Susan Booth looks back on her years at the Union Theatre

Susan v Booth. (Photo by Joe Mazza)

After 21 years, Susan Booth is stepping down as artistic director of Atlanta’s Union Theatre Jennings Hertz for a similar role at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. From 1993 to 2001, where she was director of new drama development, it was kind of like coming home.

But she didn’t sneak out of the side door of the stage quietly.

In addition to all aspects of an artist-directing role—planning the theatrical season, casting, representing theaters in the community, fundraising, interacting with boards, casting—she typically directs several productions a year.

As of this writing, she is busy co-directing “Everybody,” a thoughtful drama about the meaning of life in the face of death. Her last day, scheduled for September 16, is halfway through the run.

Booth’s accomplishments are broad and profound: more than 80 world premieres, six of which have moved to Broadway (including the famous Purple), she has personally directed more than 40 performances, won a Tony Regional Theatre Award, spent $22 million renovating the league’s performance space and established programs to benefit emerging playwrights and actors. The hallmark is that she quickly shares the honor with others, whether it’s an Alliance staff member or a community member with which the Alliance has a partnership.

Booth took time out of “Everyone” rehearsal to talk to Mark Woolsey.

Q: What prompted people to turn to Goodman?

A. Not many theaters; only one interesting person will leave the league. I really enjoyed my time at the league, but Goodman was where I was directing. As a young theatre artist, for me, this is the absolute pinnacle of muscular, important theatre. And the timing of this moment is exactly when my daughter is going to college this fall, which means we won’t be uprooting her. Honestly, I love a challenge. I like to find myself in a position where I have to learn new skills.

Q: If so, will Goodman allow you to do things you haven’t done here?

A: “Now I can do crazy experimental jobs in Chicago that I can’t do in Atlanta” is not an easy answer, because Atlanta has always been very welcoming to all kinds of jobs. What I’m looking for is a theater community with about 100 theaters at any one time. Because it requires you to find something that you are particularly capable of doing that no one else in town is doing. This is a niche you have to fight hard in Chicago, and I look forward to that fight.

Q: Atlanta has come under fire several times for its support of the arts. Where do you think it is today?

A: There are several different audience metrics that are closely related. There is an audience in attendance and there are charitable support measures. In terms of audience attendance, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that part of living in a big city is part of that city’s cultural life. Chicago defines itself as a theater city for generations, which is part of the city’s DNA. One of the things I love about Atlanta is that I can track a deeper and broader investment of time and resources in the cultural community during my time here.

Q: Of the league’s many world premieres, which one has influenced you the most or broke new ground?

A. I deliberately avoid having favorites. I think every piece you make should be a favorite of your time at work.I’m right [former U.S. Poet Laureate] Poems by Natasha Threthewey. She graciously allowed me to write…and directed the staging of that poem.

[Also,] Many years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were interested in seeing if jesus christ superstar Against the background of Gospel idioms. They were interested in conducting the first experiment in Atlanta.i have to command [and] We have a 60-person gospel choir on stage. This is an extraordinary community event.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on your favorite actor?

A: I wouldn’t call either actor a favorite because that would take a lot of people out of the conversation.

Q: How is the league responding to COVID?

A. The league has made a decision, which our board thankfully fully agrees with, that we will not lay off staff…we will stay in the field and make a difference. So our clothing store started making PPE. They made masks and robes. In fact, our educators are reaching more people through virtualization than we normally would. Parents and teachers are so hungry for virtual digital content that we demand it more than we would in an on-site situation. It ended up being very culturally healthy for this theater… and ultimately financially the right decision for the theater, so we came out of the pandemic in very good shape.

Q: Can you talk about some of the programming and partnerships you’ve developed?This Spelman University courses and screenwriting competitions come to mind.

A: In most cases, they are responses to situations that we want to be the solution. You mentioned Spellman. The lack of leaders of color and women in our field is something I’m grappling with. So this is an opportunity where we can create a multi-year fellowship program where young women of color can learn the skills of working at a large agency and have the opportunity to build leadership skills in our field.

[On the playwriting competition,] Young writers often come out of grad school with heavy debts, and it can take years for them to make their debut in professional theaters. Our feeling was that maybe we could speed things up and have final year students submit their work, and each year the winning screenplay would get a world premiere with the same resources that we have for well-known screenplays.

Q: How has the Atlanta theater scene changed during your tenure at the league?

A. Creation of the Georgia Film Tax Credit. That means more film and TV productions are coming to the state, especially Atlanta, which for actors in particular means you don’t need to leave town to make a living. They can bounce between film, TV and theater.

Q: What do you do when you don’t have depth in your theatre work?

A. I am a travel junkie. It’s an important part of my life. I am an absolute maniac for staying healthy. I work out every day and it doesn’t pat itself on the back. This is what I do for my mental health. (And) I have a wonderful husband and a wonderful daughter and have a great time with them.

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