New guy on the block 

Minadakis takes the helm at Actor's Express

Having a drink at the Food Studio with Jasson Minadakis, the new artistic director of Actor's Express, you'd never guess he grew up in Virginia. "I beat it out of me," he explains of his lack of Southern accent. The voluble, intense 32-year-old, with a goatee as short as his crew-cut, makes a first impression as someone more urban than Southern.

As he takes a drag off his cigarette, he comes across as the kind of guy who, were you to stop for directions on a city's busy street corner, would reveal with great authority not just the easiest route, but also the secret shortcut. Then he'd add some history of the neighborhood, how to get rid of that "ping" in your engine and what to see Saturday night -- probably a provocative new play.

Minadakis describes his tenure as producing artistic director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival with both pride and self-effacement. "I've only been doing theater a decade -- I came into it by accident," he explains, saying that he was required to take two courses in theater to graduate from James Madison University. But the classes in directing and theater business administration permanently hooked him, and after an internship at Cincinnati's Ensemble Theatre, he co-founded Fahrenheit Theatre Company in 1993. "We built it to a theater with an $850,000 budget in eight-and-a-half years. Sixty-four percent of our audience was under the age of 45," he says of the theater, renamed the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival in 1997.

The past two years have been difficult for playhouses nationwide, but Minadakis' theater, located in downtown Cincinnati, suffered some unique setbacks. In the spring of 2001 Cincinnati was rocked by riots spurred by police shootings of black suspects, followed by a boycott of downtown by African-American groups.

Meanwhile the struggling theater saw a tepid response when Minadakis programmed plays like Jesus Hopped the A Train, edgy fare that Actor's Express traditionally specializes in. In November 2002, the theater slashed its operating budget by more than $100,000, changed its programming to emphasize classic comedies and restructured its staff, which included Minadakis' voluntary resignation.

He says that he'd been considering moving on for a couple of years -- and in fact, had applied to replace Actor's Express' departing founder Chris Coleman in 2000, although he lost the position to Wier Harman. Last November Harman announced his decision to leave Actor's Express, and Minadakis recalls, "Wier called me with the news three days after I'd made my own decision to step down. I'd been thinking about going back to grad school and ride out the hard times there, but this is exactly the job I want to have."

If you split the difference between Harman's and Coleman's approaches to programming plays, you'll get an idea of how Minadakis may turn out. He's every bit as bullish about new work as Harman and hopes to stage two world premieres a season, with an eye to finding new musicals. Yet, like Coleman, he's more likely to include classics from the theatrical canon, giving a contemporary vibe to the likes of Shakespeare or Ibsen. And now that he's in Atlanta, Minadakis has confidence that his Southern accent will return in force.

The Dogs of War

Following last week's mass theater event of The Lysistrata Project, Atlanta theaters remain on a war footing. On March 17, 7 Stages presents a staged reading of Heaven is Late, an Iraqi play about the plight of the nation's people, which previously has only been produced in Cairo and Baghdad. In April, PushPush Theater plans to stage The Iraq Plays, an evening of short works about international politics by local writers as well as established writers like Harold Pinter, but details have yet to be announced.

Two other upcoming plays tap the current geopolitical zeitgeist. Beginning March 28, Horizon Theatre presents Homebody/Kabul, the Southeastern premiere of a sprawling work by Angels in America's Tony Kushner. Written before Sept. 11, the play depicts the search for a British woman who disappears in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Ansley Park Playhouse, meanwhile, will grapple with the World Trade Center disaster with The Guys, opening April 4. Anne Nelson's fact-based play depicts a journalist who helps a New York City fire captain write the eulogies of eight of his men killed Sept. 11.

The Shakespeare Tavern's Julius Caesar, opening March 12, also has a pertinent hook, but not the one Barbra Streisand suggested last September when she erroneously attributed to the play a faux-Shakespeare quote about the dangers of patriotism. In fact, Julius Caesar offers a timely, how-to depiction of regime change. Watching the Shakespeare Tavern's Cassius (Justin Welborn) plot against its Caesar (Patrick Wood), you can just imagine the support the Bush administration would put behind Iraqi conspirators willing to knock off Saddam on the Ides of March.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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