South African playwright Athol Fugard’s incendiary My Children! My Africa! takes place in a simple classroom. Two students—one black, one white—try to bridge apartheid while outside strife threatens to tear them apart. At Profile Theatre last year, the set was minimal, relying mostly on acting, lighting, and imagination to bring the story to dangerous life. On a recent November day, though, the setting is a large classroom at Grant High School, the audience is real students, and the performance is just as electric.
Profile’s artistic director, Adriana Baer, sits off to the side, watching the hundred-plus teenagers. Some of them are rapt, some look like their eyes have glazed over, but by the end they are ready to discuss the play.
“We read it as a class, but seeing it come to life on stage was moving,” says senior Alex Gerald. “It hit hard, and I’m not really that big on ‘theater.’”
It’s exactly the response Baer hoped for when she created the Inside Out educational program, which tours Profile productions to multiple schools each year. The program is one of several significant changes Baer has overseen at the small but highly regarded theater company since taking the director’s chair from founder Jane Unger in July 2012—a time marked by both formidable obstacles and growth.
The then 29-year-old Baer came to Profile—one of only three US theaters that delves into a single playwright per season—from leadership stints in San Francisco and New York. The first half of Profile’s Athol Fugard season flew high, including Baer’s directorial debut, The Road to Mecca, which was the company’s best-selling show in six years and racked up two Drammy Awards.
Then disaster struck: last February, the owner of the building that houses Theater Theatre, the longtime home of Profile and several other companies, said he would close the venue in June. In a city short on stages, Baer forged a new partnership: Profile would move into Artists Repertory Theatre’s building. Her deft navigation of tough times earned a profile in the New York Times. “I think it was a real blessing in disguise for us,” she says, explaining that Theater Theatre’s small space had long limited Profile’s growth. “Now we have breathing room—and opportunity.”
Of course, that opportunity comes with its own challenges. ART’s theaters are at least twice as large as Theater Theatre, meaning Profile must sell more tickets, while also scheduling around ART’s prominent productions. Baer’s solutions: switch from the typical fall-to-spring season to the calendar year, offsetting opening-weekend competition; double the staff (she’s overseen budget growth from $385,000 to 2014’s proposed $566,000); and forge other partnerships, such as with the Hollywood Theatre, where she’s hosting an evening screening of Fool for Love, based on a play by this year’s featured playwright, Sam Shepard. The event will make for a long day and a shift for Baer from hard-to-reach students to hard-to-please patrons, but compared to the year proceeding it, the pivot is child’s play.