One of Tom Key’s earliest memories of visiting Atlanta is of attending Georgia Tech football games with his father and brother. He recalls driving from the family home in Birmingham, Ala., and watching the Atlanta skyline expand as the car journeyed uphill. He dreamed of living in the bustling city to be part of its cultural scene, and because he saw the city’s response to the Civil Rights movement yielding a better result than Birmingham’s.
Years later, he and his wife, Beverly, moved to the city for its budding film industry and scrappy theatre community. He appeared on the TV show In the Heat of the Night and performed in numerous plays at the Alliance Theatre, while he and his wife raised three children. Key eventually found an artistic home at Theatrical Outfit, a theatre that had started in 1976 in a laundromat on its off hours. The troupe that instigated the theatre bounced around different spaces in town before eventually finding a home in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Key took the reins as artistic director of Theatrical Outfit in 1995.
By that time he had made a name for himself as an actor and director. He has been touring his solo show, C.S. Lewis On Stage, for more than 40 years, and his calling card is Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical adaptation of Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch” stories, which retell the events in Jesus’s life in a contemporary, rural Georgia setting. In addition to his own work at the helm of Theatrical Outfit, he has produced hit productions of Our Town, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, The Gifts of the Magi, and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley as well as Memphis and In the Heights, both in conjunction with Aurora Theatre.
After 25 years, Key announced that he would retire. At the time we spoke with him, he had just made the difficult decision to suspend Theatrical Outfit’s stirring production of Indecent due to the coronavirus pandemic. We caught up with him to discuss his retirement plans and muse about theatre as an inherently spiritual art form.
KELUNDRA SMITH: Theatrical Outfit is in the heart of downtown Atlanta in an area that has seen ups and downs, from homelessness and drug abuse in the 1990s to intense gentrification now. How have you managed to keep Theatrical Outfit relevant to audiences in both times?
TOM KEY: I trust the power of the story to create bridges, to attract people to one another. When we were performing at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts from 1999 to 2004 to see if we could attract an audience to downtown, we found that the people who came to our theatre were attracted to the radical diversity of downtown. There’s a wonderful discovery that people make when they come down here. They are in a place that’s like no other.
There’s something about being physically next to one another and experiencing a story together that maximizes our potential to realize that what we have in common is greater than what divides us.
Theatrical Outfit has a very deliberate spiritual bent to its work—not religious, necessarily, but with a definite acknowledgement of interconnection. Talk to me about that.
I have always loved the beginning of the Gospel of John, which says, “In the beginning was the Word.” I believe that words don’t just say things: Words do things.
The art form itself is sacred. To me, what is unique about the theatrical art is that we are telling stories and we are not judging for the audience who is right or wrong. We’re not sending a message to the audience of how to vote, we’re not repeating or affirming a set of doctrines, beliefs, or principles. We are presenting a story of human beings. It creates a space that I believe is intended to impact us on a spiritual level. It can be named many things: the soul, consciousness, or awareness. But if people try to submit art to an agenda, to illustrate a point of view, that’s a disservice to the art form.
I must say that I am proud of the fact that among the artists with whom we work, our board, and our audience, we have people who can’t even talk about the important issues because they’re so much at odds. Yet the same people come to our theatre and they recognize that this is the way we [as humans] are. When we have that awareness, we can work toward becoming a global community instead of strengthening our tribes.
The great vision that we can capture in the theatre is that we all belong to one another. It’s so powerful that it makes us go back and see a play, even when we know how it’s going to end—like maybe the Friar [from Romeo and Juliet] will get back there in time with the message.
What do you think Theatrical Outfit’s legacy will be in Atlanta?
It’s the theatre, I believe, that has the quality of the best theatre around the world, and it is focused on being made by, for, and about the people who live here and care about this community. It’s a place where plays are done with the aspiration to be the center of the community. When tourists come to town and they say they want to eat somewhere Atlanta residents want to eat, people can always name their favorite restaurant. We want to be that for the theatre—the place where Atlanta people go to see a good play.
What are your plans for retirement?
I have long- and short-term ideas. I definitely want to take a vacation somewhere, plus there are books I want to read and languages I want to learn. I also look forward to being able to take on a role without having to think about whether it’s going to conflict with another production, a fundraiser, or some other thing that comes along with the responsibility of being an artistic director. Matt Torney, my successor, asked me what would make me feel like I hired the right person. I said that if I looked at the season and wondered if I can audition for a show. He’s already cast me as the father in The Humans next year, and I can’t wait to be in the rehearsal room with him. I feel like I have another act in me.
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta and a frequent contributor to this magazine.