A new day for Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, January 25, 2013

Theatrical Outfit will celebrate a new era on Jan. 31 — a morning when its mortgage will be burned — providing financial security for the theater company.

That morning, Theatrical Outfit will hand over the title to its downtown building to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. The foundation will then lease the building back to Theatrical Outfit for $1 a year.

“It’s like the sun is coming up on a new day,” said Tom Key, Theatrical Outfit’s executive artistic director. “We have a new perspective.”

Thanks to a couple of significant year-end gifts, Theatrical Outfit was able to retire its mortgage on Jan. 14 — the culmination of a five-year effort to stabilize the theater company for years to come.

“It was a red-letter day,” Key said.

He was having breakfast with Bill Balzer, a top benefactor of the theater, at the Landmark Diner down the street from Theatrical Outfit at the Balzer Theatre (the building that used to house Herren’s Restaurant) on Luckie Street.

Key’s phone rang, and it was Stephanie Watkins, chair of Theatrical Outfit’s board. “Our balance is zero,” Watkins said. For a brief moment, Key panicked thinking she was talking about the theater’s bank account until he realized she was talking about the mortgage.

Paying off the mortgage was the first step in Theatrical Outfit executing its current five-year strategic plan.

“It’s like crossing the finish line,” Key said. “It’s such a great, great feeling. We are going to continue to make this theater company strong, not just for right now but for generations.”

Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said that while the foundation will hold the title, it will be “as if Theatrical Outfit owns the building.”

It will be responsible for operating and maintaining the building, and it will be able to keep the rent when it leases out the space. The arrangement also provides security for both the community and Theatrical Outfit.

“If they have a bad year, they can’t borrow against the building for their operating costs,” Philipp said. “It protects the building permanently as a community asset. To me, this positions them now for a whole new way of looking at themselves.”

Philipp said the Community Foundation has a similar arrangement with other theater companies, including Seven Stages.

“This is evidence of Theatrical Outfit’s ability to bring people around them and be there for them,” Philipp said. “It has had stability in management, stability on its board. And it has people who care deeply about the success of the organization. It’s consistency on all levels.”

And then Philipp couldn’t hold back her enthusiasm for how everything has turned out. “This is a kick-ass building,” Philipp said. “It’s a world-class facility in downtown Atlanta that serves as an anchor in the community.”

Theatrical Outfit was founded in 1976. In 2002, Bill Balzer, then an executive with United Parcel Service Inc. who was Theatrical Oufit’s board chair, and his wife, Peg, made a $1.4 million gift to buy the boarded-up building that used to house Herren’s Restaurant.

Then Theatrical Outfit launched a $4.3 million campaign to convert the space into a top-quality performance space that met green building standards. Theatrical Outfit moved into its new space in 2005.

But when the economy went south in 2008, several of the pledges that had been made during that campaign did not materialize. And Theatrical Outfit had to borrow against the building just to keep its doors open. Theatrical Outfit then drastically cut its expenses with fewer productions and a much smaller staff.

Then the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations, provided a $500,000 challenge grant to help Theatrical Outfit raise enough money to pay off its mortgage and line of credit as well as to set aside an endowment.

“We now have a financially strong theater, a green theater that can serve the community,” Balzer said. “At a time when there’s been a lot of turmoil in the economy, we have been able to survive and really grow.”

The future is looking up. Theatrical Outfit has become a downtown destination, attracting thousands of people every year. In 2014, the Atlanta Streetcar will run right in front of the storefront — adding to its visibility and accessibility.

Key said the ability for Theatrical Outfit to operate in the black during the tough economy reassured financial supporters as well as its patrons.

“We’ve actually grown our subscription sales by 13 percent from last season,” Key said. “We are back to five productions a year.”

For Watkins and Key, what is even more important is the role that Theatrical Outfit is playing to help bring the community together to explore and discuss some of the most sensitive issues facing Atlanta, such as race and economic disparities.

By no longer having to worry about a mortgage, Watkins said the theater has been freed up “to live up to our mission and put on the type of shows we want to put on.”

And for Theatrical Outfit, that means putting on plays that can bring various communities together.

“Theater literally builds community. It disarms tension,” Key said. “As the sun comes up, we can look at what’s possible in this new day. We really can be an integral part of building community. We do know that great things are possible.”

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