280 Elizabeth St.
Reflections on Dad’s Garage’s home on August 6th, 2013
The building is being torn down to make way for a giant ugly parking deck.
Inman Park is hoping that reaping and sowing are no longer connected ideas.
I have just left the building for the last time, on a plane to Edinburgh, and am inspired to write down my memories of it, quickly, before those brain cells go.
So…..1995….I knew that once we graduated from the Florida State School of Theater that no one was going to hire us.
None of us could get cast when we were there – one of us was kicked out of the school of theater, and another was given a worse punishment: allowed to stay but blackballed for “not taking the school seriously enough.” Only Gregorio got cast and he was a Communications major.
I had recently directed and adapted a staged version of Three’s Company starring everyone. It was really hated by the school staff for being “not of the quality” they do. (I had cast the school receptionist in the show, as well as myself as Larry.)
It was also extended as everyone wanted to see it. My first of many “poorly reviewed, well attended” shows.
So, upon graduating, we figured our only option was to take a chance on ourselves.
We could prove them all wrong by hiring ourselves.
It makes sense if you say it fast enough.
So, the day after graduation we packed up all our stuff into one van and moved to Atlanta. We got apartments in the same complex so it would seem like we all had friends.
We rented out a warehouse space down the street from where we lived (the former Actors Express space) and started with the brilliant business plan of doing theater until the money ran out…a plan I do not recommend to anyone.
Luckily 18 years later, it hasn’t.
Why Atlanta? Well, The Olympics were coming, and we figured that when people came to the Olympics, they’d also want to see some locally flavored not for profit theater. That didn’t really pan out. Oddly enough, when people came to the Olympics, they wanted to see, um, the Olympics. But bad business model and Olympic miscalculations aside, everything else actually worked out.
Maybe even in ways we’ll never even know.
Chris Blair, Marc Cram, Matt Stanton, John Gregorio, Dave Keeton, Matt Young, Joseph Limbaugh, George Faughnan and myself – with Jed Broitman, Allen Simpson Steven Guarino and Brian Griffin arriving later that summer – Matt Young leaving that winter.
The months leading up to our opening party were spent with the majority of us building sets, rehearsing scenes & sweating-off hangovers while I sat at a tiny table in a corner of the room and worked on paperwork. I was self-teaching myself how to put together a corporation and such. Other members were teaching themselves how to build a stage, how to exist without structure, and how to have adult artistic conversations. The jump into the “real world” is tough for everyone, but when you’re in this weird alternate reality of being an adult starting a business, and trapped between college tendencies and adult responsibilities, it’s a tricky one. Too many huge decisions were made at 3 in the morning, and too many hurt feeling were cried out at 5 in the morning.
But then sometimes, Joseph and I would arrive early in the morning and cook little smokies for everyone as they arrived, and all would be mended. Then we would go back to building our dream theater.
We definitely had our share of “first year moments.” One time we performed for one guy, though I am proud to say that he gave a standing ovation. One time we performed for 3 people, one of which was a woman on a respirator that pinged every time she laughed. As the show got funnier we heard more and more pings. We were worried that we were going to kill her.
After a few weeks of low audiences we started giving out free tickets on the street, like we were busking at a fringe festival. The next week we had a staff meeting about not giving free tickets to homeless people – as they were taking us up on it and sleeping in the air conditioning.
We opened on June 23, 1995 with a show entitled FUN WITH SCIENCE, written by some friends of ours. We followed it up with an improv show.
Creative Loafing, the weekly rag in town, reviewed the show and proclaimed, “it is aimed at 20 something males and friends of the cast.” Years later, we would receive a review in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that stated, “not what most adults would call theater.” We put that on the front of our brochure the next year, and I still think it’s our finest notice.
In the first 5 years, we perfected the written work at 8, improv at 10:30 routine – though really the improv caught on immediately and the taste for scripted material grew later. People wanted to see more of their favorite improvisors, so they took chances on watching them perform in scripted materials earlier in the evening.
Our real secret strength was our performers. We started off with 9 actors, which is a terrible make-up to start a group—as someone has to tear tickets, market the shows, paint sets, etc. The benefit was our performers were some of the most fucking charming people you had ever seen. To this day, that remains true.
We quickly were a hit, locally and nationally. We had a young audience, the unicorn of the American Theater, and people wanted to know why.
I think the truth is, when we were in college, we didn’t see ourselves on stage. We were 20 and when we watched THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST. While we appreciated it, we weren’t in there. That show wasn’t about us, and didn’t care about us.
So, we did shows that had us in them, and then when we couldn’t find those shows, we wrote shows that had us in them. We wanted to see ourselves on stage, so we put ourselves there.
My first directing gig was Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia. Following the opening I wrote Eric a letter that said “Eric, I did a fantastic job directing your play, you should really come see this.” Once again, a plan I do not recommend to anyone.
But he did.
He flew down with his wife Jo Bonney, a prominent theater director; and Richard Linkletter, who had just directed Dazed and Confused and would soon be directing the movie of this. Afterwards we all went to the Marriott Marquis and drank gin and tonics and talked about the show.
He wrote us a letter of recommendation that said, “if you want theater to exits in the future, you should support this theater company.”
Suddenly we were the company with a letter of rec from Eric Bogosian.
My parents floated us money to get started and thru the tough months. As a gift my parents bought us a marquis for outside as they thought it was hard to find, and an insulated roof as they thought it was hard to hear. Subtely is not one my family’s strong suits but generosity is. All money comes with a price though, and I remember long conversations with my father where he scolded me for not turning a profit fast enough on the place. I am proud to say that after 5 years I was able to pay back all the money they, and my brothers, had loaned us. Though many things they gifted and didn’t want to be repaid for.
The theater almost closed about a dozen times – and while it (like all theatres) has tough moments from time to time, these times felt especially dangerous as with no support, or no history, it could easily just close and go away.
I remember crying on the side of the building, just wanting it to disappear and not slowly die. Matt Stanton came out with a bottle of Old Granddad, and promised me that it would go on forever. When I doubted him, he read me the story of Old Grandad that came on the bottle.
It makes sense if you say it slow enough.
Even when the crowds were small, the improv was inspired. And even when the shows were charming and effort-full but not yet to a real standard, the improv was inspired. It was an improv theatre really from the moment it opened.
Our next big break was when had been watching a video tape of a show called CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL. I wrote to the two creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to see if we could adapt it. They hadn’t started their TV show, South Park, yet so they said “sure.” While we were in rehearsals for it, South Park debuted. A kid in Georgia wore a Cartman shirt to school and was sent home, which lead to national coverage and boom….we were the ones doing “The South Park musical.”
Right place, right time. I guess you do make your own luck.
Next, the Graham Chapman Archives was having a conference in town and thought it would be funny to see some Southern British boys doing farce. They came to mock us as we were doing Joe Orton’s WHAT THE BUTLER SAW.
Jokes on them, it was really fucking good.
Following the show, they decided to let us do the premiere of Graham’s OH HAPPY DAY. The only problem was, Graham had died while writing it, so they would need us to work with John Cleese and Michael Palin to finish it. Um. OK.
We won “Best Theater” in town 5 times in row. The staff went from just me full time (unpaid) to 5 people. We won “Best Improv” almost every year for 11 years. People got married, people had kids, people got divorced, more and more audience members came. I remember someone telling me that when they first came to Dad’s in 1996 they had heard that the “shows were ok, but the parties were really great” and that in 2003 they had heard that the “shows were really great, but the parties were just ok.” We were getting older, and better.
And things changed: Marc Cram’s father made a bunch of signs for us as a gift before we opened. He passed away. My father who loaned us the money and visited whenever he could passed away. Time waits for no man, or as I remember Matt Stanton saying one night in a drunken moment of clarity “Tom Waits For Snowman”.
Since then FSU has named me an “Alumni Done Good.” Following my winning of “Best Director in Atlanta” two years in a row, I wrote to my college Directing teacher to see if I could get my final senior grade changed from a B- to something higher. He said no, and I was lucky he gave me a B-.
I think Atlanta is an amazing place to start out as artists, and I’m glad that we did it there. Atlanta is hungry for what’s new, as it continually tries to race away from it’s past. We received support – in terms of donors and press that we’d never have received in other cities. New York would have eaten us alive, and we wouldn’t have had the time to grow as artists, to take a bold step and then begin to figure out who we were as artists, and more importantly, people.
I should give thanks to Dan Hulbert, who was the theater critic at the AJC. He quickly saw something and championed us. Getting ink in the main paper was huge. He proclaimed us the hot new thing in town, and it helped to make it so. We all have love/hate relationships with critics, but he was one of the greats. Whenever anyone talks about the early years of Dad’s Garage, I think of Dan and am grateful for what he did.
It should be noted that when we started, we really didn’t know what we were doing, and that meant that we did a lot of things wrong. Even in the afterglow of 18 years of success and awards, some of us are not as close as we were when we started. In your 20’s everyone grows at different times, and not everyone grows forward. Therefore feelings are hurt, egos are bruised, and there is a real cost to building something bigger than yourself.
My favorite thing anybody ever said about Dad’s Garage was said in 2004 by Jamie Warde when asked who was the MVP of the year. He answered “everyone that leaves and takes what we do out into the world.”
I was leaving that year. I was given a wondrous plaque at the going away party, and I was asked to speak. I had nothing prepared so I blurted out that I loved everyone but I had to leave as I wanted to be a director. Later I felt guilty that I hadn’t said something more eloquent – but as time has passed, I found that to be the truest thing I could have said. Dad’s Garage is an ensemble, and it’s a place where people in their 20’s make theater for people in their 20’s. I never wanted to build a place where people in their 40’s make theater for people in their 40’s. I think those theaters are plentiful and already dying. I wanted to go be a director and I wanted someone young to come in and tell everyone that my ideas were full of shit and here’s our newest ill-advised plan.
That’s happening now, and it makes me proud, sad, proud and nostalgic all at once.
The theater is moving, not closing, but it’s hard to not romanticize when it was just a warehouse space, we were 22, and we all just sat in it, on the ground, and brainstormed about what type of theater we wanted to start.