ATLANTA: After a national search, the Alliance Theatre‘s board of directors has hired from within the company, naming two associate artistic directors—the theatre’s the current interim leaders, in fact—as the theatre’s official co-artistic directors going forward. They are Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, a director and performer who has served for four years as the theatre’s BOLD associate artistic director, and Christopher Moses, whose 20-year career with the Alliance most recently included a stint as the Dan Reardon director of education and associate artistic director. Kajese-Bolden and Moses have been serving as interim artistic directors since Susan V. Booth’s departure to become the artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last October. This appointment marks the first time in its 55-year history that the Alliance has appointed two artistic directors, a decision designed to support the theatre’s expected growth over the next five years and to strengthen its role as a cultivator of new works for all audiences and leader in arts education.
Of the new leaders, Alliance board chair Jocelyn Hunter said in a statement, “Three things make them the ideal candidates for this role. First, each is extraordinarily talented. Second, they have had a remarkable impact on the Alliance during their period of interim leadership. Third, their vision for the theatre’s continued relevance and growth is ambitious and compelling.”
During their tenure as interim artistic directors, Kajese-Bolden and Moses embarked on a campaign to fund the building of a new performance space devoted to expanding the Alliance’s programming for youth audiences and programmed the Alliance’s 2023-24 season, which will include four world premieres, two recent Pulitzer-winning works, and multiple partnerships. With the support of selection committees, they chose the winning play and finalists of the 20th Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and the projects to be developed in the 9th Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab.
Tinashe Kajese-Bolden is an award-winning director, actor, and producer whose recent credits include directing Toni Stone, The Many Wondrous Realities of Jasmine Starr-Kidd, Nick’s Flamingo Grill, School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play, Ghost, Native Gardens, Pipeline, and Eclipsed. She has also worked as a director and actor regionally and on and Off-Broadway. As the BOLD associate artistic director at the Alliance, Kajese-Bolden stewarded the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, cultivating new works for Atlanta-based artists, and oversaw the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, the first mentorship program of its kind partnering a regional theatre with an historically Black college and university to offer paid career opportunities for students interested in arts leadership positions.
Christopher Moses has worked in professional theatre for 20 years and was awarded the Governor’s Award for Arts and Humanities for his work in the field. After working at the Alliance for 10 years, he became the director of education in 2011, overseeing the Alliance Theatre Institute, Theatre for Youth and Families programming, and the acting program. Under his leadership, the Alliance launched its Kathy & Ken Bernhardt Theatre for the Very Young program, providing fully interactive professional theatre experiences for children ages newborn through five; the Alliance Teen Ensemble, performing world premiere plays commissioned for and about teens; Palefsky Collision Project, where teens produce a new work after colliding with a classic text; and Alliance@work, a professional development program designed for the business sector.
I spoke to Tinashe and Christopher last week about the unique opportunities of co-leadership, the support they receive from their city, and what the future may hold.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congrats to you both. Very often these days when I talk to incoming artistic leaders, they are relatively new to the theatre, and even to the city where they’ll be working. But you have both been at the Alliance for a while now.
TINASHE KAJESE-BOLDEN: I’ve been on staff since the end of 2018, but I have been a director and actor with this theatre since 2013.
CHRISTOPHER MOSES: 2011 is when I became director of education and 2014, associate artistic director. But like Tinashe, this theatre was my home long before. I started acting in shows in their teaching and education department in the early 2000s.
You’re both equal partners as artistic directors, but can you talk about how you divide up the various aspects of the job?
CHRISTOPHER: What’s been great is that it’s not theoretical anymore, because we’ve been doing the job, so we’ve worked out a lot of those kinks. While we certainly bring particular skill sets and expertise to the job that are different—for instance, I don’t identify as a director, and I think Tinashe is a glorious director, while I’ve come up through the education world, and work for youth and families is always going to be near and dear to my heart—in no way are we exclusive to either of these areas. The reason this works is that we are both so clear-eyed in our commitment to this organization, to this city, and, most importantly, to the possibility of what is possible if there are two artistic leaders at this organization. How can that allow us to continue to dream about new models of producing, and about realizing our mission in new and exciting ways, and even expanding? I’m hesitant to say this on a day when we are reading about what’s happening at the Taper; it just feels awful. At the same time, I do feel like there’s a responsibility here to provide some sense of hope that there is a path forward. But there would not be that if it was only one person here—there’s no way the ambition of what we think is possible could be realized with one artistic leader at the helm.
TINASHE: What’s really exciting to us is that it’s not just about outward-facing expansion, but really taking that mission of expanding hearts and minds first internally with our staff, of what we can model by opening up that epicenter of decision-making. And it’s not just the two of us. We call ourselves this three-legged stool, with Mike Schleifer as managing director, and that has organized the way we have thought about season planning. It’s not a splitting of but an expanding—how do we expand the type of season time we’ve done in the past? How do we expand our reach with our family programming? How do we expand our relationship with our staff, with our artists so that it’s more personal? We are able to be in more places at the same time with having both Chris and I at the helm.
CHRISTOPHER: There’s something foundational to our mission statement that starts with “Atlanta’s national theatre.” Those first two words are often in some kind of tension, but I think with two people, it’s like we can always make sure that we are first and foremost responsible to our city and our community, but also keeping an eye on how we can also be participating in a national conversation. So if Tinashe is off directing at another theatre, I’m here, or I’m off in some other part of the world exploring new work, Tinashe will be in Atlanta.
Right, two heads are better than one. The job of artistic director can indeed seem too big for just one person. Since you mentioned the Taper, Chris, I realize I forgot to ask: How are things going at the box office and with the bottom line? Are audiences coming back in reassuring numbers?
TINASHE: There has been a bit of an embarrassment of riches that has happened in the past few months, where we have felt a real resurgence of our audience in areas that were at times unexpected but really quite revelatory. We have seen some new audiences come and experience our campus in really glorious ways. Keeping those conversations going is as much about the material that we have on the stage as it is the invitation that is being made. That’s exciting to see—the opportunity of making Atlanta a theatregoing town, and our commitment to that. I think our next season really reflects these test models that we are trying to reimagine our business model to suit the schedules, the needs, the geography of the community we’re trying to serve.
CHRISTOPHER: I mean, it’s obviously an impossibly difficult time to be producing professional theatre anywhere. And we did go forward with two deficit budgets last year and this coming year, for the first time in a long time. At the same time, we’ve seen huge success stories. Our Christmas Carol was our most successful ever, and while you can say that’s just an outlier because it’s a holiday show, we followed it up with The Hot Wing King, which was our most successful box-office hit for a non-musical play in our history. We’re about to open Water for Elephants tonight, which is already past 80 percent of its goal. So we’re seeing this surge, which is really exciting, and also a huge growth in family audiences across the board. That’s been consistent for a while. Something that allows us to experiment a little bit is that we’re not wholly reliant on ticket sales for our revenue; we have a bunch of other revenue streams, which allows us to not be as vulnerable to whether audiences don’t decide to return for a certain show.
I noticed that your upcoming season has a lot of material for young audiences, which I know has been an element of the Alliance’s work. Is it more than usual next year, or this about the standard amount?
CHRISTOPHER: We are growing in that area, and that’s very intentional. That’s part of not only our sustainability plan, but also our next big project is renovating a space on the campus that is a full-time youth and family theatre. This goes back to the idea of, can we consistently be programming work for young people so that the busiest people in our community, parents of young children and educators, don’t have to bend their entire schedules to fit our peculiar production calendar, where we say, “You have three weeks to see this show for kids”? How can we make sure that there’s always something happening on our campus? This comes from a deep sense of responsibility. We did a research study that pointed to the benefits of attending theatre, and once we found out the effects—we all knew them to be true, but to have the data, it just became imperative that we do more. So it helps our business model, but it’s much more than that. It’s helping Atlanta. It’s a way to mitigate some of the despair that we’re seeing roiling the young people in our community. That is on the horizon, so to build toward that, we have to start programming more and more until that new venue opens, scheduled for 2026.
TINASHE: I’m so thankful for Susan Booth, who really handed us a very healthy theatre. Chris and I locked eyes very early on as interim leaders; we weren’t even being aspirational about it, seeing ourselves as the next artistic directors, but we committed to creating a season that was a menu of not just different types of shows for our audience, but different cadences of how we produce. We thought, whoever the next artistic director is, when they come in, they will able to look at really significant data and see, How did the audience respond to a run that goes for three months? How do they respond to one-off presentations, or don’t-miss weekends? As it works out, new work really fit into that idea, a commitment to new work for all ages. Having that as our North Star let us continue to build on the legacy that Susan gave to us, really setting up the next chapter of the Alliance in the most successful way.
Tell me a little more about what you mean by different cadences. I have heard that theatres are experimenting with which nights and showtimes actually sell and which don’t, and they’re finding a lot of surprising information.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, Pearl Cleage has written this new piece reflecting back on the 50th inauguration of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, and Pearl happened to be his press secretary. It’s a big milestone moment in Atlanta history. We thought about that as this civic event where we wanted to bring all of Atlanta here for like a weekend, a compressed amount of time, to make it a special ritual to renew our city, renew our theatre. And then at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, we’re trying to run this new version of Peter Rabbit for three months, because it’s a partnership with the High Museum of Art; they’re getting the Beatrix Potter exhibit for three months, so how would it be if we were doing the same thing, so families and students who are coming knew that they could go to the High and then come see this play? Or we’re working with the Atlanta Opera, and opera singers have a completely different model than theatre, so that’s forcing us to change and think about, what could this look like if it’s not the traditional Wednesday-through-Sunday run, or if it’s not a traditional four weeks?
Tinashe, how much directing do you think you’ll be doing?
TINASHE: You know, it is a true testament to our search committee and to our board that they see me as an artist first, and want to support that and create opportunities. This model really supports that, so that I can take outside directing jobs that help to build the network and relationships of both the theatre and for me personally. It’s just another way to stay sharp and to make sure that I’m bringing back best practices. It’s something that I already have been doing as an associate artistic director, balancing that institutional ambition with the personal ambition and finding the way that they can feed each other and serve each other. The great thing about being an artistic director in Atlanta is that there’s so much going on here. So as a television and film director and actor, I can still do work while being dialed in here. It’s a balance I’m used to and I’m excited to be able to continue to do. I have to say that it is the best job in the best city. Really, I would not want to be anywhere else right now.
I want to ask about musicals. You’ve done a lot of them over the years, and a not inconsiderable number have gone on to have lives elsewhere. Next season you’ve got Titus Burgess’s take on The Preacher’s Wife, which looks delicious. Tell me about that piece of your work and how it fits into your mission.
CHRISTOPHER: I think our audience has started to rely on that, and that gets back to what we were talking about about being Atlanta’s national theatre. One way of enacting that is to provide these experiences and give Atlanta the chance to see them first before anyone else, even in their unfinished state. I think Atlanta, becoming this creative capital of the country—we love to see things first. So we’ll continue to do that. But we will make sure that we’re picking the right shows that also check the other part of our mission, which is that expansion of hearts and minds. We’re not just going to grab whatever commercial project might be a hit. There’s got to be something that allows us to dig in. I think The Preacher’s Wife next season is a perfect example. And Tinashe is going to be co-directing that piece. I was just remembering that in our interview, one thing I said was, “One thing I can promise you, search committee, is that if you might see this on a cruise ship, you’ll never see it at the Alliance Theatre.”
TINASHE: You know, we were getting a lot of side eye when we hadn’t settled on what our commercial piece was going to be. We did have some some offers to join some parties that we just felt didn’t answer the question, Are we speaking to a global audience through the receptacle of Atlanta’s values and how we see artists ourselves and our sensibility? That is so essential, and it’s a commitment that Chris and I both have. To take it a step further, we are so immersed in the artistic community here, actors and directors coming up in the city, that our commitment to see more of our artists on the stage for those enhancement pieces is just as rigorous as it’s ever been, if not more.
Where do you two want to take the Alliance in the next 10 years?
TINASHE: Chris and I talk about this often, so it’s either going to come out of his mouth or mine: We want to move our theatre to a place where we’re almost taken for granted. Where it is a birthright for anybody in the state of Georgia, especially here in Atlanta, to come and see a play, to have an experience that resets the way that we see ourselves, the way we see each other, our neighbors. That it is truly a destination for our community, and for artists that we serve. We want this to become a flagship for artists coming out of school; as we’re talking right now, so many young artists are graduating from programs figuring out, where do I go to start my career? We want Atlanta and the Alliance to be the first stop as this nexus of cultural exchange. We have such an advantage of being in a city where there is the intersection of tech and film and TV; we really are at an inflection point in the lives of artists as they are trying to figure out that balance between life and pursuing their careers.
I love that—I also often think of being taken for granted, thought of as a fixture, as a goal of this magazine. But I’m very aware of the flipside, that if you’re literally taken for granted, you won’t have the support you need. Sometimes you have to remind folks why you’re valuable and that you don’t run on good will, and I guess that’s where fundraising comes in.
CHRISTOPHER: I can speak to that. Thinking about all the things we love—I think about my family, about the things that are most essential to me, the air we breathe, clean water, these things that you do take for granted. I think that is a sign of how essential and how much you love it. What we don’t have in Atlanta, though, is a theatregoing culture. It’s still this very novel idea to go to the theatre. That’s the piece we want to break down. We don’t want to make it just this thing you do every couple of years. How does it become something where, by dint of growing up in Atlanta, you have ownership over this place? That’s what this new building for theatre for youth and families is about: You grow up here, you have access, you have ownership over the place, over the art form—it is just a part of what it means to grow up here. That’s what we’re hoping. If we do that, then we’ll have the problems of being taken for granted too.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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