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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Actor's Express faces a cash crisis

Brian Kurlander and Lane Carlock in Albatross at Actors Express last fall
  • Actor's Express
  • Brian Kurlander and Lane Carlock in "Albatross" at Actor's Express last fall
When Actor's Express presents its Curtains Up Cabaret March 28-29, the fundraiser may resemble the kind of near-death experience that causes your life to flash before your eyes. The brainy, ballsy playhouse is seeking emergency assistance to weather a major cash-flow crisis, so next week's production presents a revue of tunes from the theater's recent history, drawing on Grey Gardens, Hedwig & the Angry Inch and The Great American Trailer Park Musical.

Actor's Express is the latest in a depressingly long line of Atlanta theaters and arts organizations that have sent out an SOS during the Great Recession. In a Feb. 23 e-mail, artistic director Freddie Ashley announced that, without immediate support, the playhouse "will be forced to close [its] doors. Specifically, to save Actor's Express, we need $50,000 over the next four weeks, and an additional $150,000 over the next four months."

For the past decade, most theaters have been forced to adjust to reductions in corporate philanthropic support, a trend that accelerated during the recent economic slump. The drop in funding combined with two risky new plays' failure to meet income projections has put the Express's life in jeopardy, according to Ashley. Fortunately, the playhouse succeeded in meeting its initial $50,000 goal over the opening weekend of its new show See What I Wanna See, March 18-20. But its current shortfall illustrates the financial challenges of Actor's Express's bold approach to theater.

The loss of Actor's Express would be a massive blow to Atlanta's cultural life. If Actor's Express falls short of its financial goals, it won't be because the theater failed us.

In 1988, Chris Coleman founded Actor's Express in the Inman Park space that now houses Dad's Garage Theatre. Coleman swiftly built a reputation for respectful productions of cutting-edge work as well as edgy productions of classics. In the mid-'90s the theater relocated to the King Plow Arts Center, but in 2000 Coleman left for Oregon's Portland Center Stage. His departure set off a debate about Atlanta's inability to support some of its most talented and ambitious artists. More welcoming theater cities such as Minneapolis or Portland don't just have a powerhouse like the Alliance with small playhouses in its orbit. They also support midrange theaters with multiple stages and annual budgets in the millions, compared to Actor's Express' $700,000 annual budget.

Actor's Express has remained remarkably consistent in the quality of its work, despite the differing sensibilities of its leadership. Coleman's successor Wier Harman (2000-2003) embraced more lyrical, cerebral stagecraft, while Jasson Minadakis (2003-2006) favored more intense, confrontational work. But both ADs struggled with the Express's modest budget and narrow margin for failure. Bill Fennelly, the artistic director between Minadakis and Ashley, stuck around for barely a year before pursuing an opportunity on Broadway.

Despite the turbulent changes, the 175-seat playhouse has persisted as Atlanta's most exciting theatrical venue by finding the sweet spot between innovative artistry and audience accessibility. Even the Express's experiments that have fizzled are often more thrilling than the successes of more conventional playhouses. In 2007, The Great American Trailer Park Musical with beloved singer Libby Whittemore turned out to be an anomaly as a boring script that took easy potshots at redneck kitsch. But Ashley directed the show to great commercial success, suggesting that in the future, the company may need to consider seriously the balance between tamer cash cows and more provocative work in order to stay in the black.

Few sounds grow more tiresome than hearing an arts critic or theater buff whine about the public not appreciating the art. Actor's Express, like all other arts organizations, must keep up with evolving audience tastes and increased competition from the Internet and other digital forms of entertainment to remain relevant. But the Express isn't the kind of place that feels hermetic or out of touch. Rather, it's where you go to feel plugged into the creative community.

The Express's current musical, the Sondheim-esque See What I Wanna See, embodies the company's occasional weaknesses and persistent strengths. Michael John LaChiusa based the musical on three obscure Japanese short stories, one of which provided the source of the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon. The play sounds like a hard sell, but demonstrates that the company's power to touch hearts and minds remains intact.

During Ingrid Cole's number "There Will Be a Miracle," the play's speculations over the existence of the Almighty gave me a stray notion. Between a verse and a chorus, I wondered if God only existed in that moment before the Big Bang when all matter of the universe was compressed in a single point. Then I quickly zoned back in and thrilled to the play's surprising resolution. Most great plays have a moment like that, when a performance or idea connects to someone in the seats on a personal level, and I've had more experiences like that at Actor's Express — in whichever venue, under whichever leader — than any other Atlanta theater.

It's as though the brick building of the King Plow Arts Center is a kiln that stokes the audience's imagination and fuses artists to the work for a few hours a night. Here's hoping that the Express can fire up its home city long enough to survive.

Curt has been a staff writer at Creative Loafing for more than 10 years, covering film, theater and a wide variety of arts and entertainment. He's currently the president of the Southeastern Film Critics Association.

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