House concerts, theater offer intimate experience

The actors warm up just moments before show time. Backstage, there’s a quick whispered exchange between director and performer. Outside, muffled chatter, a chortle of laughter as the audience settles down.

Then Larry Schultz (whose performs under the name Clay Spurz) strides onto the stage and launches into a rousing song from “Marat/Sade,” a play with music about the French Revolution.

Four years after the revolution and the old king’s execution….

Cold Soup Dinner Theatre has begun.

For 10 seasons, the intimate dinner theater has operated on the front porch of director Lesly Fredman’s home in Decatur. Diners donate $25 apiece and sit at tables on either side of the porch entrance. Servers pour wine and bring food between acts. Shows typically get booked up quickly, since the porch can only hold 23.

As Spurz sings, the rest of the cast, dressed as French revolutionaries, appears on the porch and in the yard. Two passers-by on the sidewalk turn and stare at the small orange and yellow house.

The show is among a growing number of semi-public performances taking place at homes throughout metro Atlanta and publicized through word of mouth and social media. The Pine Lake Art Salon & Playhouse provides a venue for poets, singer/songwriters and literary readings. The Bowman House Concert Series in Lawrenceville hosts national touring acts such as Elizabeth Cook and Mary Gauthier. Grocery on Home in Grant Park offers eclectic musical acts and film screenings.

Along with Fredman, Cold Soup Dinner Theatre is produced by her partner Matt Huffman and Donna Rutherford, all members of a group called Theatre on the Prowl. They’re of the school that holds if you want to direct, sing, act, write — then do it. Even if it’s on your own front porch.

Fredman wears many hats. She’s an improv teacher, a freelance editor and creativity coach. But she’s always loved theater, having studied it in college, worked for the Academy Theatre and organizaed street theater, including the troupe “Southern Ladies Against Women,” which made fun of narrow ideas about the roles of women. For a long time, Fredman supported herself with office work and Huffman painted houses, but in 2003, she lost her secretarial job. Soon after, the pair was cleaning their front porch and they turned to each with a bright new idea: porch theater. It was not a money-making plan but a way to do what they could do with what they had.

“I like the intimacy,” says Fredman about Cold Soup’s petite venue. “Theater is about creating relationships” and small spaces attract “the best audience ever,” she adds.

Others agree. “You’re right out in the middle of the audience,” Schultz said. “They get right into it.”

At the July show, poet and performance artist Alice Lovelace recites from “Harriet Rising,” her public art project that combines poetry, history and photography about Harriet Tubman. Later she plays an improvisation game called Word Wizardry. Guests offer descriptive images, and Lovelace crafts a poem on the spot that incorporates all their lines. She loves collaborating with an audience and the small size of the venue encourages it.

During the soup course, Joe Kelly appears. The Shakespeare scholar, a retired lawyer and former director of the Atlanta Contemporary Dance Company, performs a scene from “Macbeth,” including a sword fight in which he plays both sides. Matt Huffman delivers 10 minutes of political satire. Opera librettist Madeleine St. Romain reads from “Frankenstein.”

In keeping with the evening’s theme, “Saints and Sinners,” Rutherford, aka the Kitchen Goddess, serves a slightly sweet mango soup and a roasted red pepper soup with a spicy kick, which she prepares in her home kitchen and brings over. The menu always features chilled soup, salad, bread, wine and dessert.

It takes a trusting soul to invite strangers into her private home, but the bigger concern seems to be keeping the neighbors happy. The Cold Soup production always ends by 10:30 p.m., and when neighbors occasionally wander over to see what is happening, they’re welcome to watch from the lawn.

Hosts of home performances are careful to avoid operating as businesses. For that reason, guests do not buy tickets but are given a suggested amount they can donate to cover costs.

Over in Grant Park a few days earlier, Matt Arnett was hosting a performance by singer-songwriter Catherine Feeny of Portland, Ore., in his home. Located on Home Street, it was a former grocery store — hence the name Grocery on Home. In a space that can hold 50 guests, he presents intimate concerts and film screenings two or three times a month. His first concert was in March 2010 with indie-folk cellist Ben Sollee, named a Top 10 Unknown Artist of the Year by NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Another show hosted by Arnett, whose father is folk art collector and publisher Bill Arnett, was the musical debut of Lonnie Holley, the Alabama folk artist.

Arnett’s goal is to introduce musicians to new audiences. Like Fredman, he values the interaction that happens in a home venue. People going out to a club may only interact with the friends they go with, he says. People at a house concert are likely to talk to other guests and possibly the performers, too.

Home music venues are exploding in popularity, says Arnett. He attributes it to the decentralization of the music industry and the failure of music labels to support touring artists like they once did. When musicians play home venues, they can count on the homeowner to get the word out and pull in the audience. Feeny says she has played a whole tour of house shows only.

Out in Lawrenceville, the Bowman House Concert Series has hosted singer-songwriters in Art Bowman’s den for 10 years. He can seat 45 people, but he’s held occasional concerts outside, drawing as many as 110 people. When it comes to booking acts, Bowman says he is “driven by good lyrics.” He hosts six performances a year for a donation of $20, which goes to the musician. Like Arnett, his primarily goal is to expose people to musicians who aren’t widely known.

At the Pine Lake Art Salon & Playhouse, Mayor Kathie deNobriga and her partner, poet Alice Teeter, have hosted admission-free performances since 2007. On the first Sunday of each month, except in January and July, they host two or three featured artists, who may be writers, visual artists, actors or musicians, ranging from beginners to well-established professionals. The setting is a garage-like structure they call the Red Barn, furnished with old sofas, rugs and a refrigerator.

“It’s a place for people to come show their work and get support,” says deNobriga, who also leads an informal discussion with the artists and guests. She believes technology has contributed to making people feel isolated and she wants to counter that.

“People are hungry for contact and they’re hungry for self-expression,” she said.

The house concert concept may be relatively new, “but the idea of musicians traveling and finding support in towns is really old,” Bowman says. Huffman of Cold Soup echoes that sentiment. “Beethoven and Mozart first made their debuts in somebody’s living room,” he says.

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