After two decades at Alliance Theatre, Susan V. Booth takes her final bow

‘Everybody,’ opening Sept. 10, will be her last production as artistic director.

Alliance Theatre outgoing artist director Susan V. Booth is inundated these days with phone calls and emails of congratulations. Some are from people in Chicago she hasn’t talked to in decades but now gets to pick back up with. She equates the feeling to finding one more hidden, unexpected gift behind the Christmas tree. “It’s just present after present,” she says.

Booth announced in July she would be leaving Atlanta to join Chicago’s Goodman Theater. She will be the first female artistic director in the Goodman’s 97-year history. In a lot of ways, it feels like a homecoming for her. “The Goodman is a place that holds a particular closeness to my heart,” she says.

Her theater roots began in Chicago, where she met her husband, Max Levanthal, former general manager of the Alliance Theatre. Before moving to Atlanta, she earned her graduate degree at Northwestern University and later worked on the artistic staff at the Goodman, the city’s oldest theater. Now, she will replace artistic director Robert Falls.

“I am so eager to find out how Chicago theater wrestles with this particular American moment,” she says. “I feel like what we’re wrestling with is not monolithic but is shared. But every community has a different how, and I want to find out how it’s happening in Chicago now, and then how do I jump in.”

Booth has been artistic director of the Alliance since 2001. In 21 years she has directed nearly 50 productions and overseen more than 85 world premieres, including Broadway-bound productions of “The Color Purple,” “Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy” and “The Prom.” In 2007, the Alliance won a Regional Theatre Tony Award for sustained excellence in programming, education and community engagement during her tenure.

Her decision to leave came down to the timing. The offer, her family, her work at the Alliance — it all converged in one perfect moment when it felt right.

“It came at a moment when I felt so confident in the health and aspirations of the Alliance. We are in profoundly good shape,” she says. “And that’s because of a whole lot of people who work really, really hard and love this place. It just felt like the right time.”

Her impact on the theater will be felt for years to come.

“Because of her contributions, the theater stands fully prepared to welcome its next leader,” says Broadway director Kenny Leon, whom Booth replaced at the Alliance. “I wish her continued success as she takes on this next chapter of her artistic journey.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Embracing the now

Booth’s last production with the Alliance is “Everybody” by playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins, which she is co-directing with Tinashe Kajese-Bolden. It opens Sept. 10.

Inspired by the medieval morality play “Everyman,” it asks big questions about the meaning of life in an uproarious way. To keep the cast on its toes and to illustrate life’s random twists and turns, the performers draw names on stage each night to determine who will play which character.

“It’s crazy that this turns out to be the last one,” says Booth. “I fell in love with this play a few years ago — the audacity of it. More than anything, it demands that we be present in a moment because the moment will not last. Your life is finite. Your job is finite. Your relationships are finite.”

During a time when Booth is saying goodbye to Atlanta by taking long walks in Piedmont Park, the play feels especially poignant.

“I found my brain veering off into a kind of sadness. ‘Oh, I will miss this.’ And I thought, ‘Cut that out. You’re here right now.’ Rather than mourning that, why wouldn’t we embrace that reality and try to live as fully, be in a relationship as fully, and work as fully as we possibly can?”

That concept is at the heart of “Everybody.”

“I love the play’s really raw way of dealing with the biggest issues in life.” Plus, she adds, “I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.”

Credit: Aniska Tonge

Credit: Aniska Tonge

Legacy of achievement

Nurturing new talent and cultivating new audiences are among Booth’s many accomplishments at the Alliance.

The Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, which supports artists to develop new work, and the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, which addresses the lack of diversity in theater leadership, are just two initiatives she implemented.

And when the Coca-Cola stage was undergoing a massive renovation during the 2017-2018 season, the theater seized the opportunity to expose its work to new audiences by staging productions at different venues around Atlanta, including the Cobb Energy Centre, the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, Spelman College and Actor’s Express.

“I don’t think the work is ever done when it comes to making organizations that are constructed to serve the fullness of community,” Booth says. “And that has to do with what you program, who’s running the place, who’s in your audience, who’s on your board. And I feel like the Alliance has made profoundly great strides in those areas, but the work’s not done.”

Programming for families and young people is necessary to expand the audience and representation, she says, emphasizing that the audience must see themselves both on stage and in the audience.

Booth would like to see the Alliance be a place where people go regardless of income, regardless of background in theater, regardless of race, creed or culture.

“One of the great gifts of making theater in Atlanta is that you are making theater in a great American city that wrestles with great American flaws each and every day,” she says.

“You can’t be here very long without realizing that there’s not a conversation you’re going to have that doesn’t quickly get shot through the prism of race and equity and economic disparity and civic challenge.”

She hopes the public stops seeing theater as “an ornamental luxury” and starts “to think about it as a tool in our collective toolkit to heal and grow our city.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Bright future for Atlanta theater

Booth has witnessed many positive changes in the Atlanta theater scene over the past two decades. “There’s such breadth and depth in our community,” she says.

She points to Aurora Theater, with its new 55,000-square-foot facility in downtown Lawrenceville and deeply supportive audience. “The thriving of Actor’s Express under Freddie Ashley’s leadership and these really bold takes on classics and important new plays. Artistic Director Matt Torney coming into Theatrical Outfit and just making demands of it, and of all of us that are making our theater community better. Jamil Jude at True Colors is just this brilliant theater maker,” she says.

Reflecting on highlights from her time at the Alliance, Booth fondly recalls the productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” set in a gospel idiom with a 50-voice community choir, and “Come Fly With Me,” both in 2009, and “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” in 2012.

“It was beyond humbling to have Twyla Tharp start making a new piece of dance theater in our space. It was amazing to me to watch Stephen King geek out backstage at the theater. These people who are giants in their practice, who you realize have such reverence for ours, it reminds you never to take it for granted.”

Booth’s last day at the Alliance is Sept. 16, and as she steps down, she has great confidence in the interim leadership and beyond to continue its commitment to making a real world-class theater.

“I’m less interested in offering parting words and more interested in watching what happens next, because I know it’s going to be magnificent,” Booth shares. “And it will be another set of people and hearts and minds and ideas. And I can’t wait to see what happens.”


THEATER PREVIEW

“Everybody.” Sept. 10-Oct. 2. $25-$78. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org