by the way, here’s my husband who’s looking at your theater.”

A sheepish Torney, not intending to jump ahead of the other applicants, was nonetheless tickled by the connection. “It was just one of those Kismet moments,” he said. “Meeting him and looking him in the eye and hearing about the theater from him really gave me a sense of what he had built. I thought, ‘yes, I’m in.’”

Then began the interviews, and Torney’s appetite for the job grew. “You go down you meet all the folks, and that was the moment that I started really wanting it,” he said. “I was moved and inspired by the people that I met, and I knew that there’s excellent people from all over the country applying for this job. I was lucky.”

There are some distinct differences between the two theaters in Washington and Atlanta. Studio Theatre occupies a complex of four theater spaces a few blocks from the White House, and operates with a $6 million budget.

The Theatrical Outfit was created in 1976 and found its first home in a vacant coin-operated laundromat in Virginia Highland.

Matt Torney grew up in Belfast and came to the U.S. to study theater at Columbia University. CONTRIBUTED: THEATRICAL OUTFIT

Key arrived in 1995. Over the next 25 years he expanded the theater’s budget from $278,000 to $2 million a year and shepherded the theater through the construction of a new 200-seat facility built within what was the historic Herren’s restaurant in downtown Atlanta.

In addition to growing the theater and directing productions, he performed in one-man shows such as “C.S. Lewis on Stage” and “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.”

Key points out that the Studio Theatre budget is bigger, but its theater spaces are all the same, intimate, 200-seat size as the Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theatre at Herren’s. And that Torney’s approach to theater is similar to his own. “One of the things we agree on, is he understands the leadership as one of service, and he understands the theatrical art form as a service to the community.”

Torney recognizes that Key will be a tough act to follow.

“My approach to everything in life is to bring authenticity and passion, to tell the truth and put my shoulder into it and to have faith in people,” he said. “Without Tom Key it will be a different organization, it will be less centered in one person and will be more a communal effort.”

Over the course of the next year Torney will split his time between Washington and Atlanta, tending to his work at Studio Theatre, where he is directing the season opener “Doubt,” by John Patrick Shanley, and traveling to Atlanta to plan the 2020-2021 season with Key and company.

In the meantime, he and McGinnis are also tending to their newborn daughter Isla May Torney. “If you vacuum while carrying her, she’ll fall asleep,” he said, “so we have a very clean house.”

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