After 21 years, Susan Booth is leaving her position as Jennings Hertz Artistic Director at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, heading to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in a similar role. It’s somewhat of a homecoming, as she served as director of new play development there from 1993 to 2001.
But she’s not quietly slipping out a side stage door.
In addition to all the facets of an artist director’s role — curating a theater season, casting, representing the theater in the community, fundraising, interacting with a board of directors, casting — she usually directs a couple of productions a year.
As this was written, she was in the thick of co-directing “Everybody,” a thoughtful play about the meaning of life in the face of death. Her last day is set to be Sept. 16, smack in the middle of its run.
Booth’s accomplishments are broad and deep: more than 80 world premieres with a half-dozen of those transferring to Broadway (including the renowned The Color Purple), more than 40 shows that she has personally directed, a Regional Theatre Tony Award, a $22 million renovation of the Alliance’s performing space and the establishment of programs to benefit emerging playwrights and actors. Characteristically, she’s quick to share credit with others, be they Alliance staffers or community members the Alliance has forged partnerships with.
Booth took time out from rehearsals for “Everybody” to talk with Mark Woolsey.
Q. What prompted the move to the Goodman?
A. There aren’t many theaters; there’s only one that would have been interesting to leave the Alliance for. I have loved my time at the Alliance a lot, but the Goodman was where I came up as a director. For me as a young theater artist, it was the absolute pinnacle of muscular, important theater. And the timing of this moment lined up with my daughter heading off to college this fall, which meant we wouldn’t be uprooting her. Honestly, I love challenges. I love finding myself in positions where I have to learn new skills.
Q. What, if anything, will Goodman allow you to do that you’ve not done here?
A. There’s not a simple answer of “now I can do wildly experimental work in Chicago that I can’t in Atlanta” because Atlanta has been very embracing of a wide collection of work. What I look forward to is being in a theater community that, at any given time, has about 100 theaters. Because what that demands is that you find what you particularly can do that nobody else in town is doing as well. That’s a niche you have to fight hard for in Chicago, and I’m looking forward to that fight.
Q. There have been various times when Atlanta has been knocked for its level of support for the arts. Where do you think it stands today?
A. There are a couple of different audience measures that are germane. There’s audience attendance and there are philanthropic support measures. In terms of audience attendance, I think it is not a foregone conclusion that part of living in a big city is being part of the cultural life of that city. Chicago has defined itself as a theater city for generations and that is part of the DNA of that city. What I love about Atlanta is that I can track a deeper and wider investment of time and resources in the cultural community in the time that I’ve been here.
Q. Which of the many world premieres at the Alliance spoke to you the most or broke new ground?
A. I studiously avoided having favorites. I think every piece you do should be your favorite for the period you’re working on it. There was an adaptation I worked on of the [former U.S. Poet Laureate] Natasha Threthewey’s poetry. She was generous to allow me to create…and direct a stage setting of that poetry.
[Also,] a bunch of years ago, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice were interested in seeing what would happen if Jesus Christ Superstar was set in a gospel idiom. They were interested in having its first experiment in Atlanta. I got to direct [and] we had a 60-voice gospel choir on stage. It was an extraordinary community event.
Q. Any thoughts on a favorite actor?
A. I will not call any single actor a favorite because that would leave so many people out of the conversation.
Q. How did the Alliance cope with COVID?
A. The Alliance made a decision, that our board thankfully completely endorsed, that we were not going to lay people off…that we were going to stay present and useful. So our costume shop started making personal protection equipment. They made masks and gowns. Our education staff actually reached more people than we normally would by going virtual. Parents and teachers were so hungry for virtual digital content that we had more demand than we would have had in a live situation. It ended up being incredibly culturally healthy for this theater…and it ended up being financially the right decision for the theater, so we came out of the pandemic in remarkably good shape.
Q. Can you talk about a couple of the programming and partnerships you developed? The Spelman college program and playwriting competition come to mind.
A. For the most part, they were responses to situations where we wanted to be a solution. You mentioned Spelman. The lack of leaders of color and female leaders in our field is something that I wrestle with. So here was an opportunity where we could create a multi-year fellowship program where young women of color would be able learn the ropes of working in a large institution and be given the opportunity to build leadership skills in our field.
[On the playwriting competition,] young writers come out of graduate school often with a lot of debt and it can take years before they’ve cracked their first premiere at a professional theater. Our feeling was maybe we can expedite that and have final-year students submit their work, and the winning play every year would get a world premiere with the same resources we would give to a well-known play.
Q. What changed in the Atlanta theater scene during your time at the Alliance?
A. The creation of the Georgia film tax credit. It means that more film and television production has come to the state, and specifically Atlanta, and what that means particularly for actors is that you don’t need to leave town to make a living. They can bounce back and between film and television and theater.
Q. What do you do when not hip-deep in theater work?
A. I am a travel junkie. That’s a big part of my life. I am an absolute maniac about staying fit. I work out every day, and it’s not patting myself on the back. It’s what I do for my mental health. (And) I have a fantastic husband and a fantastic daughter and time with them is joyful.