New artistic director brings stage-lust energy to Dad's Garage

On Jan. 2, Kevin Gillese sat at the Toronto airport all day, sidelined by the bad weather and waiting for a plane to Atlanta. The minute he touched down at Hartsfield, he went straight to Dad’s Garage to do an improv show. The 10:30 p.m. performance, he says, perked him up like a hot shower.

This is how the Edmonton, Alberta, native spent his first “day” on the job as the new artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre. Gillese’s energy, his stage-lust, his "just-one-of-the-guys" approach to life and work are part of why he was picked to run the 15-year-old Inman Park comedy group, which has built a national name brand through a combination of gonzo theatrics, smart management and legitimate artistry.

A 29-year-old with a scruffy beard and jeans-and-T-shirt wardrobe, Gillese (pronounced “guh-LEECE”) caught the improvisational theater bug as a teen, performed in a Dad’s improv tournament at 19, left college to pursue his craft and came up through the ranks of Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, an improv group where he was artistic director from 2008-2009. (Gillese replaces Kate Warner, who left last April to run New Repertory Theatre in Waterton, Mass.)

According to Dad’s board chair Andrew Chang, the theater was looking for an artistic chief who would fit Dad’s laid-back culture. They wanted someone with an improv background, someone “the board could trust and the artists could trust.”

After an exhaustive search that drew candidates from Europe and Australia, “we really hit a home run with Kevin,” the AirTran Airways executive says. “He’s sort of an insider, but at the same time, he has an outsider’s fresh perspective.”

Scarfing down a salami-and-black olive pizza at Fritti restaurant on a recent day, Gillese says he wants to beef up the theater’s international presence and focus on new work, which is most likely to be created by the Dad’s ensemble. (Warner’s approach was to mix up the Dad’s madness with scripts by contemporary playwrights, and, unlike Gillese, she never performed.)

“As long as I’m in charge we are going to be producing almost exclusively original work,” Gillese says. “That does not necessarily mean it’s always going to be something new written by someone here, although that will be the case a lot of the time. But it could also be work by people in the extended Dad’s family.” (He cites Atlanta native Steve Yockey and Canadian Chris Craddock as examples of playwrights he might like to showcase.)

“I do think he, Kevin, is well-versed in touring, and he is well-versed in taking a piece of work and getting it out beyond a local community and to the world,” says Sean Daniels, a Dad’s co-founder and artistic director from 1995-2004. “And what I think is going to be great for Dad’s: He’ll figure out a way to take the great work we have done that celebrates Atlanta artists and then share that with a larger global community. I think that’s going to be an exciting next step.”

Gillese says he’s in no hurry to make change for the sake of change. “I’m certainly not in a rush to shake things up,” he says. “There’s a long tradition here. I’ve got to make sure I am making the right moves.”

While Gillese, who is single, is careful to cultivate an image as a free-spirited hipster who loves the gypsy lifestyle, the late nights and the ladies, he is a laser-sharp conversationalist and observer. “Kevin is a force to be reckoned with,” says Amy Shostak, who worked with Gillese at Rapid Fire for eight years and recently took over as artistic director. “He is the most ambitious person I know.”

This work ethic, Gillese and his friends say, may be a result of his family’s distinguished background. Both his parents are physicians. His Irish-born grandfather, the late John Patrick Gillese, is a much-decorated author and pioneer in the cultural life of Alberta. “My aunt’s a judge on the court of appeals. My little brother is an engineer. I have a cousin in the NHL,” he says of his clan’s many success stories.

His folks’ initial resistance to his choice of professions has only made him push himself harder, even if that means saying goodbye for a while. When Dad’s offered him the job, he was humbled, and it took him a few days to make up his mind.

“I was there when he got the phone call, and I think he was a little bit overwhelmed,” says Arlen Konopaki, who performs with Gillese as part of the two-man improv team Scratch. “He didn’t think he had a shot, and I think he underestimated his chances and his ability to get the job.”

The newest member of Atlanta’s artistic-director pool says he’s looking forward to investigating the city’s barbecue joints and hip-hop scene. (So far, he’s eaten at Williamson Bros. and Fatt Matt’s Ribb Shack .) He’s been feted to an endless round of cocktail parties and come Saturday night, he’ll be back on the Dad’s stage, performing in TheatreSports.

It will be a rush -- and a challenge. “I have to be on my toes,” he says. “I’m working with all new people. I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone and it feels great.”


Where to catch Gillese onstage:

TheatreSports. 10:30 p.m. Saturday. $11-$13. Dad’s Garage. 280 Elizabeth St., Suite C-101, Atlanta. 404-523-3141,

Coming up next at Dad’s:

“Griefers.” Feb. 5-27. By Christian Danley and Randy Havens. “It’s this really cool show about video games and the blurring of the lines between video games and reality, the chasm in between which our youths are plummeting,” Gillese says.