ATLANTA — ASKED why he chose the Alliance Theatre Company as the first regional theater to stage his play "The Piano Lesson," Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson said: "Two reasons: their production of my play 'Joe Turner's Come and Gone,' and Kenny Leon," its artistic director.
The answer symbolizes why the Alliance is emerging as the Southeast's most exciting theatrical enterprise, combining critically acclaimed productions with creative leadership.
Two houses, an 800-seat main stage and a 200-seat Studio Theater, share facilities with other cultural institutions in the modern Woodruff Arts Center.
Equity productions have been presented here for the past 24 years, and the Alliance has attracted such highly regarded actors as Jane Alexander, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, Dana Ivey, Kim Hunter, Paul Winfield, and Mary Wickes.
But the road to its present status has not been direct, or easy. Reflecting the diverse cultural needs of its constituency, the Alliance has gradually expanded its choice of plays from a "white only" approach to a rich selection from many cultures, including the best in African-American works.
"The Piano Lesson," now in its first post-Broadway run, is the fourth of Wilson's plays to be performed here and runs through Feb. 16.
"It was an important transition for us to make," says development director Betty Blondeau-Russell, who has been with the theater since its inception in 1968. "Were there people who didn't like that transition? Of course. But all of us here believe we are much, much better for having made it."
Ms. Blondeau-Russell points out that the theater's financial balance sheet used to rely on individual and government grants, supplemented by ticket sales. When she realized that other arts institutions were chasing the same dollars, she shifted her approach, going after corporate sponsorship.
Today, 60 percent of the Alliance's $8.5 million budget comes from earned income (ticket sales and revenue from its theater classes) and 40 percent from outside sponsorship, including grants and government funding.
The Alliance's management team has had a major impact on the success of the company. Artistic director Kenny Leon and managing director Edith Love provide a balance of skills and talents that keep the operation dynamic and growing.
"I came here in 1974, doing sewing in the costume shop," says Ms. Love, laughing. Seven years ago, she took the Alliance into the Atlanta Theatre Coalition, giving the Alliance contact with the multicultural renaissance taking place among previously overlooked segments of the community.
"This is a good place for mature artists, artisans, and administrators to work," Love says, noting that too often people who learn professional skills in a regional theater have nowhere to use them and are forced to go to New York.
"We shouldn't try to be like New York," says Mr. Leon, who moved into the artistic director slot in 1990, after two years as the theater's associate director. The Alliance board, resisting a national trend among regional theaters to look elsewhere for leadership, hired Leon, making him the region's first African-American to hold such a post.
Leon's vision for the Alliance is a theater that brings together the best of every culture, giving a voice to those who have something to say, and providing audiences with an opportunity to hear voices they may not have encountered before.
"The Piano Lesson," directed by Leon, tells the story of a brother and sister in 1930s Pittsburgh arguing over whether to sell the family piano. To one, keeping the piano shows respect for a past shaped by slavery. To the other, selling it could mean enough money to buy property. The Alliance presentation captures all the values of the Broadway production, finding both humor and tragedy in the story.
While "The Piano Lesson" gives voice to African-American concerns, "Wenceslas Square" (which closed last month) at the Studio Theater showed a teacher's response to Czechoslovakia's growing revolutionary climate in 1974. Both productions enabled Atlantans to experience first-rate works that combine personal and political components, written with a skilled balance of seriousness and humor.
Following the run of "The Piano Lesson," the Alliance has scheduled productions of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," Murray Horwitz's and Richard Maltby's "Ain't Misbehavin and Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts" this spring.
Curtis King, the theater's community development director, says the Alliance must "maintain universality and strike a balance among all its members." The Alliance Theatre School trains children and adults in various dramatic and communications skills. An ambitious children's theater program links classroom teachers and the theater team. Several programs that feature guest speakers, playwrights, and the "Lunchtime with Kenny" series further Mr. King's objective of serving as "an ambassador to all segments
of the city."
For Leon, the Alliance must be an integral part of the community, reflecting its goals and ambitions, because "you can't have a society without a soul. I want people to see the power of a strong regional theater to be a voice for its audience. That's what regional theater should be about."