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Stage Door Theatre’s new leaders look forward to fresh ideas and perspective

By October 7, 2022December 1st, 2022No Comments

In the wake of COVID-19 and the three-day Town Hall for Racial Reckoning held with Atlanta theaters in summer 2020, a lot of Atlanta-area theaters look different these days. Perhaps no company has changed, however, more than the Dunwoody-based Stage Door Theatre over the last few years, not just in name but in terms of personnel.

Robert Egizio, who served as the company’s artistic director for 16 years, was furloughed in 2020, with the board citing a loss of revenue due to the pandemic. Then, Willie E. Jones III, whom the board hired in March 2021, resigned just after Thanksgiving. Now Justin Ball is at the helm of the company, which changed its name from Stage Door Players in 2021 to reflect its new direction.

Ball started as the executive director just over a year ago and is now the producing artistic director. Before moving here, he was involved with Manhattan Theatre Club in several capacities, taught theater management and directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and served as managing director for Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse.

“What’s so incredible about Stage Door is having a direct impact on our neighbors and being an arts organization that serves our full community,” he says.

Stage Door’s development director is Joey Davila, who has also been with the company for just over a year. A Horizon Theatre apprentice who has worked with other area theaters, he came aboard in a part-time position, writing grants and marketing. Other responsibilities came up, though, including serving as an assistant director on some shows.

“(For me), it became a love for a building,” Davila says. “It’s a cool community. I almost never see a theater with a history in this city get a reboot.” Rounding out the full-time staff are Lilly Baxley, production manager, and Grace VandeWaa, director of education.

It’s been a busy last year for the staff, including picking shows for the 49th season. The goal, says Ball, was to have something for everybody.

“We have such a wide-ranging community here in Dunwoody, and one thing that has been missing from our programming has been shows you can bring kids to and family-friendly programming,” he says.

Running through Oct. 16 is Adam Gwon’s “Ordinary Days,” a feel-good, light-hearted musical about four young New Yorkers whose lives intersect. It’s directed by Keena Redding. Also part of the 2022-2023 slate is Ken Ludwig’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas”; Itamar Moses’ “Completeness,” a nerdy love story/romantic comedy directed by Davila; Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties,” about incidents that took place at Yale in 2016 between a white professor and a young Black student; and Rick Elice and Wayne Barker’s musical, “Peter and the Star Catcher.”

Another project, which began as part of the company’s 48th season, has been launching the Performing Arts Academy. Response has been strong — last year, 32 kids enrolled in the company’s summer camps, and this summer saw more than 200, with both a junior and senior company. Most shows sold out.

Stage Door is also in negotiations with Dunwoody Springs Elementary School to create a bilingual pilot after-school drama program. Curriculum is being developed now and will be implemented next spring.

Along with these new efforts has come a new mission. “Our focus before was to put on a high-quality main stage season, and the previous administrations did a bang-up job of that,” says Ball. “Part of the reason I was brought in was to figure out how to expand that programming to include more things.” As such, his focus has been on three areas.

First is the artistic season, which includes a Spotlight series with local artists and organizations and an inaugural partnership with Dad’s Garage, which will stage six events at Stage Door this season. The second is the aforementioned education element, and the third is to be a cultural arts center. “Our building says we are a cultural arts center, but it hasn’t had much meaning behind it. Internally, we want to do more cross-promoting and work with other organizations.”

Both Ball and Davila want the focus to be on Stage Door’s future, but understandably still get questions about the past. Egizio was the face of Stage Door for many people and is credited for the company’s growth. When he was furloughed, patrons and local theater members voiced displeasure at how the situation was handled.

Last year, the board brought in Willie Jones III, who was young and quickly planned a season full of classical theater, including some Shakespeare. After his departure, Stage Door board chair Don Boyken told ArtsATL that Jones’ September 2021 version of “Romeo and Juliet” wasn’t a moneymaker. When the board decided to scrap Jones’ planned versions of “The Miser,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest,” Jones said that he’d rather do more Shakespeare than go with the direction the board wanted and resigned.

Ball doesn’t want to talk much about that situation. “There is a reason Willie was hired, and there is a reason he is no longer here, and I am not going beyond that. What I hope (people) will take away is the intentionality in which we are approaching it — that we are trying to show representation by the artists we are choosing to work with, both as directors and playwrights, and by the staff and faculty we are hiring. We will have an action plan soon and (our) existing actions hopefully speak volumes to the direction we are trying to go.”

Like some other area playhouses, Stage Door has been viewed as having a lack of diversity, an issue Davila is working to address.

The company is working on verbiage for an action plan to have on the Stage Door website, but for Davila, it’s equally as vital to work internally to build a safer and more positively impactful environment for everybody.

No white men will direct as part of the new season, which Davila thinks is an important first step to re-integrate into the society of Atlanta and re-welcome people into the building. “I want every artist who walks into the building to feel welcome and respected.”

Next year will mark the 50th season for Stage Door. “Not many organizations make it,” says Ball, who says an upgrade to the facility is in the works. He and his team are also developing a mobile unit to bring arts education to senior centers, hospitals and schools. Whatever has happened in the past, he is ready to blaze his own trail.

“Like most arts organizations, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I feel grateful for those who preceded me here and the path they have paved, but I’m excited for a new chapter and to put my stamp on the organization.”