After 25 years of leading Theatrical Outfit, director Tom Key takes a final bow

Key plans to return to his origins as a freelance writer, actor, and director.

Tom Key
Tom Key in The Dancing Handkerchief

Photograph courtesy of theatrical outfit

Tom Key planned to exit on a note of fanfare this spring, ending his 25-year run as artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, one of Atlanta’s oldest professional theater companies.

The 69-year-old writer, director, and actor had timed his departure with the theater’s production of a new adaptation of Cotton Patch Gospel—a rollicking and reverent (but never preachy) musical that reimagines the story of Jesus Christ, in which the son of Mary and Joe Davidson is born in a trailer behind a motor lodge in rural Georgia and lynched 33 years later by the Ku Klux Klan. The production is nearly synonymous with Key, who cowrote the book, starred in its off-Broadway debut in 1981, and staged it a dozen times over the years.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has intervened, putting Key’s fitting farewell in peril as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prohibited large gatherings in order to stem the spread of the virus.

But Key’s vision for producing theater that enlightens and uplifts eventually will prevail under the direction of his replacement, Matt Torney, a native of Belfast, Ireland, and the former associate artistic director of Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. Torney’s selection by the board of directors received Key’s enthusiastic support.

“Matt was so aligned with [our] mission and so ready and in such a good position to take the baton,” says Key. “He’s also got a skillset and a toolbox that are just the right qualifications.”

Theatrical Outfit achieved many milestones during Key’s tenure. When he began in 1995, the theater had a budget of less than $300,000; today, it’s nearly $2 million. In 2005, the company purchased and renovated the $5.5 million Balzer Theater at Herren’s in downtown Atlanta. And the theater has produced more than a dozen world premieres, including Janece Shaffer’s Brownie Points and adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.

When his job ends in June, Key will return to his origins as a freelance writer, actor, and director. He has at least one job lined up already: This time next year, he’ll get his chance to shine on the Theatrical Outfit stage again when he stars in the Tony Award–winning drama The Humans, which Torney will direct.

This article appears in our May 2020 issue.