“We’ve found our little niche doing scaled-down productions of rarely done musicals, and that’s something that Atlanta just does not have right now,” says Davis, whose Overture Series of both streaming and minimalist live shows is now in full swing.
In “The Wild Party,” lovers Queenie (Galen Crawley) and Burrs (Maxim Gukhman) throw the party of the year in Prohibition-era Manhattan, with a colorful array of guests in attendance. It’s all raucous fun and games until decadence turns to jealousy, and the party becomes a different kind of wild.
Davis says that many of the musicals he chooses have rarely or never been presented in Atlanta because they are not part of the canon of traditionally mainstream audience favorites. Selling out a full-scale run of such a show would be challenging, if not impossible. But to Davis, a single weekend or even single performance of a minimalist concert with lower operating expenses is much more feasible.
Credit: Jillian Melko
Credit: Jillian Melko
“It makes for an evening where patrons can just get a little taste of the show, and if they enjoy it enough, they can go to their local theater company that does long runs and say, ‘Hey, I saw this show over there and loved it!’ and that gets word-of-mouth going.”
Located in the Cobb Civic Center Complex, the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre has historically functioned as a rentable venue, most notably used by Atlanta Lyric Theatre. Until Davis took over as artistic director in 2018, it only self-produced a benefit performance here or one-night-only Broadway star appearance there.
An Atlanta native, Davis had held a string of jobs — actor, stage manager, production manager, educator, box office manager and administrative — at various theater companies, from Arts Clayton to the Alliance Theatre, over a decade before arriving at the Cobb theater. He decided that he wanted to refocus the programming to present shows that feature local talent.
“With all due respect to those big Broadway names and those out-of-town artists, if this venue is primarily for the community, I want us to feature the community and build our own programming ourselves,” he explains.
This locally focused approach kicked off in 2020 with a concert-style production of “Guys and Dolls,” the performers with books in-hand and minimal costuming. Fast-forward to 2022, and the company has morphed its model into a mix of live and streamed performances and expanded its staging beyond the confines of music stands.
One aspect that has remained the same, however, has been short rehearsal time. At first, this fit the minimalist choreography and design elements, but now that the company has moved to more traditional stagings, it makes for a very intense two weeks.
“I tell [the performers and crew] at the very first rehearsal every single time: This process is not for everybody. It’s a very intense process to learn a show with lights, staging and choreography in 10 to 11 days. It’s pretty insane.”
Davis adds that this truncated rehearsal time allows a seat at the table for many performers who would not have the schedule flexibility to do a full professional show. “It excites me because I do believe in this town, and I do believe we have the capacity to do it,” he says. “And it’s just a different set of really fun obstacles and challenges.”
The current season began in February with a streaming-only performance of the two-character “The Last Five Years.” While Jennie T. Anderson Theatre’s previous streams featured a concert-style performance filmed head-on, “The Last Five Years” adopted a more involved approach.
“It filmed almost like a PBS concert,” Davis says. “We were presenting it almost as if you were in the same room with them versus presenting it to an audience and having cameras out in the house capturing everything. No, the cameras were on stage with the actors.
“And now with ‘The Wild Party,’ we’ve taken it one step further and filmed it very similarly to a movie,” continues Davis, who co-directed alongside Clifton Guterman, the former Theatrical Outfit associate artistic director who now heads Big Picture Casting’s Film and Television Division. “And it so excites me because it’s like a filmed stage production versus just a filmed performance, and it blends a little bit of live theater. But we’re playing it for the camera versus for an audience. So it’s definitely a lot more cinematic in that sense.”
Davis has taken the opportunity as artistic director to cast fresh faces who may not have hit their big break in theater yet, while steering away from any pecking order of local performers.
“When it comes to casting, I am a believer that no one should really be put in any particular box. There’s no hierarchy to what we do. You could be in the ensemble of one show and then be bumped up to the lead. Two of our players in the ensemble for “The Wild Party” [Jacob Ryan Smith and Golbanoo Setayesh] are now [starring as] Natalie and Gabe in “Next to Normal.” We go with who is right for the role versus ‘You’ve made your place in this town, and this is where you’re gonna forever stay.’ No, no one should have that much power.”
Davis says in all of the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre’s programming, his goal is to produce good theater and make people happy along the way.
“I do take everyone’s feedback very seriously,” Davis says. “I want the next experience to be even better for patrons, for actors, and musicians than the last time. I just want everyone to be happy. That is literally my goal and my mission for this series.”
The Jennie T. Anderson Theatre’s remaining shows this year will be performed in-person. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal” runs July 23-24, telling the story of a dysfunctional suburban family coping with psychological disorders and a host of domestic problems. Then, Sept. 24-25, the company will present “Caroline, or Change,” a musical about an African American maid who works for a Jewish family and forms a relationship with the family’s 8-year-old child after his mom dies. Rounding out the year will be “The Secret Garden,” Dec. 17-18. Based on the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s story, the musical chronicles an orphan girl who discovers unlikely enchantments when she goes to live with her uncle in England.
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