One day in August, Tom Key had a quiet moment at Theatrical Outfit, where he’s been artistic director for almost 25 years. The crew had just installed the set for the season opener when Key decided to check out the scenery.
“I was all alone, and I just walked through,” he says. “And as I was walking out, it was almost as if the theater itself called to me, and I looked back, and it said: ‘You’ve made the right decision. It’s time to go.’”
Next spring, after Key plays Matthew in “Cotton Patch Gospel,” a defining achievement of his career and the final show of the Outfit’s 2019-2020 season, the effervescent, 69-year-old Alabama-born artist who’s been performing since he was a kid will clean out his office and hand over his keys to his successor.
It will be a moment the theater has purposefully orchestrated for more than three years. A season-long transition period will allow Key to ease Torney into his new role while finishing his home stretch and contemplating his next adventure. “I feel so happy,” Key said in a wide-ranging interview at the Decatur home he shares with his wife, Beverly, a visual artist, and their pet poodle, Wally. “I didn’t expect to feel this happy.”
His buoyancy appears to come from a sense of pride in what he’s accomplished in his career, and a sense of excitement about what comes next — both for himself and for Theatrical Outfit under Torney’s leadership.
On the personal side, “I feel like I’ve got another act left in me, as an actor, director and writer,” Key says.
As for the institution, there’s no question Key leaves it in the best shape of its 43-year history. Under his leadership, the theater has cultivated a strong board and hired a seasoned artistic and administrative staff. The hiring of Torney, a Belfast native, is the culmination of Key’s efforts to build a theater that will endure long after his departure.
“At the end of the day, it’s about having a human being who you know in your heart is the right person to take it forward,” Key says of his successor.
“I love Tom,” Torney says of his soon-to-be predecessor. “We clicked immediately over the theater’s mission, and the belief that art has a civic function, as well as a cultural one, to start conversations that matter.”
Both men came of age in times of bitter political divisiveness and sweeping social change, and they were shaped by that experience. “I grew up during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland,” Torney said in an email, “and Tom was deeply affected by the racial violence he witnessed growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. For both of us, art was a powerful place of refuge, solace, and community.”
It’s clear that Key hasn’t lost his political gusto. Asked if he thinks theater can survive the modern era, he responds thoughtfully: “The theater is a gift, like the environment. We ignore it to our peril, and we are stewards of it to our great blessing. The same thing goes for democracy and America. These things aren’t just a given. We have to continually be stewards to them.”
“I really appreciate Tom’s giftedness and his humility as a person,” says Rev. Jeffery Ott, a Theatrical Outfit season-ticket holder and the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, where Key and his wife are members. “There are so many talented people in the world who are less than admirable in the way they choose to live their lives.”
Indeed, Key has few if any equals in the Atlanta theater community. After getting an education at the University of Tennessee, he took up writing. In the early ’80s, he collaborated with director-playwright Russell Treyz and pop-legend Harry Chapin to turn Clarence Jordan’s Southern-vernacular telling of the New Testament into a stage musical that had a successful off-Broadway run and continues to have revivals.
In 1995, raising a family and feeling the stress of life as a freelance artist, Key found his theatrical home as artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta’s second oldest playhouse, founded in 1976 in an old Virginia-Highland laundromat. The scrappy, experimental company would have multiple homes around town, including the old Kress Five and Dime on Peachtree Street in Midtown, where it gained artistic prominence under leaders Eddie Levi Lee and Philip DePoy.
When Key came on board, he had a staff of four and an annual budget of $275,000. After a shaky few years producing shows at Georgia State University’s 833-seat Rialto Center, Key secured a $1.2 million gift from Atlanta philanthropists Bill and Peg Balzer to purchase the historic Herren’s restaurant, the first restaurant to voluntarily desegregate in Atlanta. In 2005, Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theater at Herren’s opened, with a price tag of $5.5 million that has since been paid in full.
Today, Theatrical Outfit has a $2 million budget and eight full-time employees. During Key’s tenure, it has produced 17 world premieres, including adaptions of Southern classics (Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying,” John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”) and world premieres (Janece Shaffer’s “Brownie Points,” Adam Koplan’s “The Dancing Handkerchief,” Thomas Ward’s (“Keeping Watch” and Jonida Beqo’s “Harabel: A Sparrow Over a Minefield.”
Among his many achievements, Key also ranks his immersion into the works of Athol Fugard (“Blood Knot,” “The Island,” “ ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys”) and Horton Foote (“The Chase,” “The Young Man From Atlanta,”“Dividing the Estate”). “I got to work with both of those playwrights in conversation, both as an actor and as a director,” he says of Fugard and Foote.
Lately, Key’s been invigorated (and a little intimidated) by his work with the Atlanta Opera (“The Abduction from the Seraglio,” “Out of Darkness: Two Remain”) and Dad’s Garage, where he studied improv and appeared in two productions. “I was terrified to go through that improv class,” he said. “I almost turned around, and I thought, ‘The worst that can happen is that I’ll find out I’m not funny … and I went and I was so glad.”
So will we continue to see Key trod the boards at Theatrical Outfit?
“Tom will absolutely be involved as an artist,” Torney said. “One of the big reasons for the transition was for Tom to have more time to focus on his artistic work without the steep demands of running a theater. It’s going to be good to have him around to call on when things go wrong.”
Upcoming at Theatrical Outfit
‘Safety Net.’ A world premiere by Atlanta playwright Daryl Lisa Fazio. Oct. 16-Nov. 10.
‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.’ By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Nov. 27-Dec. 29.
‘Slow Food.’ By Wendy MacLeod. Jan. 22-Feb. 16.
‘Indecent.’ By Paula Vogel. March 4-29.
‘Cotton Patch Gospel.’ By Tom Key, Russell Treyz and Harry Chapin. April 27-May 22.
Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org
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