“Our Hearts Beat for New Work Development”: A Word With Aurora Theatre

In my past few posts, I’ve been offering some general tips to making the relationship between new musical theatre writers and regional theatres really strong and useful for everyone involved. We need to encourage these partnerships. In that light, I wanted to throw the proverbial spotlight on one such theatre that did just that and has great aspirations for continuing to do it. I recently spoke with Justin Anderson, Associate Artistic Director of Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Georgia about new musicals, his production of Kerrigan-Lowdermilk’s The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, and the future of regional theatres and new musicals.

DB: Tell me about Aurora’s history and why producing and developing new musicals is an important part of the work you are doing there.

JA: From a small startup theatre in Duluth, Georgia to a seven million dollar home in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Aurora Theatre is the premiere professional theatre destination in metro Atlanta. We are in the midst of our 19th season and have already broken box office records with both Mary Poppins on our Main Stage and Driving Miss Daisy in our Studio Theatre. Vetted chestnuts and family-friendly programming are only part of the work we do. Our hearts beat for new work development, particularly musicals.

It’s our belief that new play and musical development creates sustainability within the theatrical discipline by introducing new work to the canon. It also helps to identify and foster relationships with new writers and present their work to new audiences in a much less scrutinized region. And with musicals, there is only one other theatre in town developing new musicals (Alliance Theatre). Anthony Rodriguez, Producing Artistic Director, and Ann-Carol Pence, Associate Producer and Resident Music Director, established the New Musical Initiative several seasons back (2011-2012) to great success with the development and production of Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folk Tale with Music & Lyrics by Rick Crom and Book by Hunter Foster, directed by Lonny Price with choreography by Josh Rhodes. This powerhouse team of talent resided here in Lawrenceville for the majority of the rehearsal process, shaping and crafting the piece. It immediately raised the bar internally for our work here at Aurora and also planted seeds and started conversations with other artists of that caliber to potential find a development and production home here at Aurora Theatre.

Wendy Melkonian, Chris Damiano, Kylie Brown, Jeremiah Parker Hobbs & Stephanie Fiedman in ...Sam Brown at the Aurora. (Photo: Chris Bartelski)

Wendy Melkonian, Chris Damiano, Kylie Brown, Jeremiah Parker Hobbs & Stephanie Fiedman in …Sam Brown at the Aurora. (Photo: Chris Bartelski)

DB: Can you tell me a little about the process with SAMANTHA BROWN and working directly with Kerrigan-Lowdermilk?

JA: At first there was some trepidation with the vetting process: I was a new director to them, and they and their work were new to me. It was almost like a dating situation early on–maybe more like a speed-dating situation in our case! But through discussions about the piece itself, design approaches, and during the rehearsal process, I really felt like we clicked in terms of what story we were trying to tell.

From a production point of view, they needed this mounting of it to verify and clarify aesthetically what they had imagined on the page. It was much more about the relational elements between the characters than literal or fettered locations. I honestly think that what made this project a successful one was the fact that because we were so new to each other, we couldn’t take each other for granted so it really forced in the best way to articulate our thoughts and ideas with each other and funnel that energy towards shaping this into the clearest story possible.

DB: We all know how tough marketing anything is, let alone an unknown work. How did Aurora handle marketing for Samantha Brown that was perhaps different than with another show? Did it pay off?

JA: We wanted to consider what the story was about and what themes were being explored, and focus our marketing based on those discoveries. Because the show deals with teenagers, we worked to get younger audiences into the show. So we partnered with a group called Urban Enterprises to serve as a street marketing team to canvas local college campuses with show postcards. We also made some inroads with our local high schools to attract students to attend the show. In addition, we utilized resources to educate the audience about Kait and Brian and why their voice might speak to this community.

As we went into previews for the show, we received feedback from some of our older patrons that the relationships between the parents and teenage child were extremely authentic and resonant. So it ended up being a win across the age spectrum in terms of connectivity and interest in the piece. We have a passion for stories that reflect our community and attempt to cater our marketing and outreach to meet those needs show by show. But what is interesting about our theatre is that something like The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown can be just as new and unfamiliar as the vetted and oft-produced The Drowsy Chaperone. So in some ways, we constantly focused on marketing “new or unfamiliar” work to our audience base.

Kylie Brown as Sam & Stephanie Friedman as Kelly. (Photo: Chris Bartelski)

Kylie Brown as Sam & Stephanie Friedman as Kelly. (Photo: Chris Bartelski)

DB: How do you see Aurora’s future with new musicals shaping up over the next few years?

JA: We hope to continue our commitment to new musicals by offering an opportunity for development AND production. And that may be what sets us apart from other producing organizations. We’re not necessarily interested in the infancy of development right now, something that would lead to a reading (we’re not opposed to it either, as we’ve had some great but limited success with this in the past). But what we are looking to offer is a development model, whether it be the first or second staging of the show. As we build our stable of artists interested in such an approach, and having joined organizations like NAMT, we feel confident that the New Musical Initiative will only continue to thrive and grow over the next few years. And Atlanta audiences seem to have a hunger for new work. They are not scared to embrace it and look forward to theatres programming such projects.

DB: What advice would you offer companies that WANT to do new work, but are hesitant? And what advice might you offer writers about getting their work considered at regional theatres?

JA: My answer for both is simple: JUST DO IT! I think it’s part of our calling as producing organizations to foster and generate new stories that are not only reflective of our community but universal and empathetic to the human experience. Many writers are offering those kinds of stories but they may be getting drowned in the ocean of a super-saturated market. I would imagine that writers would be eager to find regional organizations that have resources, both artistically and financially, that believe in the stories they are telling and can offer a locale without the amount of critical feedback you might get in a place like New York City. Shepherding new work in a regional context allows great margin for nurturing both writers and audiences.

This is just one story of MANY theaters taking the same risks for writers and for their audiences. As I am always saying, the best way we can assure that theatres like Aurora continue to do this type of work is BUYING TICKETS. To find out more about Aurora Theatre, you can check them out at www.auroratheatre.com and if you are in the Atlanta area, buy a ticket for their October run of Clybourne Park and (a personal favorite) their May premiere of Hands On A Hardbody.

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