When Brian Clowdus proposed the idea of Serenbe Playhouse, he was so eager to stage plays in Georgia’s idyllic planned community, he decided to dispense with the actual playhouse.
“They had no physical space for a theater, so I thought, let’s not wait for a theater to be built — let’s just use the outdoors,” says Clowdus, a former New York actor who, in 2008, successfully pitched the Serenbe community’s Institute of Art, Culture and the Environment on the idea of having a resident theater. “Some theaters say they’re ‘green,’ but you’re not really green until you stage shows outside, without building anything.”
The company this year stages its fourth summer season at Serenbe, a New Urban village of homes, shops and farmland in Chattahoochee Hills, about 30 miles south of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Serenbe Playhouse’s productions don’t just showcase Clowdus’ inventive approach to outdoor staging, they showcase Serenbe itself as a lovely community in harmony with its landscape, with enough restaurants and attractions to inspire a rich day trip.
Serenbe began in the 1990s when former Atlanta restaurateur Sven Nygren purchased a 60-acre parcel of land, including a 1905 farmhouse intended as a weekend home. Nygren turned the farmhouse into The Inn at Serenbe, a bed-and-breakfast. In the 2000s he led the development of Serenbe as a community full of farmland and green space as a buffer against Atlanta’s encroaching urban sprawl.
Guests can take free monthly tours of Serenbe Farms, feed the horses, chickens and other animals, shop at the elegant but unpretentious boutiques and follow the trails that link the various neighborhoods for short hikes in the woods. The Inn features soothing gardens, porch swings and a small swimming pool that, surrounded by green lawns, looks more like a tranquil reflecting pool.
The Serenbe Farmers and Artists Market and three restaurants take their produce and other ingredients from the nearby farms. The Farmhouse Restaurant, in The Inn, serves gourmet-style Southern meals, including a fried chicken lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. The Hil Restaurant, named for co-owner and chef Hilary White, also takes a casual approach to upscale dining. The Blue-Eyed Daisy Bakeshop serves breakfast, burgers and salads and provides a gathering place for residents and visitors to chat. As the name suggests, it specializes in baked goods and was the 2012 winner of The Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.”
When he develops Serenbe Playhouse’s programming, founder and executive/artistic director Clowdus says he’ll often start with a script and choose the most appropriate location. This summer’s The Velveteen Rabbit, for example, is set in post-Civil War Savannah, so the tin soldiers and cracked Southern ballerinas have historical and literary resonance.
“We wanted an area that was swampy, so we chose the Grange Creek, near a really cool playground for kids,” Clowdus says. The Velveteen Rabbit is the playhouse’s first production in the new neighborhood, which helped bring the year-old shop Fern’s Market on board as a sponsor.
Other times, the location inspires the show choice. “Whenever I passed Serenbe’s Wildflower Meadow, something about it has always reminded me of Woodstock,” Clowdus says. “I had to the idea to do the musical Hair there, as if it were an outdoor rock concert, with tents and scaffolding and hippies in the fields. All of the visual representation comes from Woodstock.”
Serenbe Playhouse brings some wild creativity to its staging.The Ugly Duckling in 2011, for example, partially took place on a platform in the middle of a pond.
That does leave the company vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. Shortly before The Ugly Duckling opened a huge rainstorm hit, raising the water level to performers’ knees. “Then we had the drought,” Clowdus says, “and the water level kept getting lower and lower until the stage was literally out of the water. Thank God we had the foresight to build the stage so it could be lowered.”
This year marks the company’s first fall show, The Sleepy Hollow Experience (Oct. 10-31), an adaptation of the Washington Irving story set at Serenbe Stables. Clowdus plans to include live horses. He tries to avoid using the same location twice, but admits that there’s some overlap. This summer’s A Walk in the Woods, a Pulitzer Prize nominee about the U.S./Soviet arms race takes place at the Farmer’s Market Clearing, near the scene of 2011’s Shipwrecked.
Serenbe offers no shortage of potential locations, however, Clowdus says. “I think with 1,100 acres, I’ve got 1,100 places.”