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The Play's The Thing

Tuesday, March 26, 2019
jeff as different characters

Alumnus turns budding Shakespeare theater company into internationally acclaimed organization

Jeff Watkins ’78, B.A. Drama, Mass Communications

by Mary Denny

“What we do at the Shakespeare Tavern is fun as hell! It’s not stuffy at all, and I guarantee you will understand the play.” So declares Jeff Watkins, president and artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. What they do is perform Original Practice Shakespeare, “a fancy way of saying we perform Shakespeare ‘neat,’ explains Watkins, “or rather with an abiding respect for Shakespeare’s own stagecraft.” He arrived there thanks to a passion for the performing arts, a boatload of technical expertise, dogged determination, and, yes, a healthy measure of good luck. It’s quite a story.

After cheekily announcing to his senior classmates, “I’m going to have a theater company,” this born entertainer (his father was a professional magician) started out doing magic tricks for food and tips at San Antonio hangouts like Schlotzky’s and Broadway 5050, a local bar. Eventually, he made his way to New York “to see what the fuss was about.” He performed street magic for pocket money—“Looking back, I’m amazed I even survived,” he says—before landing a gig with a small touring theater company. Passing through Chicago, he connected with college buddies—Doug Post, still a playwright and script doctor, and Peter Koelling, who later became a lawyer—to start a company called The Illustrated Theatre. “It failed passionately and spectacularly,” he says.  

While trying unsuccessfully to gain admittance to various performance degree programs, Jeff stumbled into a Shakespeare cult called The Free Shakespeare Company that had a profound influence on his later work. Passing through Atlanta in 1982 on the way to New York to pursue “another impossible audition at a prestigious conservatory,” Jeff encountered the executive director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Association, who agreed to let him direct a play. When he returned to accept the opportunity, she was ready to move to New York to pursue a career in publishing. “What about the play, the company?” he asked. She said, "What about it?" He said, “Well, can I have it?”

At the time, the Atlanta Shakespeare Association consisted of a rack of costumes, a $1,000 grant from the City, and a $2,000 debt to his predecessor. “As a parting gift, she took me out and we bought a typewriter,” Jeff says. “She then taught me how to fill out a Revised Budget Form using words like ‘program impact,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘emerging arts’ and told me, ‘Never use a budget number that ends in two zeroes. It looks like you’re not even trying.’”

Based on principles he’d learned in Chicago, Jeff produced his first play in an iconic Atlanta bar called Manuel’s Tavern. The occasion was a political fundraiser for a DeKalb County commissioner, and he drew upon all the technical and aesthetic skills he learned at Trinity to “shoehorn the production into the quirky back room.”  

The informal Shakespeare-in-a-tavern concept was a hit, and the production drew mentions in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Travel Magazine, CBS, and CNN, as well as the National Restaurant Association’s trade journal. “I had enough sense to collect addresses from the audience, and from that experience the Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse (an actual tavern that resembles London’s Globe Theatre) was born,” Jeff says.

Today, Jeff’s Atlanta Shakespeare Company is an international leader in Original Practice Shakespeare. He presides over 24 full-time members, with another 30 or so on a by-project basis, who perform 51 weeks a year. In addition to producing and directing, Jeff also acts. His credits include Hamlet, Lear, Malvolio, Macbeth, Prospero, and Antony, among dozens of other roles. This June, the Company will have produced the Bard’s complete 39-play canon for the second time, and they sometimes do other European classics, the occasional Broadway musical, and American plays as well.

Unlike many classical arts organizations, Jeff has no fear of the greying of his audience. Fully 70 percent of his audience is under 55 years old, and 16 percent of evening tickets are purchased with a student ID. He credits the Company’s extensive work with young people, which “has proven over decades to be the best audience development strategy imaginable.” That work includes performances for kids as young as five, teen ensembles in the summer, and an aggressive series of matinees that draws kids from 60 Georgia counties and seven states. He also conducts a rural touring program, after-school student performance residencies, and an eight-month professional training program for young theater artists just out of school. In his role as fundraiser-in-chief, Jeff says that “philanthropy is not a business plan,” and he’s proud that the Atlanta Shakespeare Company earns 65 percent of its revenues from ticket sales, concessions, and contract fees, with another 25 percent coming from the annual fund and other programs.

After 35 years at the helm, Jeff could be forgiven for thinking of retirement, but he’s hoping to open a new multi-space performance venue dedicated to all things Shakespeare in the next five years. “Maybe then I can relax and spend more time camping with my sweet wife. Who knows? Maybe I'll get to meet my grandchildren someday and teach them how to speak verse, or do some neat magic tricks.”

To the many fine teachers he studied with at Trinity—Michael Smith, Frances Swinny, Larry Kimmel, Mackenzie Brown, Coleen Grissom, David Burkett, Robert Duffy, Bob Baca, Diana Devereaux, Peter Lynch, Jim Symons, and particularly drama icon Paul Baker—Jeff sends a sincere thank you for his college education. “I use it every day of my professional life.”  

You can contact Jeff at jeff.watkins [at] shakespearetavern.com.