Q&A: Artistic director Tom Key on Theatrical Outfit’s 40th season

Why he chose to kick off the “season of hope” with In the Heights

Tom Key Theatrical OutfitLast year was your 20th with Theatrical Outfit. Are you surprised that you’ve stayed in your post for so long?
When I started, I thought, “Maybe I could do this for five years.” I didn’t realize the energy that comes from seeing your vision realized. It starts to become clear, “If we could do this, it might be possible to do that.” I still feel young [in this job], and I think it’s because I’m so excited about the creative risks we’re taking and how we’re still growing.

What’s been the biggest challenge for Theatrical Outfit under your tenure?
We moved downtown from 14th Street in 1999, and a great challenge has been whether we could attract an audience here. I really believe that the theater is the most powerful source of healthy civic discourse; that’s why I wanted our company to be downtown. In those places where our differences are most acute, that’s where you find the greatest potential for understanding as we gather together to hear these stories. Three years ago, we celebrated raising enough funds to retire our mortgage on the Balzer Theater, which became our home in 2005. We deeded the building to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to say that we’re here to make this art form a permanent resource downtown.

You’ve dubbed this year your “Season of Hope.” Can you explain the theme?
These days there’s a lot of divisiveness, a lot of despair. There’s not a lot of hope, but without it there is no chance of change and a future that is worth living. And I think the greatest way that we acquire hope is being in the presence of people who model it for us and make us think, “If they can do this, maybe I can too.” We’re sharing six stories of people who make hope plausible and tangible.

Why did you choose to kick off the season with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (September 8-18)?
It’s not only an incredible story about personal growth and family, it’s also a great reflection of how America really looks. It’s [Miranda’s] vision of the American dream. When I was growing up, a Broadway hit was something that had a national awareness. In recent generations, a musical could be a huge success on Broadway, but people outside of that world might be completely unaware of it. Now everybody has heard of Hamilton. For this generation, it’s showing them that the theater is not an escape from civic life; it’s a civic event. It’s how we understand who we are.

This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.