After a tenure of 21 years as artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, Susan V. Booth will leave her position to join Chicago’s Goodman Theatre as its artistic director, the theaters announced Monday afternoon. Her last day is September 16.
Under Booth’s leadership, the Alliance received the 2007 Regional Theatre Tony Award for sustained excellence in programming, education and community engagement. The Alliance produced more than 85 world premieres, including six musicals that transferred to Broadway, since she began the job in 2001 as the successor to Kenny Leon. She is the theater’s longest-serving artistic director.
“I am feeling really happy about this very cool possibility ahead and really conflicted about leaving a place I love a lot,” Booth said in a phone interview. “People have been over-the-top supportive as I’ve started sharing this news. There’s a moment of ‘Holy cow! What do you mean you’re leaving?’ And then when they hear the reason and where I’m going, uniformly there’s been this wonderful embrace and support of, ‘Well, that’s fantastic!’ So I feel stupid grateful and fortunate right now.”
Booth’s career began in Chicago, where she met her husband and studied (her master’s degree is from nearby Northwestern University) and she was on the artistic staff at the Goodman before moving to Atlanta. So the new job at that city’s oldest, largest not-for-profit theater — where she will be replacing artistic director Robert Falls, who retired after 35 years — feels like a bit of a homecoming.
“I wasn’t looking to decamp,” she said. “I haven’t been out on the job market. The fact that it was this place that is so important to me and this town that matters a lot to me made it something to pursue. . . . It was really the one thing that was going to convince me to leave Atlanta.”
The Alliance Board of Directors will launch a national search for the theater’s next artistic director. In the meantime, associate artistic directors Christopher Moses and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden will handle the artistic initiatives under the leadership of managing director Mike Schleifer.
Booth said the interim leadership excites her.
“When you make a decision like this after a long time, the thing that you want to be really sure of is that the place you’ve invested that much time in is not just going to be OK,” she said. “But it is actually going to thrive and grow and aspire. The combination of those three people, I have zero concerns about that.”
Booth’s final production at the Alliance is Everybody, a show by playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins that she is co-directing with Kajese-Bolden. Beginning previews on September 2, it’s a variation on the 15th century morality play Everyman, and she calls it the “most gloriously weird and wonderful piece of theater.”
When the Alliance programmed it, “I didn’t know I was going anywhere,” Booth said. “There’s a kind of perfection to it. It’s theater in its purest form. It is theater about what it means to be human for a brief, wonderful period of time. And I have old-school reverence for and belief in this artform. I believe it will outlast all of us. It will outlast cockroaches. And it has the capacity to heal us and move us forward. I believe that, in my bones I believe that. This is that kind of show. And so I feel like it’s super lucky that it’s happening when it is.”
Over two decades at the Alliance, Booth directed more than 40 productions, including premieres from writers Pearl Cleage, Natasha Trethewey, Stephen King, John Mellencamp and Kristian Bush. Her Atlanta career highlights are countless.
“Being able to host Twyla Tharp while she was making a new piece [2009’s Come Fly with Me] was just mind-blowing because that’s a level of craft and poetry that’s hard to parallel,” Booth said. “And that she was in our space building something new knocked me out. That I have had the opportunity to build a 15-year-long deep, deep friendship with Pearl Cleage? I mean, come on! And it’s a friendship that is based on a really simple idea, which is that we always tell each other the truth. To have that friend any time anywhere would be extraordinary. To have that friend in Atlanta, Georgia, particularly over the last few years of all the gyrations our country has been going through, it’s been a gift I didn’t know my life was going to give me.”
Booth said that staging Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel was a particular achievement.
“That was just one of the most glorious,” she said. “And it’s like childbirth, right? You call it glorious after you’re done screaming in agony. Nothing was easy about that show. But the fact that that could happen, the fact that it could happen with that enormous, jaw-dropping choir of community singers, everything about that was a gift that only Atlanta could’ve given.”
The six musicals that transferred to Broadway were Tharp’s renamed Come Fly Away, The Prom, Tuck Everlasting, Sister Act, The Color Purple and Bring It On.
Booth said working with King and Mellencamp on the 2012 musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County was memorable — sometimes in unexpected ways.
“I will tell you that a memory that will never leave me, even if I might want it to, is John Mellencamp, in the middle of a script meeting at the Four Seasons where he was staying,” she said, laughing. “He decided to stand up and show me what he thought was shingles on his lower backside. I can never unsee that one.”
For the theater’s 50th anniversary, Booth oversaw a renovation of the Coca-Cola Stage, completed in 2019, that better unified the orchestra and balcony levels.
“It was never just about getting ourselves a prettier theater,” she said. “It was very much about having a space that echoes our belief that everyone belongs here. And that was going to be a very different space.”
During that time, the Alliance programmed an entire season’s worth of shows to other stages all around the city while the work was being completed. The goal was community outreach, as well as audience development. Planning for it was complicated but rewarding, Booth said.
Booth said the city needs to be grateful and proud of its theater community. She said it should be recognized as essential to Atlanta’s spirit.
“There’s this tension, always, with artists of having the humility to accept that we have so much more to learn and having the requisite ego to recognize how good we are,” she said. “Those things don’t co-exist easily, but they must. The Atlanta theater community is a national theater community and, as such, should be so freaking proud of itself and always aspiring: What more? What next? Part of that is the work you make, and part of that is saying to your civic home, ‘Do you realize this gem, this richness that you have?’ We are not an ornament. We are a civic engine.”
Outreach initiatives developed under Booth’s leadership include the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition; the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, which allows Atlanta artists to develop new work; the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, which addresses the lack of diversity in theater leadership roles throughout the nation; and the Palefsky Collision Project, guided by Cleage, which allows Atlanta teens to develop new work every summer with a director and playwright.
Booth said she is grateful to the community of donors and philanthropists that make these projects survive. And she said that the Alliance’s achievements — artistically and philanthropically — are a credit to the people on its staff and its ambitious goals.
“You do it by populating your staff with people who show up with their full selves and then some and just commit like hell,” she said. “It is luck and gratitude. That’s who the staff is there. That’s how you pull that stuff off. And if you have a ton of aspiration and not quite the resources to pull it off, you can either choose to scale back on your aspiration, or you can choose to lean into it in the hope that the resource follows. And often it does. In our case, we’ve been super fortunate that way. But that means if you’re aspiring beyond your right-here right-now reach, you’re going to make some mistakes. But I’d rather make mistakes and get better than just be cautious.”
Booth said that her co-workers have been the biggest blessing of her time as artistic director.
“Nobody does it alone, and the ridiculous good fortune of the past big chunk of years has been the people I get to work with,” she said. “The level of craftsmanship in our prop shop. The fact that we have a milliner who has been making hats for productions at the Alliance Theatre for over 35 years. The teaching artists who are so committed to what this artform can do for learning outcomes. It’s just, it’s stupid the kind of craft and skill and goodness that floats through that building.”
Then she corrects herself: “They don’t float. Man, they’re working too hard to float.”
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.