ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE: Theater co-founder a home for local stories, underrepresented voices

August 22nd, 2023

By Amy Wenk – Staff Reporter, Atlanta Business Chronicle

Aug 16, 2023

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Lisa Adler knows what it takes to sustain a creative community.

In 1983, she and her husband Jeff co-founded Horizon Theatre Co. in Little Five Points, creating a home for playwrights to develop new works about the Atlanta community. Adler has also been a strong voice for the arts, working to uplift the city’s theatre community throughout her long career.

What led you to your career? I wanted to be a writer, then journalist, then actor from a young age. After graduating from college, I launched into a career as a professional actor. I loved theater because it required continually exploring new worlds and using every part of yourself. Acting in commercials, TV and film at the level that was available to me at the time was dull. I was also working for another theater company at the time, which produced plays that did not feature complex roles for women. I wanted to change that by creating a company that prioritized plays by women and plays with strong, complicated roles for women. I had taken one theater management class in college. I came to Atlanta from Chicago when the thing to do for young artists was to start a theater company. My husband was working for a small theater company that was producing in our current Horizon space, and the artistic director asked if the two of us wanted to produce a play. We decided to take the leap and used $1,000 from wedding gifts to do it. It was a big success artistically. We decided to produce another play, also a hit, and then decided to form a theatre company and produce a full season. I was thrilled to learn all the aspects of running a theater. I did it all to start with until I could afford to hire others. 

What is the biggest challenge in your career or job?  Raising money. Audiences love our intimate theater, but that small size means that ticket sales cover less than half of our costs, and post-pandemic, those costs have risen by more than 30%. Funding comes primarily from ticket sales and individual sponsors and donors, about 8% from four government agencies, and a few loyal and much-appreciated foundation sponsors. Attracting and retaining talented administrative and technical staff can also be challenging, especially post-pandemic.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?  Anytime I am creating something new: a new play that tells a story important to the community, a new education or community program, a new partnership, marketing campaign or strategy.  Also, getting to decide who I want to work with, giving opportunities to women and people of color in all areas of the theater and collaborating with other organizations for positive change.

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Lisa Adler.


What’s the hardest business lesson you’ve learned?  1) Culture eats strategy for breakfast. The best strategy won’t work if the team culture is struggling. 2) Hire slow, fire fast. Good people are worth waiting for and the bad apples on a team really will spoil it for everyone.   

How do you believe Horizon Theatre has shaped Atlanta’s cultural scene?  We have been a stable institution in Atlanta for 40 years and have provided an artistic home for some of our best local actors, directors and designers to work, grow and collaborate. We have been a home for playwrights to develop new works about our community. We are in the forefront of regularly producing works with and by Black artists, and include racial diversity onstage and backstage in all of our plays. We have also been a leader in building a strong community of theaters in Atlanta who partner on marketing, fundraising, advocacy, advertising, resource-sharing and more. This started with my service on the Atlanta Theatre Coalition board, a strong voice for the arts in the 1980s and 1990s, continuing with service as president of the Atlanta New Play Project (now Working Title Playwrights), onto the founding of the Atlanta Intown Theatre Partnership (AITP), and now the online Atlanta Theatre Producers Group, which has been meeting bi-weekly on Zoom since the pandemic began.

What have been some of the most popular productions over the years? “The Waffle Palace,” a comedy we created set in an all-night Atlanta diner. We did it three times and two years of a holiday spin-off. Our small-cast, contemporary musicals “Avenue Q,” “Cowgirls,” and “I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change,” each of which we produced multiple times in different venues. Our sold-out plays by Black writers like “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery (three productions over 20 years),” “Da Kink in my Hair,” “Blackberry Daze” and “The House That Will Not Stand,” which just closed a sold-out run. Our productions of popular Off-Broadway comedies and of course 18 years of the alternative holiday tradition “The Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris. 

What’s up next for Horizon Theatre? Next up is a fun, quirky comedy called “Rooted” about two women who live in a treehouse who accidentally start a cult, featuring two of our favorite veteran Atlanta actors. In October, we’ll be transforming our theater into an immersive experience for the Broadway hit “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812,” a very contemporary musical set in the glamorous, romantic world of 19th century Moscow.

What are you reading/listening to/watching? My go-to podcasts are classics: This American Life, Radiolab and Rough Translations [are] just all excellent storytelling. I’m a loyal NPR Marketplace listener to stay current on business trends told in an entertaining way, and for business-centered podcasts, How I Built This and Freakonomics. I was a sucker for the escapism and woman-centric-ness and beauty of Paris (and those great costumes) of “Emily in Paris.” Also loved Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda not letting age get in their way in “Grace and Frankie.” My guilty pleasure is mother-daughter bonding over “The Bachelor.” I also just finished watching all of “The Diplomat;” so great seeing such a complicated woman’s role and that fast-paced political plot. And yes, I want to see “Barbie:” Greta Gerwig, go girl!

Lisa Adler

Title: Co-Artistic/Producing Director and Co-Founder, Horizon Theatre Company, a professional contemporary theatre in Inman Park/Little Five Points.

Born in: Chicago

Lives in: Ormewood Park

Education: B.F.A. in Acting/Theatre at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Hobbies: “Theater is my job and my hobby:directing, reading scripts, seeing plays.” Also, travel, hiking/walking, spending time with her “newly-graduated-from-college daughter,” Sophie

Favorite quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Workplace superpower: “Connecting the dots between diverse ideas, people and resources to create new ideas and opportunities.”