Thursday, October 22, 2020

INTERVIEW: Sarah Dylla on Atlanta '96

If you lived in or were visiting when the host city for the Centennial Olympic Games of 1996 was announced, you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. A number of years after those epic games, the Atlanta History Center opened a spectacular "Centennial Olympic Games Museum", which closed a few years ago when the Center acquired the Atlanta Cyclorama and the locomotive Texas from Grant Park, which required construction of new exhibition space temporarily displacing the Center's Olympic Games exhibition.

This summer, on the 30th anniversary of the announcement that Atlanta had won the bid, they unveiled a reinterpreted Olympic exhibition: "Atlanta '96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City". The curator of this magnificent new exhibition, Sarah Dylla, graciously granted me an interview.

Sarah Dylla, Olympic Exhibition Curator | Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Sarah Dylla, Olympic Exhibition Curator | Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center

The Olympics are special to me, especially the 1996 Games, for numerous reasons. In the 1980s, I lived in Greece while in the U.S. Navy and I had the incredible experience of walking around in Athens' Olympic Stadium, still in use today, where the modern Olympics were played in 1896! Fellow sailors were extras in an Emmy-winning TV mini-series about the first modern Olympics, which was televised in 1984, the year I arrived in Greece.

I moved to Atlanta in 1987, just a few years before it was announced that Atlanta would host the 1996 Games. I remember sitting in my car that morning outside my office building. I was going to be late to work but absolutely had to wait to hear the announcement. When it was announced, "It's Atlanta!", dozens of car horns went off! Lots of us were a few minutes late that morning.

I enjoyed the incredible experience of attending two Olympic Soccer (Football) games—including seeing Nigeria, who took the gold medal—and later got to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Paralympics where Christopher Reeve, of Superman fame, was the Master of Ceremonies. 

It was a wonderfully exciting time in Atlanta!

Now, on to the interview...

Timeline Entrance | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Timeline Entrance | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: The timeline wall leading to the entrance of the exhibition is magnificent! What details should visitors look for to get the full experience of this timeline?

Sarah: There are two timelines with the display. One showcases Atlanta's history of self-promotion and growth initiatives since around the time of the beginning of the modern Olympic Games to today. From establishing itself as a transportation and industrial business hub, to pushing to become a major league city, a convention destination, and eventually a city on the international stage, the city of Atlanta has always quested for larger status.

The parallel timeline, which begins in 1896 with the first modern Olympic Games, is used to show how the Olympics, and eventually the Paralympics, grew in scale over their 100+ year history into a major driver of urban change for their host cities.

The timelines showcase artifacts, torches, participation medals, and mascots from different Olympics (you’ll see our own Izzy and Blaze inside the core of the exhibition), as well as records and objects that document the city's 20th century development – don't miss the key to Mexico City given to Eastern Airlines to commemorate the first international flight from the city's airport.

This chronology sets the stage for thinking about the Olympics as an urban project, a major growth initiative, and a project that fits perfectly into Atlanta's past priorities.

Overall, this exhibition examines the impact of the Games on Atlanta and how residents can spur change in their own communities.

1996 Olympic & Paralympic Torches | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
1996 Olympic & Paralympic Torches | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: In the former Olympics museum, all of the Center's Olympic torches were on display. While there are a lot in the new exhibition, why aren't they all in this exhibition?

Sarah: It's rare for an institution to have a nearly complete Olympic torch set, so these torches are certainly treasures of Atlanta History Center's collection. However, for that same reason we want the collection to be flexible and available for other uses. They might be used for temporary display in another exhibition and those not on display can be made available to researchers and students or loans. 

Say Yes to Atlanta | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Say Yes to Atlanta | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

NOTE: While the timeline continues to 2020, the entrance to Payne Gallery (a nod to Billy Payne's remarkable leadership in the bidding process and as administrator of the Games) is at the 1996 point in time, the year Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. Payne is also one of the major donors to the exhibition.

The exhibition examines the long-term impact of the ’96 Games on Atlanta with thoughts about how all of us can have an impact on our community,” says Sheffield Hale, President & CEO, Atlanta History Center. “We tried to break out of the typical sports exhibition format that looks exclusively at the events and medals and look at what the Games meant to the city before, during, and after.” 

wanderlust ATLANTA: The exhibit is divided into four distinct sections: Envisioning, Campaigning, Realizing, and Reflecting. Which was the most challenging to curate and which was the most fun?

Sarah: The most challenging was the final section, Reflecting. After walking through the story and breaking it down, we had to decide how to end it. Yet reflections on the 1996 Games in Atlanta are ongoing. For Atlanta, the impact of the Games didn't end at the closing ceremonies. There were lots of considerations: how to illustrate big ideas like all the varied ways we formulate ideas and opinions about an event, through changing landscapes, the media response, expert analysis, or one's personal experience and memories. And we had to look at how those things are still changing today with longer hindsight, new Games, and new projects.

The most fun for me was the second area, Campaigning! It starts with the bids specifically, and then branches into stories about the variety of activities happening in Atlanta in the lead up to the Games. The reality of the approaching Games brought a lot of different ideas for changing Atlanta and preparing for the event to the table, from both inside and outside of the organizing committee. There was a push for a new state flag, a movement to keep Cobb County out of the Olympics unless their anti-LGBTQ resolution changed, and efforts from Mayor Jackson and other leaders to use the Olympic momentum to fight poverty and improve the city. It was such a busy time!

"Atlanta From the Ashes" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
"Atlanta From the Ashes" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: In the Envisioning section there are people represented who were not directly involved in planning the 1996 Olympics. Why are they there?

Sarah: We wanted to use this section to look back a bit, to showcase the big change-makers and influencers who looked at how the city in the late 70s and the 80s could be so much more. Whether from positions of city and business leadership or community organizing and activism, stories of individuals like these folks highlight the different ways people thought about bettering Atlanta. In their stories you can see how the city was becoming ripe for hosting the Olympic Games, the roots of the bid, and threads of change from a variety of perspectives that runs through the exhibit.

"It's Atlanta!" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
"It's Atlanta!" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: In the Realizing section there’s a display of the front page of the Atlanta Journal, the headline reading, “It’s Atlanta!” The Center shared this image on Instagram and you got some surprising reactions. Tell us about that?

Sarah: The front page is definitely a nostalgic image that brings back great excitement for those who remember it. Interestingly enough, we always get funny comments related to the headline halfway down the page: “We finally won something!” I think it speaks to a familiar sentiment for Atlanta sports fans.

The second portion of the main headline in that day's paper creates a more somber reaction:  "City explodes in thrill of victory". With the knowledge we have today of the tragic bombing that was to come during the Games, this text certainly creates a bit of pause.

There is a strong sense of nostalgia about the Games from those who remember them in Atlanta, but there are also difficult topics and experiences that are part of this story. There is a section related to the story of the bombing in the exhibition. The display includes a commemorative set of "Day-by-Day" pins that a fan collected, but Day 9, the day of the bombing, is missing.

"Map of the World" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
"Map of the World" | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: Visitors should not miss the "Map of the World" painted by Olympic athletes staying in the Olympic Village on the Georgia Tech campus. What are some significant things to look for in this vibrant painting?

Sarah: This relief map of the world was sitting in the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech where Olympians resided for the duration of the Games. The Olympians painted and painted and painted over the course of the two weeks! There are five panels and we invite you to stare at it for a while. You'll see signatures, doodles next to athletes' countries and states, and there's even a tiny Izzy!

1996 Paralympic Medals | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
1996 Paralympic Medals | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: The Olympic and Paralympic medals on display are stunning. Are there any surprises here?

Sarah: The text on the back of the 1996 Paralympic Medals is in Braille. Some medals since '96 include Braille on the front. The Paralympic Games go back to 1948, to the Stoke Mandeville Games, the predecessor of the modern Paralympic Games, and an event that was established as an athletic forum for British veterans of World War II. It was in very recent history that the U.S. Olympic Committee changed their name to be more inclusive. Today they are know as the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee

Our exhibit parallels how the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games shaped and have affected Atlanta.

Of the Paralympic medals on display, the gold medal is new to our collection and the silver and bronze medals on are on loan from athletes and sponsors.

Hands-Free Interactive Display | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Hands-Free Interactive Display | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: There were some adaptations to the interactive displays throughout the exhibit prior to opening. Share with us how those work?

Sarah: With the onset of the pandemic we pushed the pause button in the spring and considered how we could reopen, a significant concern being tangible interactives and touchscreens. Each section was going to have an interactive element that highlighted learning objectives and asked the visitor to question their own knowledge and ideas. Concerned about sanitation and safety, we transitioned to touchless technology for our digital screens and replaced some of the tangible activities with additional seating for now.

One interactive activity was initially intended for visitors to add a string, color-matched to their age group, to a web of previous responses, weaving their contribution around knobs to select answers to a survey. Now, through a QR Code and online survey, visitors can still contribute and museum staff will string their responses.

Other displays use technology where one's hand becomes the cursor on the screen. It senses your hand placement and movement. There are instructions on how to gesticulate your hand to navigate and enter responses on the display. It's pretty cool, actually!

Autographs | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Autographs | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: I feel that your combining of Olympic and Paralympic histories is brilliantly done. What were the deciding factors in pairing these when those events were actually separated by two weeks and thousands of people?

Sarah: Weaving the Paralympic story more fully into this exhibition was a big priority for us. We spoke with different advisors and community leaders and tuned in to current discussions on both around the world. Successes of disability rights activism have led to increasing parity between the Games over the years, and we wanted the exhibition to show Atlanta’s place in that trajectory.

In addition to that, hosting the Games was nearly a 10-year process for Atlanta, and both the Olympic and Paralympic Games were the result of a great amount of work behind the scenes. It is that work and the resulting platform for larger issues that we wanted to focus on in this exhibition, and that allowed us to break away from an exact chronology at times.

On the Paralympic side of the story, visitors can see how the bidding process was separate from the Olympics and different than it is today. They can see how the healthcare community in Atlanta and activists helped shape the 1996 Paralympics into something more for the disabled community. And they can see connections to larger narratives, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, the same year it was announced that Atlanta would host the '96 Games, and a major factor in venue construction. It’s a longer story that relates to the increases in parity. The exhibit shows how Atlanta is a step along that path.

Olympic Cauldron model | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Olympic Cauldron model | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: What’s your favorite artifact in the exhibition and why?

Sarah: It has to be the model of the Olympic Cauldron. It has an interesting backstory as it relates to the role of art in the Games, the making of memorable TV moments, and the artist, Siah Armajani. The model is an elaborate and delicate object made of balsa wood. And who could forget the image of Muhamad Ali, who was living with Parkinson's at the time, lighting the Cauldron via a pulley system to officially open the 1996 Games.

It also speaks to the heavy urban redevelopment efforts that come from the Games, and the site of Summerhill with its many layers of history and neighborhood impact. The Cauldron was attached to Atlanta's Olympic Stadium, which was built with re-use in mind. And its connecting piece, the bridge, was intended by the artist to be a symbolic connection between the neighborhood and the Games. After 1996, the stadium was converted into Turner Field, which would be home to the Atlanta Braves for many years. The Olympic Cauldron was moved a few blocks north to Hank Aaron Drive and Fulton Street. Residents of Summerhill have seen recurring plans for change from city leadership and private development, all impacting them and rarely involving them. The Olympic development is just one point in a long story of the neighborhood – a neighborhood where the Cauldron still stands as a recognizable beacon. 

Olympic Stadium model | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Olympic Stadium model | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

wanderlust ATLANTA: The Atlanta History Center is the steward of much of our Olympic and Paralympic history and experiences. Do you feel this exhibit will elicit an emotional response from Atlantans that we’re ready to once again bid for the Olympics? Do you feel this exhibit says we’re ready to host again?

Sarah: The exhibit shouldn't be seen as a bid for another Olympic and Paralympic Games. It's meant to showcase how individuals—you and me and every Atlantan—can shape one's community. And help us learn from and inform our ideas about the future from examples of change in the recent past. 

The biggest takeaway we hope for is that visitors see the Games as much more than a two-week event. In Atlanta, from early 20th century history to ongoing initiatives today, there have been so many pushes to make the city more accommodating for new industry (whether that is rail transit and shipping or movies), for big events and the recognition that comes with them (like the Olympics or the Super Bowl). The Olympics was a "typical" project for Atlanta’s leaders. It was a huge push to put the city on an international stage and that's what it did, but there were also so many other changes happening at the local level that Atlantans can still see, feel, and experience today.

wanderlust ATLANTA: Thank you, Sarah, for the interview. I personally am ecstatic that we again have an '96 Olympics and Paralympics exhibition for locals and visitors from the around the world to explore and experience. Touring the exhibit bought back many wonderful memories from those years and I learned a lot about the Games in Atlanta that I didn't know before. I highly encourage Atlantans, and visitors, to add this exhibition to your must-see list.

Izzy | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Izzy | Atlanta History Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

Atlanta '96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City is on display now at the Atlanta History Center. Please see their website for hours, tickets, and ongoing safety measures. "Thank you!" to Sarah for the interview!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A JAZZ MEMOIR: Through the Lens of Herb Snitzer

Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Count Basie are but are a few of the world-famous American musicians and Jazz legends that you'll see in The Breman Museum's newest exhibition, A JAZZ MEMOIR: Through the Lens of Herb Snitzer

Louis Armstrong | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer
Louis Armstrong | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer

A Jazz Memoir, on "view" now through Thursday, December 31, 2020, features Herb Snitzer’s photography documenting America’s jazz scene. It focuses on an early period, 1957–1964, of his more than sixty-year career. For most of that time, Herb was the photography editor for Metronome Magazine, the primary magazine devoted to jazz, and published until 1961.

As you peruse the exhibit online, you're "walking" through the gallery and can stop and view the photos, each of which has a circle next to the caption. First, hover over the citcle and you'll see a thumbnail of the photo with the caption. Then you can click on that thumbnail to see a larger version of the image. It's very well done, one of the best virtual experiences I've had of a photography exhibit. Be sure the click on the yellow circles in the gallery. Those are videos, including one featuring Herb Snitzer himself!

The above photo of Louis Armstrong was made while on a tour bus. The Star of David that Armstrong is wearing was a gift from the Karnovsky family when he was a child. That family cared for him, fed and clothed him. Herb said that Armstrong, even though not of the Jewish faith, wore that Star of David for his entire life, and that Armstrong was the least prejudiced musician he ever knew.

Nina Simone | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer
Nina Simone | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer

One of the things that I love most about this exhibit is that the placards are written in first-person. It's like having Herb standing next to you telling you stories about the people he's photographed and how meeting some of these international stars influenced his career and his life. 

For example, part of the Nina Simone placard reads, "...to photograph the talented, but difficult Nina Simone. Nina and I were the same age and we hit it off. In April 1986, she came to Boston where I was living and we re-connected which led to me photographing her two concerts in Bern, Switzerland in December of that year. ...She introduced me to Hans Zurbrugg, the producer of the Bern International Jazz Festival who hired me to photograph the festival for three years, 1987-89. This allowed me to reconnect with my Jazz friends from all over the world..."

I've loved jazz my whole life, but it's exhibits like this that get me super-excited about it again. A few years ago, the first show that I ever saw at Theatrical Outfit was "Simply Simone", a musical. Four actresses portrayed Nina at different times in her life and it was magnificent! The acting, the singing, the things that I learned about Nina's life were remarkable. 

Count Bassie | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer
Count Basie | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer

There's additional programming with the exhibition, including a Zoom Artist Talk with Herb Snitzer and exhibition curator Tony Casadonte on Thursday, October 1, when they'll discuss jazz, photography, and more! I had the pleasure of meeting Tony just as the finishing touches were being put on the exhibition. You're in for a treat! His passion for this exhibition is undeniable! 

"Jazz is more than wonderful music. It's a statement about people's desire and thirst for freedom, and with freedom, the sweetness of individuality and sense of self-worth.

- Herb Snitzer

Tony is with Lumière, an exhibition partner, here in Atlanta where you can see more of Snitzer's work and that of many other illustrious artists. Lumiere is a photography gallery, founded 15 years ago to enhance the appreciation of the photographic arts and to showcase many of the master photographers of the last century. 

Then on Thursday, October 15 at 7pm, there's "Jews and Jazz: A Discussion of the impact of Jews on the Jazz Scene" when Gary Motley and Dr. Gordon Vernick will discuss the significant roles that Jews have played in the Jazz scene as composers, performers, writers, and entrepreneurs. 

Both events are free but require registration!

Duke Ellington | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer
Duke Ellington | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer

"Presenting Herb Snitzer's marvelous camera work aligns with The Breman's commitment to the art of photography," says Breman Executive Director Leslie Gordon. "This exhibition is a great example of outstanding works by Jewish documentary photographers. In late 2019 and early 2020, we featured the highly popular Henri Dauman: Looking Up, an overview of the French-born Holocaust survivor's photographs that acknowledged him as one of the preeminent photojournalists of the twentieth century. We are proud to host the current exhibition, A Jazz Memoir, and thrilled to be sharing Snitzer's iconic images with a broad public."

In addition to Snitzer's jazz photography are other works that demonstrate both his desire to use photography to effect social change and his belief that "Injustice for one is injustice for all," acutely relevant given the current social climate. 

Herb has lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, (my birth city) since 1992 where he operates a gallery. HIs newest gallery, Herb Snitzer Fine Art Photography Gallery, opened in 2014.

A Jazz Memoir was initially scheduled to open in April to coincide with the Atlanta Jazz Festival, but those plans were interrupted by COVID-19. But, that didn't deter The Breman from bringing the exhibition to the public. While the museum remains closed due to the pandemic, A Jazz Memoir is now on "display" in an enhanced virtual experience—and they've done a magnificent job of it!

Thelonius Monk | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer
Thelonius Monk | The Breman Museum | Photo: Herb Snitzer

In a 1990s Los Angeles radio interview when asked what was the key takeaway he wanted people to get from his exhibition, he said, "A sense that African Americans have centrally contributed to the culture and spiritual life of the United States. Jazz is…a statement about a people's desire and thirst for freedom, and with freedom, the sweetness of individuality and sense of self-worth. … Jazz musicians have made a very important contribution to the United States. … We must salute Pops, Duke, Sarah, Miles and others as major American artists, not jazz artists—which they were—but American artists. Duke Ellington was the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, but you would never know it from the press. … Duke was the best … Martin Luther King was the best … W.E.B. Du Bois was the best, just as Sarah Vaughn's voice was the best. … I was expressing the injustice of it all."

The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum plans to make private, small-group tours available for members on a reservation basis, as conditions permit. In the meantime, A Jazz Memoir: Through the Lens of Herb Snitzer is free and available to the public online. See it now through Thursday, December 31, 2020!

Thursday, September 24, 2020

INTERVIEW: Matt Torney, Theatrical Outfit

Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta's second-oldest professional theatre, announced at the end of August 2019 that the board of trustees had voted unanimously to name Matt Torney as its new Artistic Director. Torney assumed the role in July 2020 when Tom Key completed his 25th year at the helm of this downtown theatre.

Torney has led Theatrical Outfit over the last few months in returning audiences to the theatre, at first virtually, and when it's safe again, in-person! There's a LOT of programing coming up and Torney graciously granted me an interview to introduce him to wanderlust ATLANTA fans and followers and to share a bit about the upcoming programming.

Matt Torney, Artistic Director, Theatrical Outfit | Photo: Teddy Wolff
Matt Torney, Artistic Director, Theatrical Outfit | Photo: Teddy Wolff

(NOTE: This post is a combination of my conversation with Matt Torney, personal comments, and press releases. Torney's responses are not verbatim, but are edited from a conversation I had with him. I have endeavored to be as accurate as possible. I can honestly say that I am incredibly excited about what he is and will bring to Theatrical Outfit, a personal favorite.)

wanderlust ATLANTA: Share with us a little about where you're from and how you came to Atlanta.

Matt: I'm originally from Belfast, Ireland. I was there in the 1980s and '90s during the second half of troubles there...it was hard to make sense of it all and it sucked up all of your energy. As a young person with no interest in politics, art and theatre became my escape. My friends and I would go to plays—there was extraordinary theatre and writing—and do workshops. 

I moved to Dublin, Ireland, to study theatre and English literature. In 2006, I moved to New York City and studied at Columbia University for three years then returned home and was freelancing across the Atlantic. 

I found myself curious about theatre communities outside of New York City. I'd seen the they each have their own flavor, their own feeling, and I was struck by the D.C. audience. In search of a deep immersion in regional theatre, in 2015 I moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, on the northeast border of D.C. and became the Assistant Associate Director at Studio Theatre in northwest DC near Logan Circle. 

A few years later, wanting to lead a theatre led me to Atlanta. I'm excited about the new programming and upcoming season!

DOWNTOWN DIALOGUES – a four-part series (the first is Thursday, September 24, 2020) of digital readings each followed by a live video podcast hosted by arts journalist Gail O’Neill, writer for ArtsATL.org. Gail will talk to experts and special guests about the play and its themes, incorporating responses to questions from the audience. The four titles in the series take a deep dive into important topics of today from equality to education to the environment, and all will be brought to life by Atlanta’s finest actors and directors for you to engage with from the comfort of your own home.  

Tonight's Downtown Dialogues, titled "The Children" is by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Susan V. Booth, and stars Ora Jones, Chris Kayser, and Tess Malis Kincaid

Click here to learn more about the Downtown Dialogues series and for tickets to the pre-show conversations with Torney!

wanderlust ATLANTA: While Downtown Dialogues are free to theatre lovers, the pre-purchased VIP Pre-Show Package includes conversations with you. What will those entail.

Matt: We didn't want Theatrical Outfit patrons and other theatre lovers to have to pay for this initial unique content. We want to make it as accessible as possible. Viewers can for free watch Downtown Dialogue readings and enjoy the post-show live video podcast in which a panel of experts and special guests dive deep into the play and its themes hosted by Gail O’Neill. 

But we did opt to generate an additional experience. With a paid "ticket", or package(s), patrons are guaranteed a "seat" at the reading and post-discussion, plus they have access to a VIP pre-show discussion with me, half an hour before the reading begins. It'll be more of a conversation, less of a presentation, a way to open the door a little bit and have real conversations with patrons, supporters, and subscribers. I'm excited to meet the larger Atlanta theatre-going community.

In a press release Torney said, "We believe that theatre offers an essential place for dialogue in times of extreme disruption, and a space in which our community can celebrate, console, and most importantly, connect with one another. TO is committed to building programs that not only respond actively to the present crisis, but also serve as a long-term investment in our community,Atlanta artists, and our future as a Downtown theatre."

wanderlust ATLANTA: Some arts venues in Atlanta, in recent years, have experienced a change in leadership that resulted in significant changes in the patron experience. What, if anything, are you planning to change?

Matt: During the search it was noted that Theatrical Outfit was looking for someone who was in alignment with the theatre's Vision, Mission, and Core Values. If writing my own, it would have been a very close match. 

My wife, who is a filmmaker and director, had her first feature shown at Plaza Theatre. Serendipitously, Tom Key was there, too! We discussed the civic responsibility of theatre, building community in real-time, the daily operations of the theatre, and how Theatrical Outfit can enhance Atlanta as a city. 

It's like we were already heading in the same direction, just getting there in different ways. Tom wanted someone to come in and continue, but things are rapidly changing, but we're adapting. Now we're focused on how we can be a home for Atlanta, how we can be a home for artists.

MADE IN ATLANTA - This is a new play program. Theatrical Outfit is taking advantage of the disruption to their mainstage season to devote more time and resources to developing new work. 

In a press release Torney said, “What better way to spend this time than focusing on the future, investing in great plays about Atlanta and helping to develop ideas and writers. Our hope is that we will find amazing plays to premiere in future seasons that will make a big impact both here in Atlanta and around the country.”

wanderlust ATLANTA: Do you feel it is important to keep a theatre downtown?

MattYes, absolutely. It's the beating heart of the city. We want to offer Atlanta a place that is open to everybody, particularly to be a theatre that creates conversations so that those conversations and ripple outward and create change. As downtown adapts and grows, it's important for theatre to be here. This theatre is going to show up and engage with Atlanta and the South as a whole. We aim to show that the South is a living, growing place, not a place stuck in time. We're looking at ways to invest in the community and to create conversations about who we are and who we can be.

THE WELCOME TABLE - Theatrical Outfit is honored to host a special one-night event to benefit organizations that serve the downtown homeless community. The Welcome Table will raise awareness of the most vulnerable among us, shining a light on how the homeless community has been impacted by COVID-19 while raising funds to support the wonderful organizations working to mitigate that impact. Watch for future announcement about this event.

UNEXPECTED PLAY FESTIVAL - In January, Theatrical Outfit is excited to once again partner with Working Title Playwrights (WTP) for the Unexpected Play Festival. This month-long festival celebrates brand new work by local playwrights, all being heard for the first time. Each digital reading will be immediately followed by a discussion led by WTP Artistic Director Amber Bradshaw in which the audience will offer essential feedback that will help the playwright take the work to the next level.

MAIN STAGE – Then in Spring 2021, Theatrical Outfit plans to return to the mainstage with three smart, authentic, and vital live productions. As previously announced, Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, will take to the stage rearranging TO in a bold new way. The season will also see a powerful partnership with Theatre J in Washington DC on a co-production of Fires In The Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities by Anna Deavere Smith. A third title will be announced shortly.

In a press release Torney said, “We had two requirements for our return to live performances - the plays had to be excellent, and the productions had to be safe for both the artists and the audiences. We are reworking every aspect of how we produce to factor in the latest safety guidelines and will be re-evaluating constantly as we get new information. With flexible ticketing, filmed performances, and a highly trained front of house staff, we are confident that we can offer excellent theatre that embraces the challenges of COVID-19 and offers both flexibility and security to our patrons.”

Matt: We're confident that we can find a way to return to the theatre safely, while incorporating some digital alternatives. We're listening to medical experts, listening to the City, and we're taking our time to do it right. We're doing this in alignment with our Core Values and we're excited to start some new amazing conversations!


TravisYou may recall that I've lived in Atlanta twice. The first time for 15 years, then 9 in D.C., and I've been back for 10 years. While in D.C., I attended shows at Studio Theatre many, many times, AND my former boss when I was at Intelsat is on the Board of Trustees at Studio Theatre. Don't you love small world stories?!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit

Here's something to be excited about when the Fernbank Science Center reopens ... one of only 15 exact replica's of Neil Armstrong's spacesuit—the one he was wearing when the first human stepped onto the Moon—is on display here!

Neil Armstrong Spacesuit | Photo by Travis Swann Taylor
Neil Armstrong Spacesuit | Fernbank Science Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

Last year, in 2019, the distribution and exhibition of these suits were part of NASA's Moon Landing 50th Anniversary celebrations. As huge a space geek as I am, I don't know how I missed this, other than the fact that I was in the middle of writing my book, which includes the Fernbank Science Center—otherwise I would have been at Truist Park to see this! 

Fortunately for us, after the Apollo in the Park program, the 15 suits found permanent homes in space centers and museums (full list here), one of them right here in Atlanta! 

Neil Armstrong Spacesuit | Fernbank Science Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Neil Armstrong Spacesuit | Fernbank Science Center | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

The plaque with instructions for retrieving exclusive content is posted next to the statue. Presumably (I didn't check when I shot this earlier this year), it still works. I certainly hope so because I'll totally be snapping a selfie with Armstrong's suit! #SnapTheSuit

There's also a Moon Rock and a few other artifacts with this exhibit.

Check out the video above and this page on the Air & Space Museum's website to learn more about how NASA digitized Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, preserving it forever in the digital world! 

After being off display and years of restoration, Neil Armstrong's spacesuit is again on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, where I was once a volunteer. If you've never been to this museum and you're a space enthusiast or a space geek like me, you absolutely must go. And make time to visit their annex museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, not too far away.

Jim Lovell Spacesuit at Dragon Con 2013 | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor
Jim Lovell Spacesuit at Dragon Con 2013 | Photo: Travis Swann Taylor

Oh, and the Fernbank Science Center isn't the only place to see spacesuits in Metro Atlanta, although they are rare here. You're quite likely to see one or a few Dragon Con—this one was from 2013. It's designed after a suit worn by Astronaut James A. "Jim" Lovell who was the backup Commander to Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 and he was the Commander on the Apollo 13 mission.

I met the guy who made it—YES, he made this suit!!!—but didn't get to know him. I only know that he lived in Alabama at the time, presumably near or at the aerospace facilities in Huntsville, Alabama.

A little closer to home, you can see a spacesuit or two at Tellus Science Center in Cartersville, Georgia, less than an hour from Atlanta.

Keep an eye out for when Fernbank Science Center reopens so that you can go get that selfie with Astronaut Neil Armstrong's spacesuit! #SnapTheSuit

Sunday, September 20, 2020

INTERVIEW: Joe M. Turner, Magician

I had the great pleasure of seeing Joe M. Turner perform a magic show at a corporate event a number of years ago. Loved his show and I've followed his career since! It was a magic show, but he was also the keynote speaker. What an unexpected, wholly remarkable combination! People were watching and listening to the show, not bowing to their Blackberries and iPhones. The man is brilliant, I tell you!

I recently learned that while much of the performing arts world is on lockdown due to the pandemic—Joe is a musical theatre fan and performer, so he feels the pain doubly—Joe has taken to digital entertaining. And, he has not only graciously granted me an interview, he's offering my friends and fans a great deal on his next show, Sunday, September 27 at 7pm ET. See the deal at the end of this post!

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

Let's get into the interview with Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, and Keynote Speaker, and be sure to watch the videos interspersed along the way—to get a sneak peek at the awesome entertainment you'll get when you join me online at his show this weekend!

wanderlust ATLANTA: Share with us a little about who you are, where you’re from, and how you landed in Atlanta.

Joe: I was born in Jackson, Mississippi and grew up in Brandon, a small suburb. Brandon is also the hometown of Mary Ann Mobley, who was Miss America 1959, and Jerious Norwood, who played for the Atlanta Falcons. I studied physics and theatre at Mississippi State University, then took a job designing and delivering corporate training at a management consulting firm in Atlanta. I moved here in 1993.

wanderlust ATLANTA: What was the catalyst that got you into magic? 

Joe: I got a magic kit for Christmas when I was five and that held my interest for several months. I also had some children’s books about magic, and I remember being fascinated by Doug Henning and David Copperfield on television. I started performing magic for real audiences when I was 10...talent shows, birthday parties, and so on. I left it aside in high school and college, and came back to it as an adult in the mid-1990s. It sort of took over my life after that.

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: What’s the difference between magic and mentalism?

Joe: That definitely depends on who you ask! I tend to group them both under an umbrella called “mystery arts” or “illusion arts,” as they are both a form of performance art dealing with the theatrical creation of illusions. Magic tends toward visual illusions—such as appearances and disappearances and transpositions, while mentalism is more about psychological illusions—simulations of ESP, predictions, and such. 

Some mentalists—not all—like to leave the question of whether it’s an illusion or not unaddressed, and are perfectly happy to have people believe that they can actually read minds or predict the future. They maintain, correctly, that the people who truly believe their mind has been read are getting an experience that cannot be replicated by a visual illusionist, because nobody in the developed world believes a coin can literally disappear by magic, but they might still actually believe you can read their mind or predict the future if you frame the presentation properly. 

Leaving this claim unaddressed is not my style ethically, but I have good friends who fall in that camp. I am aware that some mentalists really resist being “lumped in” with magicians, holding that magicians who do mental effects are just doing “mental magic” and not really mentalism. Then again, I asked Max Maven, probably the preeminent mentalist in the world today, the difference between mentalism and mental magic, and he said it was a meaningless distinction.

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: When and how did your love of magic and mentalism turn to corporate stages?

Joe: I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a corporate stage for magic! When I was a kid and interested in magic I used to see the magazines and I thought everyone was either doing local parties, or they were in Las Vegas at a casino. I didn’t really understand the whole concept of corporate events and large hotels with ballrooms and such.

After I regained my interest in magic in the mid '90s, I joined the local magic clubs and found out then that people were being hired to perform magic at corporate events, cocktail parties, and other occasions. Having worked in the management consulting and training world, I was really comfortable in front of audiences of adults and realized then that that was where I wanted to take my performances.

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: Harry Houdini performed at the Wimbish House, today home of the Atlanta Woman’s Club on Peachtree Street, nearly 100 years ago (ch. 44 in my book). On what stage(s) have you or do you want to perform on that people 100 years from now might be talking about?

Joe: I have performed for a large event at the London Palladium and took a bow on that stage. I have every confidence that a century from now that will still be meaningful. I’ve done some off-Broadway appearances, but it would be wonderful to be hired for a touring show that did a Broadway stint. Locally, I have worked the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theatre and I love that room dearly.

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: How has your show developed over the years? What transformation in your show was the most “magical” for you?

Joe: In magic there is a saying that amateurs perform an ever-changing set of routines for a consistent audience, while professionals perform a consistent set of routines for ever-changing audiences. I think the most important transformation for me was to focus on developing a core repertoire that fit me well, and not try to be everything. Early in your career it is all so amazing and intoxicating that you think you should be a sleight-of-hand expert one day, an escape artist the next, and turn ladies into tigers on the weekend. Focusing on my authentic personality and the things I can credibly present to audiences—and learning to focus on my strengths—this was the primary transformation in my business. If you see me perform, I’m likely to perform at least one thing you’ve seen me do before, or something that is related to it. I do still create custom work and custom illusions for clients, but I have worked hard to develop my core in a way that it gives me a solid foundation on which to build and grow.

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker
Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: With the outbreak of COVID-19, most people's careers and lives changed or were affected otherwise, some significantly. How have you adapted? Are these changes permanent, fully or in part?

Joe: In February I was performing magic on a cruise ship in the South China Sea. After departing from Guam, the pandemic spread and every port we were scheduled to visit closed. After nearly two weeks at sea with no stops, we finally landed in Singapore and I flew home. I spoke at a conference and did a couple of other corporate events, but by mid-March my entire 2020 calendar was emptied by the virus.

Soon after that, I attended my first couple of Zoom meetings and realized immediately that there was an opportunity to develop a unique kind of interactive theatre in that space. My constant goal through the whole crisis has been to keep finding ways to be creative and productive, so I decided to create and produce a virtual magic and mentalism show.

I launched my first virtual show on April 3, and a couple of weeks later I received an email from a New York Times arts reporter asking to see my show for a story on how magicians across America were using technology to perform. My show was included in the article, and then two weeks later I was having coffee one Sunday morning when a friend in Manhattan messaged me to congratulate me for being in the Times. I thought she was mistaken because the story was already old news. But I had gotten an additional mention – a recommendation of my show in the Sunday Times!

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been one of the very first in the country to develop an online performance.

I have resisted using the term "pivot" during this time because I think it implies a change of direction. I haven’t really changed my direction, but I’ve certainly added a lane, and added new skills, and am able to deliver my work in additional ways. I do expect that I will continue to offer online offerings in the future.

wanderlust ATLANTA: You’re more than a magician. What other talents to you share with public audiences?

Joe: I have a reasonably deep background in musical theatre. I did some professional performing and continued to act and sing in Atlanta after I moved here. I have also worked as a pianist and conductor. During the pandemic I’ve done a lot of Facebook Live-streaming of showtunes from my piano, just for fun. I have taken the odd piano gig here and there, too. I never really marketed it much in past years, leaving it mostly for people who just knew I had that background, but more recently I did finally put together a web site: Atlanta Pianist. I have combined that with my magic for another little project: Vaudeville on Demand

Joe M. Turner, Magician, Mentalist, Keynote Speaker

wanderlust ATLANTA: There have been a LOT of them…what is your favorite magic/magician movie? Why?

Joe: The favorite of many magicians is the Tony Curtis Houdini movie, but I think my favorite is The Illusionist with Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel. I think The Prestige may be a better film, but when The Illusionist came out I was doing my one-man show “Shenanigans” at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead and the distribution company called me to do a cross promotion between my show and some previews of the film. So I’ll go with The Illusionist

Also, Jessica Biel.

wanderlust ATLANTA: When you have time to play tourist, where/what are some of the destinations in Atlanta that you most enjoy?

Joe: You mentioned Atlanta Magic Night in your book. That is a local magic show with a rotating cast, and I've co-produced the show since 2014. It takes place at the Red Light Café in Midtown, which is someplace I'd recommend for anyone to check out when they have their live shows up and running again. It could be country one night, rock the next, comedy the next, burlesque the next, and magic the next! It is a wonderful venue. Check out their streaming—Wednesday night is Jazz Night!

I have surely enjoyed the College Football Hall of Fame since it came to Atlanta.

If you’re up for a little drive, High Shoals Falls in Paulding County is a beautiful little waterfall and a quiet place to contemplate your blessings.

SPECIAL OFFER: Joe is offering wanderlust ATLANTA friends and fans $5 off tickets (You only need one ticket for the entire household!) to his upcoming show—Joe M. Turner's Remotely Entertaining—on Sunday, September 27, at 7pm...use promo code "social".

I'll see you at the show and if you're a person who schedules speakers for your company, consider Joe. I highly recommend him!

Follow Joe M. Turner on…

Facebook Twitter Instagram | YouTube | LinkedIn | and on his website

(All photos and videos courtesy of Joe M. Turner. All opinions are my own.)