In theater, it's all about connecting

Stories that inspire the soul" is the motto of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta. It's a big ideal even for the largest theater company in the Southeast to live up to - and an unusual one in the arts world. And yet that inspiration is what makes a classic a classic - why Aeschylus and Shakespeare still speak to us.

There is a seriousness about artistic director Kenny Leon's approach to his company's mission that is inspiring. At the beginning of the Alliance's 32nd season, Mr. Leon is planning the schedule for next season, thereby withdrawing gracefully from his duties as artistic director. In June of 2001, he departs the Alliance to embark on a new adventure - one which he declines to define.

But he leaves behind a strong legacy of new play development and a company that has embraced diversity. During a decade with the company, Leon has procured large grants, built up the company's endowment, increased the company's national visibility, won a variety of awards, and strengthened community outreach to children, minorities, and the poor. Gracious and soft-spoken, Leon addressed his company's issues the night his production of Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" opened.

"I'm humbled by the fact of human beings coming to look at our work, to look at life, and understand our connection to each other in a deeper, richer sense," he says. He quotes a favorite teacher who said, "Film is art, theater is life, and television is furniture."

"Theater is life," he repeats several times. "It's about connecting to other people. It's about debating and understanding ideas."

Young people especially can learn from the theater about how to deal with adults and their peers. Their creative side needs as much nurturing as the technical side, he says. Each generation is defined by how it raises its children. We are structuring every hour of our children's lives without giving them room for a creative response to their environment.

Leon suggests that we as a society have lost the ability to listen and "the beauty of the theater is that a community gets together to listen and think together."

He mentions actress Nance Williamson, who plays Josie in his "Moon" - how she sits on the step, how she gathers her dress in her hands. "In the movies, the camera might cut away - it makes you remote from the actor. But the theater is unfiltered. And your energy as an audience member has an impact on the energy on stage. The energy of 800 people with you, if you are a trained actor who can feel that, [it] can give you energy. It is life."

Since he has acted in both movies and TV, he knows that what is most satisfying for the actor is to have what the theater provides - that immediate response from an audience. And audiences do love to give back when they have enjoyed a fine performance.

The cast of the "Moon for the Misbegotten" includes film and television character star Jerry Hardin as slippery old Phil Hogan and Ms. Williamson as Josie. It's a beautiful, solid production of an American classic. It goes quite well with Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner With Friends" in the small theater.

In choosing his season, Leon looks for plays that first touch him - as a person who is not a sexist or a racist, and who does have a spiritual life. He has helped develop plays with Pearl Cleage and Elton John.

"What's going to make me think? What is going to bring me to the understanding that everyone is my brother or sister? I actually believe that," says Leon.

"Then I look for plays that are different from each other.... And I look not just at how plays affect audiences, but how they talk to each other. We did 'Medea' earlier this season. What does 'Medea' have to say to "Dinner with Friends?' " [both of which are about abusive divorces].

Asked if the theater is dying, as is widely rumored, he says, "That's not true. If it were dying, I would know it. I could not have 16,000 subscribers, and fill both theaters every night. And we're just one little corner of the theater world."

He says we will always have the spiritual need to tell stories and to see how those stories define us and how we connect to them. We need one another's stories - from a variety of cultures.

The good that theater does has to do with extending empathy - in fact, the theater can help people be better, he says. The theater helps build communication skills, helps people understand one another's motives.

"But there is nothing like the connection between artist and audience as there is in great theater.... We may not affect millions, but like a church, we can affect thousands."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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