The Alliance Theatre, the largest regional theater in the Southeast, is recognized nationwide as a great critical and commercial success. More than 255,000 people attend Alliance productions each season at the theater’s home in the Woodruff Arts Center on Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta, adjacent to the High Museum of Art. The company shows eleven productions annually: each season the Alliance Stage produces six plays, the Hertz Stage produces three plays, and the Alliance Children’s Theatre produces two plays. In addition, the company offers a yearly playwriting competition for graduate students and a summer workshop, known as the Collision Project, for teenagers to learn about the components of theater and then create and perform their own play.
The Alliance Theatre debuted in October 1968 as the Atlanta Municipal Theatre with a production of King Arthur. The company was restructured during the next two years and in 1970 became the Alliance Theatre Company.
In the 1970s the company began a strong period of growth under artistic director Fred Chappell and managing director Bernard Havard. Such well-known actors as Jane Alexander, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Winfield appeared in Alliance productions during this time, and in 1978 Tennessee Williams’s play Tiger Tail was produced for the first time at the Alliance.
In the 1980s there was a “changing of the guard,” and Bob Farley became artistic director and Edith Love became managing director. Notable productions during this decade include the world premiere of So Long on Lonely Street by Sandra Deer, which led to a run on Broadway. Driving Miss Daisy, by Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry, ran for two seasons (1988-90) at the Alliance following the play’s successful off-Broadway run in New York.
Kenny Leon’s Tenure
Kenny Leon joined the Alliance staff in 1988 as associate artistic director and became artistic director two years later. During his decade of leadership, Leon made significant changes that transformed the company into its current incarnation.
Leon focused on diversifying not only the Alliance staff but also its productions and artists. His unusual casting transformed the Alliance’s image as a rather stodgy institution. Commenting on the biracial cast of the early 1990s production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Leon recounted that, “The first couple of years, people said, 'Well, why do you have those Black folks in Dickens?’ And I said, 'But the play is not about race.’ And that play, A Christmas Carol, was about transforming from evil to good. That’s what it’s about, and it should reflect the way our community looks.”
As a direct result of Leon’s efforts, the African American audience at Alliance productions grew from less than 5 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2003. Also during the 1990s the theater hosted several world premieres by Georgia playwrights, including Blues for an Alabama Sky (in 1995) by Pearl Cleage and Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo (in 1996). Plays by African Americans featured on the Alliance stage during Leon’s tenure include Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (in 1988), August Wilson’s Fences (in 1989), Cleage’s Flyin’ West (in 1992), and James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner (in 1996). Multicultural musicals, such as David Bell’s The Boys from Syracuse (in 1994), adapted by Bell from the Rodgers and Hart original, and Hot Mikado (in 1997), also adapted by Bell from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, were also part of Leon’s legacy, as were dance productions like Debbie Allen’s Soul Possessed (in 2000). Leon’s tenure helped to raise the Alliance’s national profile, and significant funding from the Shubert Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund was awarded during this time.
The company turned thirty during the 1998-99 season and noted its anniversary with the world premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical, Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida. The production moved to Broadway under the name Aida in the spring of 2000 and won four Tony Awards.
The Alliance Today
Leon resigned as artistic director in June 2001, and a national search led to the appointment of Susan V. Booth, from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, as artistic director in July 2001. Kent Gash, from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, also joined the company as associate artistic director. Under Booth’s tenure, the Alliance Children’s Theatre has grown significantly and has added to the season’s calendar a production created by a young adult. Booth also created a City Series showcase for the Alliance Stage that highlighted the work of four Atlanta theater companies.
In 2004 the organization changed its name to the Alliance Theatre. That same year, the Alliance premiered the musical stage version of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, which opened on Broadway in December 2005.
The Alliance sponsored its first annual playwriting competition in 2003. Students from approximately twenty graduate playwriting programs are invited to submit works for consideration, and the winning play is produced on the Alliance stage. The winner and finalists are also offered networking opportunities with the theater communities in Atlanta and New York City. In 2005 the Kendeda Fund, of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, pledged $1.5 million to finance the competition, which was subsequently named the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition at the Alliance Theatre.
In 2007 the Alliance received a Tony Award for outstanding regional theater.