When Brian Clowdus, now a candidate for the Florida House, founded the Serenbe Playhouse near Atlanta, it was known for revolutionary productions, but amid accusations of overt racism dating back to Clowdus’ leadership, officials last year shut down the theater, suspended operations and laid off the staff.
Clowdus has since redefined himself as a prominent voice in the MAGA movement, including volunteering with Gays For Trump.
“It’s been an interesting year, first with COVID and also with being canceled as an out and proud Republican who vocally supports President [Donald] Trump,” Clowdus said.
Clowdus also was questioned for posing in a photo with Jake Angeli, a conspiracy theorist known as the “QAnon Shaman,” days before Angeli was arrested at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Clowdus, an Alabama native, now lives in Panama City and on Monday announced his candidacy for House District 6, about two weeks after he opened a campaign account within the Division of Elections. The only other candidate running in the race is Bay County Commissioner Philip “Griff” Griffitts, who filed in March.
The winner of the election will succeed Rep. Jay Trumbull, who cannot run again because of term limits.
But it remains to be seen if the scandal that impacted Clowdus’ reputation as a pioneering visionary in the Southern theater community will impact his candidacy for public office.
A celebrated artist
Any analysis of Clowdus’ fall from grace in Atlanta’s cultural scene must acknowledge the heights from which he fell. Under his artistic direction, Clowdus drew national attention for immersive experiences that redefined what it meant to attend the theater.
Serenbe Playhouse, located in a sustainable community 30 miles outside Atlanta proper, developed a reputation for shows not contained by actual housing at all. The company staged a production of “Titanic” on a lake in the Chattahoochee Hills community in south Fulton County. Every night a replica of the luxury liner appeared to sink. An outdoor staging of “Miss Saigon” included the landing of an era-appropriate Huey helicopter in the distance.
“The regional theater has made a name for itself through theatrical spectacle and nature-bound immersive productions that never show up on the same plot of its 1,000 acres of land,” reads a 2019 profile on Clowdus in Playbill.
The buzz and attention around the theater turned negative in 2020, as a number of theater professionals came forward with accusations against Clowdus and his team.
A lead actress in a production of “The True Story of Pocahontas” broke an ankle well after a director raised safety concerns about the cast climbing a large, artificial tree. Black actors came forward with concerns White wardrobing staff inappropriately dressed their characters like slaves. Stories emerged of actors adding extra n-words to the script of “Ragtime.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement reached new heights in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, new introspection about race arose within a number of industries, including the arts. While Clowdus had resigned in 2019 to launch his own Brian Clowdus Experiences company, many of the public accusations stemmed back to his leadership of the theater. Last June, the Serenbe Institute, the umbrella group in control of the playhouse, fired the remaining staff.
“It’s clear that the culture was pretty toxic for actors,” Institute chair Deborah Griffin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Clowdus feels frustrated by insinuations made in art blogs, and especially the timing of complaints.
“The allegations are completely not true. Even at face value, they are based on feelings and not facts,” he said. “The funny thing is a lot of people worked for me for years and years and years, and nobody said anything until I left Atlanta. I left almost two years ago and everybody loved me until I left.”
Clowdus has not spoken with the actors and theater professional who made public accusations against him since the accusations emerged. But those still connected to Serenbe continue to evoke his name.
In an interview with an Atlanta NPR affiliate in March, executive director Jennifer Bauer-Lyons continued to tie problems directly to Clowdus’ leadership.
“Last summer, it came to light that there were several issues of unfair work practices, unsafe work practices, gender discrimination and racial discrimination under the leadership of the previous artistic director Brian Clowdus. The Serenbe Institute Board made the really tough decision of really needing to reset with the Serenbe Playhouse,” she said.
In a Facebook post last June, the Brian Clowdus Experiences Facebook page spoke to the accusations.
“We admit that we have not set issues of race and inclusion as a priority in our company mission statement and values and that we have not adequately engaged Black voices in telling our stories,” the post read. “As a young and developing company, we commit to making diversity a core facet of our experiences, integrating inclusion into our mission and core values.”
While the Atlanta newspaper stated his company supported Black Lives Matter, Clowdus makes clear he agrees with the statement “Black Lives Matter” and not the associated political movement.
He characterizes the fallout of accusations as a political canceling at a time when driving people out of the entertainment industry particularly came into vogue.
“I am in an extremely woke industry, but I will not apologize for something I have not done,” he said.
In the coming months, the one-time rising talent in a hyper-progressive community working in a field known for its liberal bent began an unexpected evolution of his public image.
A MAGA rebrand
Clowdus said he has been a conservative his entire life but became active politically only in the last year. In April, Clowdus posted a video on Twitter from the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol.
“If you would have told me a year ago this is where I would be, in a blazer talking to lobbyists, meeting with other House Representatives and getting to know the lay of the land, I would say you had lost your marbles,” he said. “But here I am. I’m loving this new chapter. I’m loving all the people I’m meeting. Just a reminder I am running because I am here to support the people of District 6. I am not here to support the machine or the powers who be.”
He’s now a Republican candidate running to represent a historically conservative part of Florida.
“If you want to see a ‘Patriot for the People’ in the Legislature here in Florida, support me,” he said in his video.
The Sunshine State has been home to Clowdus for only around a year but the state has been the location of a political transformation. From a lakeside home in the Big Bend, he has posted pictures, while often wearing a “Lions Not Sheep” trucker hat.
“I am excited the past year happened to me,” Clowdus said to Florida Politics.
In many ways, the experience drove him to run for political office, putting his full views on display for the first time, unlike those “hiding behind the keyboard being a social justice warrior.”
He tweeted at the end of 2020 that it was the year he “officially woke up and left the woke. So thankful for my red pill!”
Over the course of the year, he became particularly fond of promoting the tweets and work of Candace Owens, a Black conservative encouraging minority groups to walk away from the Democratic Party.
Through the year, Clowdus has increasingly shared posts promoting the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBTQ conservative caucus. In March he posted a photograph in Palm Springs with former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, the highest-ranking gay member of Trump’s administration. He has also decried pandemic lockdown measures, denounced gay “throuples” (a relationship between three people), campaigned for Trump, and shared images of George Orwell novels while decrying big government.
He also waded into another controversy. In the period between the election and the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, he regularly spread the widely debunked lie that the presidential election was stolen from Trump. He encouraged Vice President Mike Pence to “do the right thing” and reject the slates of electors from several states won by Democrat Joe Biden. He bashed a decision by the Supreme Court to reject a Texas-originated challenge of Pennsylvania’s election results. To this day, Clowdus questions the integrity of the 2020 election.
“I do think the election was stolen and I stand by that,” he said.
But he pushes back at another accusation. At various times on social media, he used terminology widely associated with the QAnon conspiracy, such as “Trusting The Plan.” He also traveled to Georgia to campaign for two Republican senators who ultimately lost their elections, which flipped the Senate to Democratic control. At rallies, he wore Trump gear and once excitedly shared a picture of Angeli with the caption “Q Shaman is here!”
But he has never believed in the QAnon conspiracy theory, he insisted to Florida Politics.
“I am not QAnon,” he said. “I do think the election was very fraudulent. I don’t understand how someone wins Ohio and Florida and loses this badly.” The use of mass mail-in ballots in states like Georgia serves as an explanation, and Clowdus believes that process is rife with problems.
He did not go to the pro-Trump rally in Washington the day the Electoral College votes were certified, but tweeted quotes from Trump’s speech, including “We will never give up, we will never concede. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”
When the riot began, Clowdus decried violence but also quickly blamed antifa without any evidence leftist groups had sparked the chaos.
“I do NOT support violence. I don’t care if you are dressed in all black or wearing a MAGA hat,” he wrote. “So now we are hearing there are non-Trump agitators posing as MAGA. I can’t keep up. Lord help us all.”
It was after the riots that the photo of Clowdus with Angeli became widely circulated on Georgia social media.
“I randomly got a picture with this Q Shaman guy who of course now has infamously stormed the Capitol,” Clowdus said in a post-riot video. “I was at the Dalton rally working it a couple days ago and he was there out front. I snapped a picture with him the same way everyone snapped a picture because randomly seeing a shaman shirtless in January in Dalton, Georgia, is not something normal.
“So I snapped a picture with him, didn’t know him. That now led to that being blasted everywhere. People screenshot it. They’ve put it on all social media. I mean for people to hate me so much. It’s pretty astounding the amount of time and energy they spend obsessing over me.”
Still in the arts
Clowdus still runs his professional theater company. While Brian Clowdus Experiences is an apolitical entity, it has launched a division, GOProductions, which specializes in theatrical productions for Republican events and conservative communities.
“Even right-wingers love and need theater. Everyone is welcome under this tent,” he tweeted last year.
While there remain frictions between himself and many in the Atlanta arts community, he said the disruption around Serenbe ended up opening communication lines between himself and many conservatives who often felt they had to keep views to themselves to work in a liberal field.
And he said conservative audiences have started to push back on woke artists as well. He noted low ratings for the Academy Awards this year, and criticism of a Disney decision to cut ties with conservative actress Gina Carano over controversial tweets.
“More people are speaking up with their pocketbooks and not supporting woke industries like they used to,” he said.
He also believes in the House District where he is running there will be judgment for the accusations of racism, his belief that the election was stolen or any liberal attacks. He characterizes questioning about the matters as combative and bringing a liberal agenda.
“I’m very excited to be on this new chapter,” he said. “I’m able to say thank you, and with every canceling there is a great new chapter.”
Here are the tweets cited in the above report.
Introducing GOProductions: A Grand Old Production Company specializing in theatrical experiences for @gop events & conservative communities, employing conservative artists. Even right wingers love & need theatre. Everyone is welcome under this tent. Official launch coming soon! pic.twitter.com/FBd1LiJ8lC
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) October 21, 2020
Shocked. Just Caught My Breathe. Now Trusting The Plan. I’m ready for my marching orders. MAGA For Life.
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) December 12, 2020
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) December 27, 2020
2020: The year I officially woke up & left the woke. So thankful for my red pill!
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) December 31, 2020
Q Shaman is here! pic.twitter.com/yQMyzsr3q5
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) January 4, 2021
Less than a year ago I was still in the closet as a Republican. I spent this past weekend hanging in Palm Springs with @RichardGrenell & an incredible group of @LogCabinGOP from around the country. Feeling truly blessed to be accepted with open arms by this incredible community. pic.twitter.com/BMJzTov3Gd
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) March 28, 2021
“We will never give up, we will never concede. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” @realDonaldTrump
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) January 6, 2021
I do NOT support violence. I don’t care if you are dressed in all black or wearing a MAGA hat.
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) January 6, 2021
An inbox full of hate. pic.twitter.com/tdoq51kWfm
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) January 7, 2021
Just finished an interview with @Fla_Pol & half way through I paused & asked the reporter if he was a liberal. He paused & asked why & I said because you are being rude and combative. He then waited and sheepishly said yes. Gloves are off. I’m here to fight AGAINST the woke mob!
— Brian Clowdus (@BrianClowdus) May 5, 2021