It was never intended to be long-term. When he was first offered the position leading Theatrical Outfit, the award-winning downtown theater company, Tom Key saw himself serving as artistic director at least three years, maybe five, but no more than that. Now, 20 years later, he’s still on the job, steering the company’s creative course and enjoying it as much as ever.
This weekend’s “Tom Key and Friends” events celebrate those two decades, offering a scripted show as well as a highlight tour of Key’s years, with special guests that include such esteemed Atlanta stalwarts as Bernardine Mitchell, Bill Murphey, Megan McFarland, Eric Moore, David de Vries and Travis Smith.
When Lee Foster, the company’s managing director, realized Key’s 20th anniversary was looming, she set out to combine a tribute event with a fundraiser. She is directing the event, alongside Adam Koplan, artistic director of New York’s Flying Carpet Theatre Company, with 4:30 and 8 p.m. performances Saturday.
Key refers to it as a great snapshot of where Theatrical Outfit has been and what the company is looking forward to.
His first season in 1995 brought a lot of realizations, including that being in charge was more than just picking a season. Used to making his living as a performer, becoming an artistic director shuffled much of his time into unpredictable directions.
Over time, Key has juggled responsibilities, weathered the financial storms that have closed other companies, secured a home for the theater and moved the company in some unexpected directions.
“I knew we had world-class talent here,” he said. “We wanted to take advantage of this ensemble. I felt there was a need and opportunity for us to contribute to the Atlanta theater scene.”
Key felt pressure in that first season. But ticket sales and funding doubled, and that gave the company the strength to begin to dream bigger. “I didn’t realize that when you take over a leadership position in an organization and you achieve a goal, you see that if we can do that, now maybe we can do this,” he says.“Every four or five years — with the artists, staff, board, funders and audiences we are working with — new possibilities always seem to emerge that are exciting.”
Identifying, cultivating and articulating the company’s mission — and knowing the material that was right for them — has been vital. Key wanted to make sure he was not painting himself into what he refers to as a “Tennessee Williams corner.” But, at the same time, he also wanted to serve the company’s aesthetic — which revolves around literature, music and history of the American South.
Of the 90 plays he has produced, almost 60 have been from authors in this region of the world. The other productions have largely dealt with issues such as race and religion that resonate regionally.
Being able to work with local playwrights thrills and motivates Key. Staging Silent Sky last year, a premiere by playwright (and Atlanta native) Lauren Gunderson, was a particular joy. Key has also started a dialogue with emerging Atlanta playwright Topher Payne.
The major goal for the company was finding its own performing venue. After years of having to rent space from the Rialto Center for the Arts and produce only seven weeks a year, Theatrical Outfit opened the Balzer Theater in early 2005. It came about after a $5.5 million fundraising drive that enabled them to renovate a space donated by Bill and Peg Balzer. The venue was also the country’s first LEED-certified theater, meaning it used environmentally friendly construction and upkeep.
The home was exactly what Key had been looking for, and a game changer for Theatrical Outfit. “The first time I did a reading there, the first time I spoke, I could tell the acoustics had been hit out of the park,” Key says. “I knew the space could allow an artist to excel.”
One other major work difference these days for Key is having Foster aboard to look after financial matters. After the theater paid off its mortgage, they found themselves in uncharted territory a few seasons ago, with resources to bring on an additional staffer.
“I could no longer be the chief artistic leader, fundraiser, the chief promoter,” he says. “It had gotten too much; the enterprise was too big for one person. Part of the strategic plan was to hire someone; I would be responsible for the artistic health and could concentrate on that more and that person could be responsible for the fiscal, organizational health of the theater. We needed this person. Lee really has been a game changer.”
His 20 years at the helm has given Key some immeasurable moments. Getting to meet legendary playwright Horton Foote, produce and then direct his plays The Chase and Dividing the Estate — as well as star as Will Kidder in Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta — have been artistic highlights.
Another was the recent collaboration with Aurora Theatre on the musical Memphis, which he directed. The two theaters shared in production costs, and Memphis did runs in Gwinnett County and Atlanta. He loves the idea of working with other companies, being able to broaden and deepen the company’s reach and what they take on. Aside from Cotton Patch Gospel — the spiritual musical written by Key and Russell Treyz, staged three times at Theatrical Outfit — Memphis is the most commercially successful production the troupe has produced.
Known not just as a seasoned theater administrator but a talented actor and director, he is highly respected by his peers. “Tom Key is synonymous with Atlanta theatre,” says Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express. “Aside from being a gifted artist, he demonstrates the kind of enthusiasm, integrity and positive spirit to which we should all aspire. When I first met Tom, I was intimidated beyond belief. But after only a few minutes, his humility put me at ease. What a treasure of a man, and what gifts he has brought to our community for years.”
Key still has aspirations, as both an actor and behind the scenes. One day, he would love to play the grandfather in You Can’t Take it with You; he also hopes to direct Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
Having spent most of his life in the arts, Key still thrives on the belief that theater in its purest form builds community. “It is two hours spent doing that which divides or connects us — and that is language,” he says. “It is the riskiest art form, but it is also the most connective.”
Tom Key’s acting highlights:
Cotton Patch Gospel (premiered in New York in 1981 and performed across the country and in Atlanta countless times at both Theatrical Outfit and the Alliance Theatre)
Our Town (Alliance Theatre) (1986)
Candide (Alliance Theatre) (1988)
Blood Knot (Theatrical Outfit) (1998, 2009)
The Grapes of Wrath (Alliance Theatre) (1999)
Art (Alliance Theatre) (2001)
Woody Guthrie’s American Song (Alliance Theatre) (2002)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Theatrical Outfit) (2007)
Big River (Theatrical Outfit) (2008)
Around the World in 80 Days (Theatrical Outfit) (2009)
A Christmas Memory (Theatrical Outfit) (2010)
The Young Man from Atlanta (Theatrical Outfit) (2011)
C.S. Lewis on Stage (Theatrical Outfit) (2012)
Red (Theatrical Outfit) (2012)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, 2012) and (Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., 2013)
The Fabulous Lipitones (Theatrical Outfit) (2013)
Storefront Church (Theatrical Outfit) (2015)
R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe (Theatrical Outfit) (2015)