The pursuit of turning one’s dream into a reality often can seem like an insurmountable struggle. Just consider the ill-fated case of the literary dreamer Don Quixote — or the much more fortuitous case of theater veteran Sam Ross.
With a deliberate nod to that classic Cervantes character, the newly opened Windmill Arts Center in East Point is poised to finally realize an ambition that has been a long time coming for Ross, 55, whose theatrical interests date all the way back to performing in school plays from the tender age of 5.
Ross temporarily suspended his artistic aspirations to earn a “more practical” business degree from the College of Charleston (S.C.). And when he first relocated to Atlanta in the mid-1980s, it was to take a well-paying job at a large accounting firm here. Within a few years, though, the proverbial acting bug bit again.
Alongside his younger brother, Scott, and their late father, Ray, Ross co-founded Down Right Theatre in suburban Duluth. The company thrived for roughly five years (1990-1994), until creative differences between them led to its disbanding.
Under the initial leadership of new owners Barbara Hawkins and John Scott Ross (no relation), and eventually general manager Anthony Rodriguez, the troupe gradually evolved into the highly successful Aurora Theatre, which has been going strong in neighboring Lawrenceville ever since.
“Ultimately, that wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to be doing,” Ross recalled about those Down Right days. “I was looking for something else, something more challenging than just producing conventional plays by other people. I’ve always been most interested in creating and developing new work that’s less commercial and more experimental than the usual realistic or naturalistic approach to theater.”
To that end, Ross left town in 1995 for Providence, R.I., where he pursued his graduate degree in theater from the widely regarded Trinity Rep. Later, for some 15 years he was based in Los Angeles — “not because it was very fulfilling, but mainly because I could make a lot more money there (with better-paying jobs on TV and film),” Ross admitted.
Every once in a while, he said, “I’d find myself getting pulled back into theater, or maybe pushing myself back into it.”
A case in point: Ross remembered that he couldn’t resist the particularly intriguing prospect of auditioning for an “avant-garde” interpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” and that’s where he first met and worked with director Matthew Burgos. “Anyone who’d do a show like that is someone I really wanted to see for myself,” Ross quipped.
The rest, as they say, is history. By 2008, Ross and Burgos (together with Liz Ross and Elisa Blandford) co-founded Vanguard Rep, with Ross serving as the group’s executive director and Burgos as its artistic director. Over the next few years, it wasn’t uncommon for the company to invest months or even years in creating and collaborating on original projects. As Ross explained, “It’s all about the artistic process for us, as much as it’s about the actual performance of a piece.”
All along, “I always had in mind this dream to earn enough money that I could come back here and start my own theater,” he confided. “I was missing the South, and Atlanta seems like a perfect place to really make some noise through our work. In places like L.A. or New York or Chicago, most people or other artists are already shouting at the tops of their lungs anyway.”
Ross returned to Atlanta in 2014. For now, until the company is up and running in full force, Burgos will commute for extended periods of time from Los Angeles, where he teaches theater at Mount San Antonio College. In a relatively brief two years, the co-founders bought, paid for and completely renovated a new venue for Vanguard in an old gas station/auto shop.
The Windmill Arts Center (www.thewindmillatl.com) opened in early October, replete with an 88-seat “black box” theater and a comparably sized “white box” space suitable for use as a dance studio, an art gallery, or a rehearsal room.
While Vanguard takes its customary time to find and foster a full-fledged production of its own, Ross says the Windmill is also available as a rental facility to other arts organizations. (The independent Weird Sisters Theatre Project produced its recent show “Dangerous Women” there.)
Why East Point? “We just got a good feeling about East Point. There’s a strong sense of community, it’s really growing, and Vanguard wants to grow along with the rest of the community,” said Burgos, 37.
“A lot of areas in most big cities are already developed with their own theater companies or arts scene, with their own loyal patrons or followers,” he observed. “One thing I’ve learned over the years, if you want to cultivate the work of new or young artists, it’s better to do it where people really support and welcome having a new theater and seeing new work.”
In early 2018, Burgos said, the company plans to stage “workshop” readings of several different scripts and potential projects to solicit feedback from audiences before deciding on one to mark Vanguard’s local debut later in the summer.
And so the journey begins — or the quest continues, depending on how you look at it. Burgos noted, “We still want to make a point of doing relevant work, to keep improving ourselves and learning more about our craft, starting conversations and asking hard questions, and hopefully engaging people in the process about the importance and value of theater.”