Remaining flexible in a long fight can mean the difference between winning and simply surviving. That instinct kicked in when coronavirus protocols shut down the 32nd season at Actor’s Express Theatre Company in March.
“The silver lining for the shutdown — if there is one — is that it’s forced us to be nimble and extremely creative,” said Freddie Ashley, artistic director. “We’ve never hosted online play readings or virtual cabarets before, and now they may become mainstay programming even when we’re back in our physical theater space.”
Almost as soon as the drama The Brothers Size opened on March 14, the pandemic ended production. With some help and some heart, staff began working from home, posting online content and navigating unchartered territory.
Some financial aid arrived in the form of a federal Payroll Protection Program loan. Locally, funds came from Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, Warner Media, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County. Board members and patrons also stepped up.
Every bit helped, said Corey Smith, director of sales and marketing at Actor’s Express.
“It ensures we can produce new digital content and that we can bring AE back as soon as it is safe to do so,” Smith said.
As a non-profit, Actor’s Express relies on individual donors and general audiences as much as bigger sponsors and partnerships. Its campaign “We Need You Now More Than Ever” is a mix of critical need now and optimism for the future.
“Theaters and other cultural organizations can provide a respite from the stresses of our uncertain world, and we build community at the times when it’s most important to band together,” they said. “We hope we can count on support so that we can be here, stronger than ever when we’re ready and able to come back.”
Rising to the occasion
Of course, 2020 is not without its challenges at Actor’s Express. The theater remains closed, but the show must go on.
“There are good days and not-so-good days, but we take it all in stride,” the men said. “We understand that it might be some time before we have patrons within our physical space, so we’ve done our best to bring the theatrical experience into our audiences’ homes via streaming.”
To wit, Virtual Downstage A Theatrical Online Experience presents four programs that directly address the zeitgeist of 2020. Two of the shows release in October, and one each in November and December.
Hometown Boy brings a man back to his rural Georgia hometown after a long absence, where he tackles race, class and being an outsider in the Deep South. It opened Oct. 4, and tickets are available now.
Before December welcomes An Actor’s Express Holiday Surprise!, November brings the solo play Neat by Charlayne Woodard. The playwright’s energetic and irresistible real-life Aunt Neat inspires the story.
On Oct. 8, a monologue series opened for free on the Actor’s Express YouTube channel. The selections include you are going to do amazing things by Quinn Xavier, Toward Joy by Amina McIntyre and Spongebob Spectrum Pineapple People by Avery Sharpe. The latter reveals the commonality between the titular cartoon character, a trip to Mellow Mushroom and drunk-watching Lovecraft Country.
Equity and inclusion
Ashley and Smith are both out and proud. They said a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity on staff and on stage was part of Actor’s Express from the beginning. Chris Coleman, a gay man, founded the theater 32 years ago.
“At its founding in 1988, AE’s commitment to equity and inclusion centered around creating a safe space for Atlanta’s LGBT community,” Smith and Ashley said. “It was the first local theatre to consistently present positive LGBT stories on its stage.”
“AE will always seek diverse representation in all parts of the organization,” they added. “We have committed to producing at least one work by a female playwright and one work by a playwright of color each mainstage season, in addition to continuing to feature LGBT stories.”
Smith, who worked his way up from box office assistant to marketing in the last five years, said that the theater’s dedication is personal for him, both as a Black man and “a happily married gay man,” he said.
“I know something is going right when the audience is diverse,” Smith said. “It means we’re a safe, welcoming place for non-white or LGBT people seeking art.”
“It can be jarring — and this happened to me often — to be one of the very few Black people in the whole theatre,” Smith added. “I never want anyone to feel that way at Actor’s Express.”
When Actor’s Express looks back, 2020 will be a year of learning as much as challenges, both men asserted.
“We have spent the shutdown examining our theatrical process and practice,” they said. “When we are back in our space, and we will be, there will be even more exciting and deeply engaging programs onstage.
“We can’t wait to show you what we have been thinking up,” they added. “In the meantime, stay safe, and don’t lose hope!”