Emily Tyrybon, Lauren Coleman and Parris Sarter are part of the Santa After Hours extra
Marietta theater thinking outside the box
BY CHRISTOPHER BARKER
Anyone wanting to add something new, unique and unusual to Atlanta’s thriving live theater community would have to think outside the box.
And that’s what Carolyn Choe did when she founded Out of Box Theatre in January 2012. Her unique vision has produced a very successful professional theater in Marietta that is already popular with audiences, actors and others who contribute to dramatic arts.
Agreeing with a friend who suggested her ideas for developing a local theater had vacated the proverbial “box,” Choe says “outofbox” was an available website. Someone else already had the missing word in its website, and “we couldn’t afford [to buy] the ‘the,’ ” she reflected with a laugh.
Out of Box Theatre lives up to its name in a variety of ways: its size, expenses, sustainability, audience immersion and variety of often cutting-edge plays, some by local playwrights. www.Outofboxtheatre.com states its vision is “to strive for excellence in professional quality, creation and innovation through new and original works, complete financial health without the use of unnecessarily bloated production budgets and a spirit of community collaboration with other groups, organizations and people…to create a dynamic theater experience.”
Lauren Megan was on the Out of Box stage for ‘The Library.’ Actors
Kristin Kalbli and Bob Smith face off in ‘Blackpool and Parrish.’
The theater’s first play, “Talking With” by Jane Martin, was staged at Artisan Resource Center in the green room studio of Brothers Young Productions, a film company that provided a free room for the audience of more than 300 during its run and continues to donate rehearsal space. The opening show received positive reviews “and paid for itself,” says Choe. “It established the kind of quality and kind of show” the theater wants to present. “We heard ‘this is the kind of theater Atlanta needs to be doing’.”
The fledgling theater group next used discounted Alley Stage space provided by Next Stage Theatre Company at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square to present “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare/Abridged,” “Scorned” and “Touched” written by local playwrights and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
With encouragement from theater supporters and business people, the one-woman operation evolved into the nonprofit corporation Out of Box Theater Company with a board of directors and Amber Rampy becoming a partner and executive director.
When affordable space became available in 2013 in Artisan Resource Center – home to Brothers Young Productions, a photographer, mixed media artist, glassware maker, woodworker, graphic designer, another film company and a special effects company – Out of Box made the room its true “black box” theater. The ability to configure seating in varied ways within the same boxed space provides flexibility the young theatrical company sought in creating an intimate theater experience.
Out of Box’s run of “Evil Dead: The Musical” used proscenium seating for a sold-out audience of 52 Oct. 14, but other shows have had seats surrounding the stage and other intimate configurations that put the audience close to the actors.
“It’s like you’re a witness; there’s no way to be a casual observer,” says Choe. “The audience is part of the experience – that’s what we shoot for. You can’t get that in a bigger theater. Out of Box; out-of-body experience.”
So the home in Artisan Resource Center met two of Out of Box’s goals: “It was the kind of space we wanted, and it’s affordable,” says Choe. “Rent is one of the things theaters have problems with and is always the biggest expense. Theater companies don’t need to go out of business because they spend more than they make. You don’t need a huge budget; quality does not depend on the money spent.”
Out of Box is now producing 12 shows annually. “It’s important to do a show a month because we need the income,” she explains. Usually, theaters rely on ticket sales for only about half of their income, but almost all of Out of Box’s budget comes from ticket sales, which typically range from $15 to $30 with military and student discounts offered. As a young theater, “we don’t have a donation base yet.”
Staging 12 annual plays typically with three-weekend runs also allows Out of Box to fulfill its goal of presenting shows that theaters with greater expenses can’t risk doing. Many theaters have longer runs for fewer productions and can’t take chances that an edgy choice might not fill seats. Out of Box, on the other hand, welcomes shows that are daring, off-beat and exciting and might be staged only rarely.
“We’re able to do some plays that are tougher for other theaters to sell,” Choe says. Some plays with dramatic intensity “don’t necessarily appeal to the masses like ‘Evil Dead’ does.”
Among the edgier productions is “The Pillow Man,” an intense theatrical experience that makes the audience think with broader perspective about issues that might not have occurred. Alliance Theatre also presented “Doubt,” but Out of Box did the play “in the round” with a different perspective. “The Submission” explores the subject of race. Out of Box productions that other theaters generally eschew include “Other Desert Cities,” “House of Yes,” “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” and “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”
“We are also attracting actors because we do shows they want to do,” Choe says. In fact, for the first six months, professional actors worked for free to help Out of Box get established. Now the local actors performing at Out of Box receive a percentage of ticket sales, “and they’ll be happy with this check” after “Evil Dead” played to some full houses.
“We have more flexibility to do original work, at least once a year and more,” Choe adds. Out of Box has featured local playwrights including Topher Payne, Peter Hardy, Dave Lauby, Raymond Fast and Sharon Warrick Harris. Choe says the nonprofit theater is looking for grants to commission new plays.
The Nov. 11-20 production is the new “Honor the System” by local playwright Daniel Carter Brown, who last appeared as an actor at Out of Box in Payne’s “The Credeaux Canvas.” Choe directs “Honor the System,” which reveals a staff-less hotel that runs on an honor system and guests who earn punishment for not complying. Matthew Busch, Ali Olhausen, Karen Ruetz, Jeffrey Sneed and Melissa Bonnet Rainey star in the latest offering from the Out of Box New Works Series.
The staff has grown to a core of seven part-timers, including Jill Patrick, who is responsible for the New Works Series. Local playwrights are aware of Out of Box, and “we’re getting lots of submissions,” says Choe.
“A lot of the staff joined up in the early stages because we believe in the mission of OOB and the niche that we fill,” says Marketing Director Laurel Lowe. “We produce a lot of plays that other theaters shy away from, either because they're new or gritty or the themes reflect parts of society in a way that's difficult to look at. We have a commitment to continue producing groundbreaking, thrilling and boundary-pushing shows, and I look forward to where we go in the next few seasons.”
Choe says she was surprised by the theater’s early success and quick acceptance in the Atlanta theater community. Out of Box has been called “Atlanta theater outside the perimeter” with comparisons being made with established Atlanta companies such as Actor’s Express and Horizon.
Out of Box can be a little difficult to find, but parking for Artisan Resource Center is behind a bowling alley on the east side U.S. 41 just south of the South Marietta Loop.
“Many people comment on our location, but there's something interesting about being in a building filled up with artists of all kinds,” says Lowe. “We have developed relationships and, at times, partnerships with other artists. We stand by our mission to foster and support Atlanta area artists.”
Some of those other artists can be seen in Out of Box After Hours, when comics, musicians, improvisational companies, a Santa After Hours program “and other production companies use our space when it’s dark,” says Choe.
Acting with kindness and creating a space that is “a good place to work and a good place for the audience to come” are part of OOB’s vision. Long-term goals are also to “do excellent work, be fiscally responsible and grow and be a benefit to the community,” says Choe. ““We want to keep growing and build a stronger base.”
Initially, Out of Box intended to eventually move to a larger space, but those plans have changed, says Choe. “We’ve decided this is what we like. This is what we do; we like the intimacy. As we grow, we can do longer runs and fewer shows, find better rehearsal space and improve the actual facilities – maybe less leakage when it rains.”
Out of Box is what Choe envisioned as her career in theater progresses. Acting since age 12, she was a theater major at the University of Southern California and returned to Georgia to do professional theater. She earned a masters degree in public relations at Georgia State University, where she was also involved in theater, and has been managing, marketing or artistic director for theatrical companies that include Pumphouse Players in Cartersville and Theater on Main in Acworth.
But “I wanted to start my own theater for a long time,” she says. And what she created is, indeed, out of the box with a unique venue that draws audiences in and makes them part of the experience – “very personal and very up-close.
“I’m passionate about it,” she says, “and grateful for the people who came together to be part of it and make this happen and grow.”