Many of us in the theater world can trace our roots back not to Broadway or to professional theaters but rather to weekends spent in rented out church basements or municipal buildings — perhaps a repurposed warehouse or a public park — rehearsing a play on a shoestring budget for nothing more than our love of the art form. I’m talking about community theaters — the places where so many of us grew up and fell in love with our craft and where those who loved theater but didn’t do it professionally were welcomed and gathered to perform.
Community theaters are an integral part of a thriving theatrical culture. After all, is there anything more quintessentially theatrical than a group of performers gathered with little more than makeshift props, crowd-sourced costumes and an abundance of enthusiasm, coming together to make something that matters?
This is only a sampling of the community theater that happens across Atlanta throughout the year. While it would be impossible — if not unwieldy — to spotlight the worthwhile work of every community or semi-professional theater, this presents an idea of some of the heartfelt productions being staged this season.
Onstage Atlanta — The Mousetrap
September 15 to October 8
However, for those just tuning in for fall’s season, you’re sure to enjoy Onstage’s upcoming production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. A seminal murder mystery, The Mousetrap is famous for its long-running West End production, which currently holds the record for the longest run of any single production in the world. Opening on October 6, 1952, the play ran continuously until March 16, 2020, before temporarily closing its doors due to COVID, then reopening on May 17, 2021.
The Onstage Atlanta production will be directed by Jimmy Spearman.
Woodstock Arts — Airness
August 18 to September 3
You may not have assumed that competitive air guitar is a thing, but it is the centerpiece of Chelsea Marcantel’s playful comedy Airness. Directed by Joseph Arrigo and starring Olivia Schaperjohn, the play follows Nina as she enters her first-ever air guitar competition and befriends a group of “charismatic nerds” who have their eyes set on becoming champions.
Woodstock Arts describes the play as being “for anyone who has lost themselves with utter joy while rockin’ out in their bedrooms, living rooms, cars, karaoke bars or wherever they may have been.” It is intended to kick off the company’s “season of community,” which will be followed by staged classics such as Into the Woods, Parade and Steel Magnolias.
Woodstock Arts has been fast on the rise in recent years, ever since current artistic director Zachary Stolz took up the reins and began pushing for the theater to expand its operating budget. Just last year, it mounted an outdoor concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Arrigo, the director of Airness, played Georges Seurat in that production.
Act 3 Productions — Xanadu
September 8 to September 24
An undeniable crowd pleaser, Xanadu will be going up at Act3 Productions in Sandy Springs starting September 8. The production stars Atlanta performers Kayla Perry, Branden Hembree and Jim Dailey in the roles originally performed in the film by Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck and Gene Kelly, respectively.
The musical centers around Sonny Malone, a struggling artist who meets and falls in love with Kira, a mysterious yet sprightly young woman who inspires him to open up a nightclub called Xanadu.
Though the film was a critical failure and actually inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards — which honor the worst films and performances of the year — the soundtrack became a breakaway hit and led to the film being adapted into a Broadway musical in 2007 starring Kerry Butler. This year’s production is helmed by Charlie Miller, with Paul Tate providing musical direction and Janie Young choreographing.
The show kicks off what promises to be a fairly light and comedic season for Act3, as it is followed up by such comedies as I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Lend Me a Tenor and Perfect Arrangement, written by Atlanta-based playwright Topher Payne.
“Perfect Arrangement got its start in Atlanta with a semi-pro company –The Process Theatre — and when it debuted off Broadway in 2015, it had never had a professional production,” Payne said. “Actually, I got the call that it was going to New York while I was painting the stage floor at Out of Box Theatre. My point is, these are my people.”
Southside Theatre Guild — Swell Party
September 21 to October 1
Act3 is not the only theater performing Payne’s work this year. Originally a Mississippi native, Payne made a name for himself after relocating to Atlanta and was named “Best Local Playwright” by various publications. His plays have gone on to be performed at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and Primary Stages in New York City. Late this September, Southside Theatre Guild will be performing Payne’s 2013 play Swell Party.
Starting out as a Southern Pygmalion, Swell Party quickly devolves into a comedic murder mystery as 20-year-old tobacco heir Smith Reynolds turns up dead after eloping with crass Broadway star Libby Holman. Inspired by real-life events from the summer of 1932, Payne’s play puts a humorous spin on what would otherwise be a historical documentary, adding more than a fair share of imagination to the story.
“The resources afforded by a professional theatre are of course extraordinary, but the success of my plays in avocational spaces proves that all you really need for a good show is a room of artists committed to the storytelling and an audience willing to hear it,” Payne said.
Swell Party serves as the introduction to more whimsical, fantastical plays that Southside Theatre Guild will produce this season, including Alice in Wonderland and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. They also offer improv classes throughout the year.
Luke Evans is an Atlanta-based writer, critic and dramaturg. He covers theater for ArtsATL and Broadway World Atlanta and has worked with theaters such as the Alliance, Actor’s Express, Out Front Theatre and Woodstock Arts. He’s a graduate of Oglethorpe University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Houston, where he earned his master’s.