Center Stage

Center Stage

Susan Booth ‘85 leads the Southeast’s largest theatre into the 2007 Tony Awards spotlight.

As the actor’s voice rises, speeding towards the climax of the act, Susan Booth leans forward, bites her lip, and smiles. For a moment there is complete silence in the audition room, a bubble of discomfort straining until a final burst, the last words fade, the listeners breathe – end scene. Booth scrapes back her chair in excitement to stand, and in two strides she has begun an intimate, murmuring conversation with the actor, who now shakes his own body loose of the force that possessed him. The casting crew now nods heads and makes quick notes, grinning and watching Booth’s tireless enthusiasm. At Booth’s touch the actor’s muscles ease, and the two softly laugh as she swipes the air with flicking hands and imitates his performance.

It is this (sometimes literally) hands-on direction with which Booth has electrified Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. As its reigning artistic director, Booth has shaped and nurtured it into a theatre of national prominence, and in 2007 she led the Alliance to the single greatest achievement of its 40-year history: a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre. While many locals have felt the award has been long overdue, Booth acknowledges that winning the Tony is one of the greatest compliments a theatre can possibly get, but it gives the Alliance even more reason to work harder than ever before. “The ceiling is still a long way off,” she says, “but the Alliance can be exactly what Atlanta craves and needs” to make its claim in theatre. And it doesn’t hurt when a production’s road to Broadway goes through the Alliance, like it did recently for The Color Purple and like it is rumored to do for Sister Act: The Musical.

Booth’s current popularity has jumped significantly since she first arrived in Atlanta in 2001. She had a rocky beginning with the theatre’s audience when she first took over as artistic director, replacing the popular Kenny Leon, who had left to take on other projects. Booth had done well on the Chicago scene, where she started the Goodman Theatre’s director of new play development and frequently received time off to tour and direct at regional theatres across the nation. Although she had directed seasonally in Atlanta before, audiences were unsure of how “a white woman from Chicago” would perform in the seat of Leon, the pride of the city’s arts and culture. Leon had earned recognition for his direction of new performances, such as the musical Aida that later moved to Broadway and won multiple Tony awards. Not only had he largely increased the theatre’s endowment and put more audience members in the seats, he was also a prominent member of the African American community – a position that Booth understood was not hers to fill, but a critical role that would continue to greatly affect the life of the Alliance and the city itself.

In fact, many in the audience were outraged by her first production as artistic director, Spinning Into Butter, a play often criticized for its “racist” way it deals with racism. One person deemed it “inappropriate.” Others staged walk-outs. Even though she was terrified of the initial reaction, Booth knew she had created a worthwhile spark. “Race is such a complex and needed conversation in this city,” she says. “People like what is soothing and familiar, when in fact that encourages us to traffic our comfortable ideologies.” Theatre, she argues, was created with a different set of goals in mind. “Trying to translate thorny issues in the theatre is to challenge the unspoken arguments in a community. That could cause a true discussion.”

Booth lives for this discussion. Through her office window at the Woodruff Arts Center in midtown Atlanta, she witnesses the multicultural elements of the city carrying on along the busy sidewalks at a breathless pace. Children in matching-colored shirts roll down the grassy knoll that hugs the clean white walls of the Center, which is daily cultivating the city’s fertile fields of arts and culture. Booth knows Atlanta is still no Chicago or New York, but she is proud to say that the Alliance is now fully a “national theatre at a local address” – a goal that has been in the works since before she arrived, but an achievement that the city has finally embraced. That’s the distinction, she says, that fully earned the theatre and the city the Tony Award. It was an acknowledgement of increased cultural maturity that Atlanta has been seeking.

While the arts might still be secondary citizens in Atlanta, Booth feels it is the Alliance’s duty to serve its community on multiple levels. She has kick-started community participation, inviting ordinary locals to write first-hand reviews of each performance. She also encourages regular discussions in nearby bars to better understand how the theatre affects its community. “The best theatre is made in a side-by-side conversation, which we can only interpret by becoming fluent in the city’s language.” Her selection of performances for the season and those to take under her own direction reflect the coming and going trends of Atlanta. They are pieces of work that she hopes can burn through the underlying current of tension that she senses in these daily discussions, or from headlines in the media that spark debate and cause conflict.

But it is the youngest generation that Booth takes a particular fancy to in the community. With the belief that “all education work begins in immersion,” she invites local fourth graders to be personal dramaturges for the theatre, voicing their opinion through drawings and timelines of certain productions for the actors and theatrical crew to study. “It is critical that we learn empathy and passion,” she says, and getting the theatre involved in the growing-up of its audiences becomes emotionally absorbed as a good, natural part of learning and living.

Booth’s own experience as a mother has allowed her to never fear scolding or pressuring her audience to think beyond itself, and she encourages all, even her own flesh and blood, to expand beyond their comfort zones. In a performance of Aladdin that her daughter attended, Booth recalls the moment that her entire experience in the theatre came together. “I remember she came out yelling, ‘Mommy, that was a very bad play!’ and I asked her, ‘Why? Why did you think that was a bad play?’ She said it was because the villain Jafar was ‘a very bad man.’ I remember being so happy that she had perhaps not the reaction I had imagined, but I was happy because she did not have a passive experience watching that play. That play had become her own. If every audience member could come out and tell me what happened to them when they saw this or what they felt when they saw something new, I know that they’ll carry that emotion with them into the community. It’s changed something inside of them.”

Published November 2020