When asked what makes a play successful, Alliance Theater Artistic Director Susan Booth doesn’t start in on box-office sales or positive reviews. Instead, she simply points to her heart, then to her head.
A graduate of Denison and Northwestern universities, Booth began her role at the Alliance in 2001. Since then, the fifty-four-year-old has guided the theater’s programming under one governing principle: Good theater can be anything—a rom-com, a musical, a polemic—so long as the story has enough entry points to engage diverse audiences. “The stuff that I love is the stuff that works on your heart, and it travels north, and without you ever realizing it, something epiphanal happens to you, and you walk out a little different, a little changed,” Booth says.
Her instincts have led to wild success: The Alliance is now the largest producing theater in the Southeast and one of the leaders in developing new American musicals. In 2007, it won the Regional Theatre Tony Award for programming, education, and community engagement. It also reaches more than 50,000 students a year through acting and drama programming.
Booth’s passion for developing new playwrights has likewise bolstered the theater’s renown. One of her signature programs, the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, has had the foresight to select winners such as Kenneth Lin, now a writer for House of Cards, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who penned the play that inspired Moonlight, winner of 2017’s Academy Award for Best Picture.
Behind all of this is Booth’s determination to not only amplify unheard voices and viewpoints, but also drive thought-provoking conversation. “I’m very interested in theater’s capacity to shift perspective,” she says. “I think getting people to change their minds and enlarge their hearts is radical, hard, and essential work.”