Tom Key, a man synonymous with Atlanta theater, announced Tuesday he would retire as artistic director of the Theatrical Outfit at the end of the 2019-2020 season.
A powerhouse of creativity, Key joined the Theatrical Outfit in 1995 as it was looking for a permanent home.
Under his guidance the theater company renovated the old Herren’s restaurant downtown and made it into a resilient, compact home for classics, musicals, new authors and Christmas miracles.
The Theatrical Outfit has featured work by Atlanta playwrights Janece Shaffer and Lauren Gunderson and has embraced the Southern voices of Horton Foote, Ernest Gaines and Harper Lee.
It has also staged regional and world premieres.
Among the actors treading the boards of the Outfit’s 200-seat stage was Key himself, who proved he could single-handedly hold an audience with the one-man shows, “C.S. Lewis on Stage” and “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.”
As he was preparing for the Buckminster Fuller play in 2015, he spoke with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the future of his leadership at the theater company, saying the time would come when he was no longer in charge, but the time would never come when he stopped working.
“I don’t know the word ‘retire.’ I might be doing monologues for my friends in the assisted living home, but I will be working,” he said at the time.
Now Key, 68, said he feels trepidation and excitement.
“It already feels like jumping off the highest diving board I’ve ever jumped off of,” he said Wednesday. “I trust that I will land gracefully.”
Pearl McHaney, a professor of Southern literature at Georgia State University and a member of the board of the Theatrical Outfit, said the group is actively searching for a new artistic director, with help and advice from Key.
“We hope to have the next artistic director named by the end of the summer,” said McHaney. The new director would then work with the company while Key is still on hand.
“The next director will be participating and observing, becoming integral to what the Theatrical Outfit means,” she said.
Key said he’s not sure what his next chapter will be, but added “I feel that I’ve got another act in me as an artist, an actor, a writer, a director.”
Key earned a national reputation with his 1981 Off-Broadway musical, “Cotton Patch Gospel,” in which he starred and which he co-wrote with Russell Treyz and the late Harry Chapin.
He expressed a certainty that he will be writing again. “I feel this real commitment to writing daily,” he said. “I will be giving myself 10 years to keep at it, and after 10 years something might rise to the surface and take off.”
The Theatrical Outfit’s first home was in an empty coin-operated laundromat in Virginia-Highland.
It has since become an anchor of downtown’s cultural offerings.
It arrived in 2004, before the Georgia Aquarium and the burgeoning attractions of the area began to transform the landscape.
The area is transformed but there is still room for improvement. Of his theater company, Key said “We will be the leader in how the arts can transform an urban area in the early part of the 21st century.”
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