The Atlanta Lyric Theatre

Q&A / Brandt Blocker, theater general manager: Leader readies Lyric for new stages

Company’s reinvention: As it gets set for move to Strand, some tweaks made.

Wendell Brock, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Between the nuns and George Bernard Shaw, Brandt Blocker had no choice but to get into musical theater.

His stage baptism happened in the seventh grade, when the sisters at St. Benilde School in Metairie, La., recruited him to play Rolfe in “The Sound of Music.” At 19, he landed the role of Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw’s “Candida,” but he jokes that he was overwhelmed by memorizing all that Shavian dialogue.

“After that experience, I said it’s strictly musical theater from here on out,” roars the 35-year-old New Orleans native, who was tapped last year to run the Atlanta Lyric Theatre.

Since his arrival, Blocker has been tweaking the artistry of the 28-year-old theater, which began as a purveyor of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and added Broadway musicals to its repertoire in 1995.

Another of Blocker’s challenges has been finding a suitable home for the Lyric, which was limited to single-weekend runs at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center or cabaret-style offerings in the Byers Studio space at its northside administrative offices.

But just recently, the Lyric struck a deal to become the resident musical theater company of the newly restored Strand Theatre, an art deco gem on the Marietta Square that opened in 1935 as a cinema. We recently sat down with Blocker to discuss his plans to reinvent the Lyric.

Q: What were your impressions of the Lyric when you arrived?

A: Its change to musical theater was never fully formed or realized —- this is my opinion now, I wasn’t here —- because it was still deciding whether it wanted to be a light operetta company or a musical theater company. … I’m a musical theater guy, and that’s what we are going to do.

Q: How is the Atlanta theater scene different from New Orleans?

A: New Orleans loves its musicals big time and produces them in a very big way… . Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned that Atlanta doesn’t view itself as a musical theater town, and I would probably agree with that.

Q: Why did you leave New Orleans?

A: I had just begun a partnership with a producing entity. We were making money and doing well and enjoying that. After Katrina hit in September [2005[, we came back in January. It was one of the first shows to open, “A Year With Frog and Toad.” At first the audience was there, but through the course of the year, that trickled off. What that told me is that they needed the entertainment after the storm to feel good about themselves and have some sense of normalcy. But now they are focused on rebuilding —- focused on getting their homes, their businesses, their families, wherever they may be located, in order. I think that audiences for New Orleans will come back. It’s just going to take time.

Q: You produced “Peter Pan” and “The Little Shop of Horrors” during the Lyric’s last season but no Gilbert and Sullivan. What are you doing to keep your Savoyard following?

A: Last year, I stood on this stage. I told them: “I will not forget you. Stick with me. Judge me on how we are producing, and I will not forget you.” And so in the upcoming season, we will do “The Pirates of Penzance.” Does that mean we will do Gilbert and Sullivan every year? Not necessarily. But I am not going to forget the core group that kept this company afloat for 20 years.

Q: Why are you moving to the Strand?

A: We have two spaces that didn’t meet our needs fully. We had the Ferst Center, which is for our size company a very expensive venue. (That’s why shows only ran one weekend, because we couldn’t afford to run them any longer.) The Byers Studio space came on three years ago, through a very generous donation from Ken and Trish Byers… . It’s a great deal because it combines offices and a theater space. Nevertheless, it’s a senior citizens center, not a theater.

So we had two places, one that was too big and too expensive, and one that was too small. So there’s been bleeding; there’s been hemorrhaging financially. We were very upside down.

Q: So tell us about the Strand?

A: We are making significant contributions to their capital campaign, which will also include … an orchestra pit and fly system. It is going to be 540 beautiful seats. It’s going to be like a mini Fox. It’s going to be gorgeous. It’s really going to be event theater.

Q: Do you think your patrons will go with you?

A: It’s still Atlanta, and if you believe in what we are doing, and if you’ve enjoyed what we are producing, you’ll go. You’ll take the 15-minute drive.

THE BRANDT BLOCKER FILE

Personal: 35. Married to Kristina, a nurse at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. One son, 9-month-old Christian.

Professional: Before coming to Atlanta, was producing director of Brandt Blocker Presents, a New Orleans production company. Before that, was director of development and marketing for New Orleans’ Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.

Next Lyric season: “Beauty and the Beast,” Dec. 5-21; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” Jan. 16-Feb. 1; “The It Girl,” March 6-22; “The Pirates of Penzance,” April 24-May 10; “Chicago,” June 12-28; “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” produced by Atlanta Junior Lyric, March 14 and March 21. Season tickets on sale Sept. 1. 404-377-9948, atlantalyrictheatre.com. For more information about the Strand: friendsofthestrand.org

The Atlanta Lyric Theatre