Nonprofit Arts Success: Out of Hand Theater Shakes the Trees of Social Justice


And they’re changing Atlanta for the better every minute.

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Ariel Fristoe (center), Thomas Brzzle (to the left from our POV), and Adria Kitchens (right) manage to make Out of Hand Theater the most impactful theater not only in Atlanta, but in America.

From the press releases announcing new artistic leaders for nonprofit theaters in the last year:

  • “It has been clear to me for many years that ABC has the skills, the passion, the creativity, and the grit necessary to take on leadership at the highest level.”
  • “With an impressive background and a deep passion for the mission, DEF brings a fresh vision for the future.”
  • On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I am delighted to announce GHI’s appointment. GHI embodies the energy, hope, and joy of our mission.”

Yawn.

For the purposes of fairness, let’s look at the active parts of the mission statements of these three organizations.

  • “[First Company] produces great theater, entertains and educates.”
  • “[Second Company] creates extraordinary theatre experiences that educate, challenge, and inspire.”
  • “[Third Company] refreshes the individual, fosters civil discourse, and creates community.”

Pardon me. I was mistaken. This part is the yawn part. The first set of quotes is the natural reaction from the leaders of a nonprofit arts board of directors to the lackluster – no, ridiculously stupid – mission statements of a charitable organization.

Artistry. Excellence. Passion. Grit.

For nonprofit arts organizations, you’d better have those things already. But as proof of community service? Or as a reason to hire? Mere floccinaucinihilipilification.

Yawn
This is what members of your community do when they hear you crow about your company’s artistic excellence. (Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels)

And then there’s this theater company in Atlanta.

How’s this for a mission? “Out of Hand works at the intersection of art, social justice, and civic engagement. We help create a more just world.”

The work is artistically excellent, but so what? The tendrils into every aspect of a city’s famed and dangerous heritage of bringing about change make Out of Hand Theater completely indispensable to the betterment of the people…by including them in the process at every stage.

And how does Out of Hand measure success?

By bottom line revenues? No, but they’re running a surplus, once again.

By butts-in-seats? No, because events occur in various living rooms, church basements, classrooms, schools, and any place where people can convene and talk about the plan for change. There might be ten people or a hundred. It could be in-person or virtual. The message is the message, not the medium.

By positive economic impact for the city? No, they’ll leave that to theme parks, baseball stadiums, and all the thousands of restaurants to provide ancillary revenues. They’re far more efficient an economic machine than arts organizations, no matter what the squishy research may say.

They measure it, literally, by the last part of that mission: “help create a more just world.” And if you ask them, they’ll show you the data. They’ll show you stats of improved education from the Creative Kids program or of the social justice steps taken by participants taking part in Equitable Dinners and Shows in Homes.

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“Shows in Homes,” an Out of Hand Theater original program. Classrooms make a great place to foment change. (Photo: Out of Hand Theater)

The success of Out of Hand success is not borne from telling, showing, producing, manipulating, or through grand, applaudable sets, costumes, or lighting. They produce work in the living rooms, church basements, schools – all levels, corporate conference rooms, and community centers all across Georgia.

But it didn’t start that way.

“Maia Knispel and I went to college together at Emory,” remembered Ariel Fristoe, the co-founder and co-leader of the company. “We got to do a couple of really incredible shows together in college. Some amazing experiences, including doing Anne Bogart’s SITI Company training during the Olympics here.”

Ariel and Andrew Young

Ariel Fristoe, seen here with civil rights leader, former mayor of Atlanta, and Ambassador Andrew Young

The beginnings of the company were not unusual. Gifted young actors, trying on their various actor personas both on the stage and off. “After college, just like a year later or something, we re-hooked up when Maia was in Back to Methuselah, a 10-hour Shaw play [about the history of mankind].”

“I was Eve,” said Maia, proudly.

The full story will be told another day, but it’s important to know that like many small companies, they did plays and performance art and sold tickets, just like most theater companies. They lived hand-to-mouth. When they bombed with a project — which is not unusual for any arts organization — they nearly closed. Then Ariel realized that success could not depend on art alone.

“No matter how fun it is to make the kind of art that you really want to make — even if you get critical acclaim, and even if some audiences come in and really love it — it is, in some ways really unfulfilling. You work so hard and you still lose so much money. What do you have left?”

After a near-closing came a lifeline from an unlikely place, science departments at Emory. “Scientists started approaching us and saying, ‘Hey, there’s this issue going on in sciences right now where the NSF and other big funders, as they’re making it a condition of our funding of our grants, that we be able to communicate our research to non-science audiences. And nobody has ever trained us how to do that. We have no idea how to do it. We hate it. We’re scared of it. Could you do it for us if we pay you?’ And we realized that yes, there is a way that theater could be useful, have impact, have funding, and have an audience.”

Today, there is an arithmetic logic to the goals of Out of Hand.

Art

Since 2001, Out of Hand has collaborated with dozens of community partners to produce programs that combine art to open hearts, information to open minds, and conversation to process feelings and thoughts and make a plan for action. Our programs include Equitable Dinners, Shows in Homes, Community Collaborations, Creative Kids, and the Institute for Equity Activism. All of our programs are based on two pillars, racial justice and economic justice, and they take place in homes, schools, businesses, houses of worship, public spaces, and on Zoom.

The New York Times showered the company with praise, especially during the pandemic, calling Out of Hand Theater its 2020 Theater of the Year.

And, as of right now, they are running annual surpluses and building a reserve.

Today, Ariel Fristoe (Artistic Director), Thomas Brazzle (Managing Director), and Adria Kitchens (Director of Equity and Activism) co-lead Out of Hand Theater. Thomas and Adria have amazing and compelling personal stories which, again, will be revealed later. Just know that their passion, as described in the companies above, is a given. Everyone on the board has passion.

Passion is not unusual. Grit is not special. Energy, hope, and joy are not enough.

Impact is everything.

There is no better example of using theater as a tool for community impact than Out of Hand Theater. As mentioned in the earlier column regarding the Mellon Foundation’s recent transformational gifts, every major foundation in the United States should be cutting million dollar checks to Out of Hand to increase the foundation’s national effectiveness and Out of Hand’s depth of impact.

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Every major foundation in the United States should be cutting million dollar checks to Out of Hand to increase the foundation’s national effectiveness.

Because even if another organization were to try to do à la carte programs to augment an art-for-art’s-sake organizational monstrosity, it would not work. Creating impact is not an add-on experience; it’s the center of everything they do. That’s why they deserve every million dollars they receive – it pays for measured positive impact among the unserved, the underserved, and the socially trounced-upon in Atlanta and beyond.


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