The Academy Theatre is the longest running professional theatre in Georgia. Founded in 1956 by Frank Wittow, a 25 year old Army veteran with a degree in psychology, the Academy began its life as the Southeastern Academy of Theatre and Music, Inc., and soon housed both a resident company dedicated to bringing the best of classical and contemporary work to Atlanta audiences and a School of Performing Arts.
The Academy pioneered a number of developments in Atlanta’s professional theatre community which were:
- It was the first professional theatre in the South to be integrated.
- It premiered the First Southeastern Shakespeare Festival (1960).
- In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it broke new ground with its educational theatre programs.
- Launching Member of C4Atlanta (2010).
- First Atlanta theater to incorporate QR code technology (2011).
In 1967 the Theatre was credited with being the major influence for the spread of serious theatre in Atlanta by the Georgia Commission on the Arts; in the same year, the Atlanta Public Schools and the Sears Roebuck Foundation provided additional support for Academy’s arts-in-education program. This work was recognized and rewarded by major grants from government and foundation sources that included the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ford Foundation. The Theatre was also selected twice to represent the United States at international festivals. For his part, Frank Wittow has been the recipient of a number of awards, including the 1995 Coca-Cola Lifetime Achievement Award.
Over its 50-year history, the Academy has maintained two unique visions that have remained central to its mission.
- The first is that of an ensemble system, which takes as its basis the belief that, the most thought-provoking theatre is created by a group of artists working intimately over a long period of time towards the development of a specific and cohesive style.
- The second is the belief that theatre can be of enormous use to those members of the community for whom it would not ordinarily be a resource.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Theatre — which was already breaking new ground with company-developed work in addition to a sterling reputation for fostering the work of promising playwrights — steered its attentions away from the conventions of a mainstage, subscription repertoire and towards the needs of the community. Artistic energy now became channeled through the Theatres outreach programs, all of which used new work and various theatrical forms to provide a creative voice for the underserved and disenfranchised. These programs are now staples of the Academy Theatre’s mission.
The philosophy of the Academy Theatre stressed from the beginning not only the importance of an ensemble but the importance within that structure of the artist-as-teacher. A mission that highlighted the creative capacity of human beings working with and learning from professional actors, playwrights, and directors has fostered, not surprisingly, an impressive roster of alumni. This includes the playwright Barbara Lebow (who remains the Academy Theatre’s Playwriting Consultant) and a number of actors and directors who have gone on to start or to lead the theatres that now share with the Academy responsibility for Atlanta’s burgeoning cultural life: Kenny Leon (Artistic Director True Colors Theatre Company recently directing A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway), John Stephens (Artistic Director Theatre Gael), Mira Hirsch, and Jeff and Lisa Adler (Co-Artistic Directors The Horizon Theatre). For its own part, the Academy has premiered over 350 new plays by local and regional playwrights and has — in addition to mainstage audiences exceeding 500,000 — reached over two million children and 200,000 adults through its outreach programs alone.
Today, the Academy Theatre continues its outreach work to people who don’t usually have a theatrical voice, incubates new theater companies, produces new mainstage works, and remains a vital componant of the Southeasts’ theater community. The Academy produces and tours provacative work that challenges their audiences while still entertaining them.