Kevin Gillese first saw Dad’s Garage Theater in 2000 while visiting from his native Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for the annual worldwide improv competition. He remembers his impression of the Elizabeth Street playhouse: “What is this dimly lit little building in the middle of nowhere? Is this an elaborate ruse to kidnap me and harvest my organs? My first thought was ‘What kind of theater is this?’ ”
After seeing the Dad’s interior and competing in TheatreSports World Domination that weekend, he completely turned around. “I thought Dad’s was the coolest space I’d ever seen — and they had the whole thing to themselves.”
Known for attracting a young, lively crowd, Dad’s Garage has spent 18 years presenting improv games and offbeat scripted shows with names like Action Movie: The Play. Gillese, now the company’s artistic director, is preparing to exit the space for good. It’s under contract to be sold and developed. His deadline is Aug. 15. While it seeks a new home Dad’s will temporarily relocate to 7 Stages, not far away in Little Five Points. For Atlanta theater fans, this means the end of an era of rambunctious, adventurous theater in Inman Park and, at least temporarily, those buckets o’ beer.
Long known as “the purple warehouse,” the space was the first home of Actor’s Express, now in West Midtown and finishing its 25th season. The Express, co-founded in 1988 by artistic director Chris Coleman and actor Harold Leaver, first set up shop in a church basement. “When we found the space on Elizabeth Street, we had been ejected from our launch pad on Clairmont Road,” recalls Coleman, now artistic director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage. “It cost us about $32,000 to convert it to use as a theater, and the landlord agreed to split the cost. Our first production there was Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky, which we rehearsed in August of 1989, covered in insect repellant with the garage door open.”
When Actor’s Express relocated in 1994, the space attracted a group of Florida State University graduates and their friends, eager to start a theater that emphasized new plays and improv comedy. Sean Daniels, Dad’s Garage co-founder and original artistic director (1997-2005), felt a solidarity with his Inman Park neighbors.
“We moved in right after Actor’s Express had left, and there was a real sense from the community that they regretted letting them go so easily,” says Daniels, now a freelance director and associate artist with Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. “A lot of our early support came from the locals determined to keep a vibrant theater in their neighborhood.”
Inman Park has become increasingly vibrant in the ensuing year, with condos and trendy restaurants replacing industrial buildings and kudzu-draped hills. Not long after Gillese became artistic director in 2010, he began hearing rumblings that the landlord might sell the property. “The uncertainty has been the most challenging part of it,” says Gillese. “Last year we finally got a new roof because, if it rained, you could barely hear the performers. We dropped cash on the roof and almost immediately got notice.”
“We’ve been joking that our new slogan is ‘Dad’s Garage — now closer to more bars,’ ” Gillese says, laughing. The Dad’s team will produce improv and scripted shows whenever and wherever possible as it works around 7 Stages’ season. “They’ve basically given us their season schedule, and we’re trying to fit into every available nook and cranny. We’ll be doing 10:30 shows pretty much every weekend, and 8 p.m. when we can.”
Dad’s first show at 7 Stages will be its TheatreSports improv comedy at 10:30 p.m. Aug. 10, with weekly improv at 10:30 p.m. every Thursday through Saturday thereafter. In the immediate future, Dad’s staffers expect to work primarily from home.
The company plans to launch a capital campaign to fund its new space, and Gillese acknowledges that their needs may drive it further afield than Inman Park. “We talked to our audience, and they want us to stay as close as possible,” he says. “But we also want somewhere we can grow into. We want more classrooms, a bigger lobby and a studio for Dad’s TV, our video productions. And we’d like to get a nice theater with parking.”
In a striking coincidence, Dad’s last mainstage production will be the world premiere of Dementia Juice, a collaboration between Gillese and Michael Haverty, 7 Stages artistic associate, leader of the Object Group and founder of Haverty Marionettes. Dementia Juice offers a hallucinatory depiction of a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents, with wild puppetry, masks and moving set pieces, was on schedule long before Dad’s knew about its move and new relationship with 7 Stages. When he first met Haverty, Gillese says: “I remember thinking, ‘This is a cool guy, I want to work with him.’ Now we’re going to be roommates!”
Temporarily, that is.