At first, the emails trickled in to Paul Conroy's inbox. Then they came by the dozen. Within days, the emails had grown to several hundred and most of them had the same subject line: "Holy Mary is not a lesbian."
"It is completely mind-blowing," said Conroy, founder and producing artistic director of Atlanta's Out Front Theatre Company which is dedicated to telling stories created by and/or about the LGBTQIA community . "I did envision that things could happen, I did not envision that things could happen like this."
What happened was Conroy's decision to stage "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," a 1998 stage comedy written by Paul Rudnick which retells the Bible from a gay point-of-view. Adam meets Steve in the Garden of Eden and they stroll around naming everything they see. Life is great, until they exit Eden and encounter Jane and Mabel, a couple who insist they are the original inhabitants of earth.
In the first act, the four of them journey through the Old Testament meeting a range of colorful characters. The second act brings them to modern-day New York City, where the same couples are experiencing the same issues.
"The show is about love and faith and the challenges of those two things. The reason I picked the show is that it is so universal. At some point in everyone's life you question love and you question faith and how do you come to terms with it?" said Conroy.
Supporters of America Needs Fatima (ANF), the conservative Catholic group that kicked off the protest against Out Front's production of the play , had a different perspective. On the website, the anti-blasphemy network suggests the "blasphemous play is a vile insult to the Mother of God! – because she is insulted as a lesbian!"
Members can click a link on the website to send an email directly to Conroy asking the theater to cancel the production. By Thursday morning, there were more than 46,000 signatures toward the ANF's goal of 50,000.
But Conroy said things have gone beyond ANF's reaction. Not all of the emails are form letters coming from the organization. Some have more personal messages.
"Almost everyone is telling us that our souls are burning in hell. We are getting called freaks a lot. A lot of people are asking why didn’t we create a show mocking Islam? Why are we only making fun of Christians?" Conroy said.
There are voicemails which they spend hours documenting along with each and every email, and posts on their Facebook page which they spend hours hiding, said Conroy, noting that they hide unkind comments from protestors as well as unkind comments from supporters to the protestors.
On Monday, as Conroy left the theater, he found a rock with a note attached at the box office inside the building. When the story hit the mainstream press, it quickly became international news. Not only is the Atlanta Police Department involved, but the Department of Homeland Security has been engaged, Conroy said.
It's a lot for a theater that is only in its first season. Fabulous is the third and final show, but it was the first show Conroy selected for the company he founded in 2015. Other theaters that have put on the show in the past have seen some protests, but nothing quite on this scale, he said.
While the play hasn't been produced in Georgia in more than a decade (2004 to be exact), a theater in Tampa did the show about three years ago and got a few hundred emails, said Conroy. Another group in Oklahoma did the show and had busloads of protesters arrive for the performances.
"The combination of religion and homosexuality is something that a lot of people find offensive," said Conroy. "If they don’t like the show, I am not telling them to come and see the show. I can’t confirm, but I would bet my last dollar that the majority of these people have never read the show or seen the show."
Theater is an art form that starts conversations and it should create exactly this type of public dialogue, he said, but it can only be productive if everyone involved is fully informed.
The company has taken special care to make sure the cast and crew at Out Front are safe. Since the rock incident on Monday, all doors to the building are locked once everyone arrives. They leave the theater in pairs at night and Conroy reminds them not to respond publicly to anyone who may lob hateful comments.
Opening night is April 27 and Conroy expects APD will be at the theater along with theater goers.
The one bright spot has been an uptick in ticket sales and Conroy hopes the production opens to big crowds of people who want to see and support the show rather than protest.
"I know a lot of people don’t agree with the lifestyle of a lot of us that are producing these shows. Our mission to do plays that are important to the LGBTQIA community is something that was really needed in Atlanta. At the end of the day, I hope people will live and let live," Conroy said.