Theater To Make You Think
After 30 years, Actor’s Express still challenges its audience
Freddie Ashley knows the precise moment he wanted to be part of Actor’s Express theater company. It was 1994, and the curtain had just come down on the troupe’s production of Picnic. As the lights dimmed on stage, the proverbial bulb flashed in his head.
“It was like lightning in a bottle, seeing something so impeccably produced, so visceral,” recalls Ashley, who lives in Old Fourth Ward. “I was a 21-year-old kid falling off the turnip truck and realizing I had to work for this theater.”
Ashley had no way of knowing then that the dream would exceed his expectations. He moved to Atlanta in the late 1990s and scored several parts in Actor’s shows with no clue that he’d end up as the company’s artistic director, a job he’s held for the last 10 years.
Getting there took earning an MFA in theater performance from the University of Southern Mississippi, then working as a manager at Midtown’s Alliance Theatre, taking a role in the Actor’s Express adaptation of Jane Eyre and directing its production of The Last Sunday in June before stepping up as artistic director in 2007.
“This was always a theater whose work was in line with my own interests,” Ashley says. “Our mission is to do contemporary work that jump starts conversations at the community level. There’s a sense of adventure to the work we do, and a lot of it can be provocative, but it’s always meant to be impactful on an emotional and intellectual level.”
The company meets that mission by staging a mix of dramas, comedies, classics and even a few musicals that pack a punch inside the 145-seat venue. “We serve an audience that craves something meaningful in its theater experiences,” Ashley says. “The excitement lies in finding as much variety as possible. We don’t want people to have the same experience over and over.”
With that goal in mind, Ashley devotes significant energy to selecting productions. “We aim for contemporary works by mostly living, sometimes brand-new, writers,” he says. “Many of our shows are world premieres. We’ve worked with many who have gone on to great success around the country: playwright Sarah Gubbins, now the executive director for I Love Dick; Steve Yockey, a widely-produced playwright in America now; Janine Davis did Serial Blackface last spring. But we also like to produce some classics; one that resonates with the current moment is The Crucible. We do them to reflect the current political moment, not to redefine the great play.”
This Actor’s Express season features one of those classics designed to touch a contemporary nerve. Angels in America, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play from the early 1990s about the AIDS epidemic, was “definitely cutting edge,” says Ashley, “and a lot of folks thought it might have a short shelf life because of its topical nature. But it speaks to various political, spiritual and personal points in our current American experience, including what it means to be an American, and the moment is fertile for examining those questions.”
Ashley picked the other upcoming anniversary productions with the same approach. “My initial impulse had been to think about marking the anniversary, but after the election, when I looked around and saw how wounded people were on all sides, how scarred the political landscape had become, I stepped back and made sure, in this moment when civic discourse is desperately needed, that we’d present a season of work with values we believe are important and could be in danger in the current climate. All the plays had to pass through the lens of contributing something meaningful and creating a place for ideas and feelings.”
Ashley did allow one bit of nostalgia to sneak into the planning. Next March, the company will mount a concert version of The Harvey Milk Show with Actor’s Express founder Chris Coleman coming back to Atlanta in the lead.
“In 1992, that was the show that cemented our relationship with the LGBQT community,” says Ashley. “And it’s the one that got the theater’s name out there to begin with.”
Here’s what’s coming up at Actor’s Express
The Christians Sept 16 – Oct 15
Cardboard Piano Nov 11 – Dec 3
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Jan 13 – Feb 17, 2018
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika Jan 18 – Feb 17, 2018
The Harvey Milk Show Mar 9 -10, 2018
The Flower Room Apr 21 – May 13, 2018
887 W. Marietta Street,
STORY: H.M. Cauley