Freddie Ashley's relationship with Actor's Express began with a picnic one night in 1994.
As a 21-year-old rising senior at Shorter College in nearby Rome, Ashley and his classmates, all young theater people, drove for an hour to see Picnic at Actor's Express, the theater's inaugural production at its new space at the King Plow Arts Center. Up until then, most of Ashley's theater experience had been college shows and summer stock.
This Picnic, directed by Actor's Express co-founder and artistic director Chris Coleman, changed Ashley's ideas of what theater could do. Coleman's steamy production, with nontraditional, racially charged casting, breathed something immediate and vital into a 50-year-old play.
Afterward his friends argued about the director's choices, but Ashley said, "I have to work at that theater some day."
Thirteen years later, Ashley works at Actor's Express every day. The soft-spoken, 34-year-old actor/director recently was named artistic director of a theater that, for nearly two decades, has been arguably Atlanta's most exciting playhouse. For the theater's staff and board, however, things have been a little too exciting: Ashley becomes Actor's Express' fourth artistic director since 2000, and his predecessor, Bill Fennelly, left after only eight months. Fennelly, a stage director with a national profile, stepped down when the job proved too much of a time conflict with his long-term previous commitment of directing the off-Broadway premiere of Frankenstein: The Musical (which begins previews at 37 Arts in Midtown Manhattan in October).
Ashley thought carefully about the theater's high turnover when the board offered him the job. "What I landed on was, I have a desire to live and invest in this community that's been very good to me," says Ashley, who had applied for the job in 2006 and was a close second to Fennelly. "I take it with every intention of building up the theater in the long term."
Creatively and personally, Ashley comes across as a steady choice for a theater that's overdue for some stability. For 20 years, the small theater has shown a striking ability to attract big talent. Actor's Express' deepest challenge is to keep ambitious artists at a playhouse that seats about 200 people and has a budget of a little more than $600,000. In 2000 and 2006, respectively, former artistic directors Coleman and Jasson Minadakis left to lead better-funded companies in cities with larger theater communities – Coleman to Portland, Ore., and Minadakis to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Something that separates Ashley from Coleman's previous two successors is his local roots in both the area and Actor's Express. Ashley's predecessors were all out-of-towners with little or no relationship to the theater (Fennelly directed one show there). In contrast, Ashley has lived all his life in the South. He first worked with Express as one of the actors in Jane Eyre in 2002. After one preview performance, he recalls, he teared up a little at the realization that he was acting at his dream theater. He gradually became an Express fixture as a kind of utility director, helming everything from the broadly comedic Great American Trailer Park Musical to the darkly erotic dark play or stories for boys, opening in early September.
Ashley's day job has been working as literary manager for the Alliance Theatre, serving as dramaturge for more than 30 productions and reading 300-500 plays per year (all or in part). Alliance artistic director Susan Booth, herself the former literary manager of Chicago's Goodman Theater before moving to Atlanta, thinks the job offers excellent preparation at building leaders.
"I think there's a kind of natural evolution for folks that helm literary offices to end up helming theaters," Booth says. "There's a logic to moving from the person who make recommendations about what words best suit a theater's mission, to being the person who makes those decisions and lives by them."
Getting passed over to replace Minadakis in 2006 did not slow Ashley's rising star in the local theater scene, however. This past February, he received a $10,000 Arts Encouragement Award from the Charles Loridans Foundation. He attributes the surprise honor to the diversity of work he does around Atlanta: acting, dramaturgy, teaching theater appreciation as a part-time instructor at Kennesaw State University, directing challenging plays for Actor's Express and more comforting ones for the suburban Aurora Theatre. "It's like I have one leg in the mainstream at Aurora, another one in something edgier at Actor's Express, another leg in teaching," he says. "I know that's three legs.
"My career has been kind of like a Twister game."
The choice of a local favorite such as Ashley to lead Actor's Express bears comparison to Atlanta-based director Kate Warner taking the artistic directorship of Dad's Garage. In both cases, the boards of two of Atlanta's liveliest theaters chose to "promote from within" rather than bring in some out-of-town hotshot. Perhaps it's a sign that Atlanta has less of an inferiority complex about the caliber of its local talent. Coincidentally, Warner will direct back-to-back shows in the Express' new season, Jason Robert Brown's marital musical The Last Five Years and the world premiere of Steve Yockey's postmodern love story Octopus.
Ashley changed out two of Fennelly's selections for the six-play 2007-2008 season, creating the first impression of what he self-deprecatingly calls "the Freddie Ashley years" (you can practically hear the ironic quote marks in his voice). First he dropped the old chestnut The Fantasticks, which Fennelly planned to direct in a highly stylized, sexy way.
"Without Bill in-house, doing that show didn't make a lot of sense," Ashley says. "That was an easy one to let go." Like Fennelly, Ashley wants to make musicals more of a priority during his tenure, so he brought in Jason Robert Brown's one-act musical The Last Five Years instead.
He also swapped the musical Piece for Some Men by Terence McNally, who wrote the Express' 1997 hit Love! Valour! Compassion!.
"It's important to me to rebuild the Express' relationship to the gay audience," Ashley notes. "It's important to me to do a gay play that's positive and triumphant, which has sexual politics that aren't setting someone up to be victimized or end in tragedy. Some Men spans 80 years and deals with a wide swath of gay life, and brings a sense of scope and scale to the season."
Ashley's Twister-like career will remain fairly complex; in addition to leading the Express and teaching his Kennesaw State course, he's directing four plays in the next year: dark play next month, When Something Wonderful Ends in the spring, Jewish Theatre of the South's The Last Schwartz and Hedwig and the Angry Inch next summer, which, he emphasizes will not be a remount of the 2002 production, but a "reinvention" and probably with another actor.
He feels the workload is no busier than it was when he worked at the Alliance, with the bonus of giving him freedom to plan rehearsal schedules by day.
Along with attending Braves games, one of Ashley's favorite ways to blow off steam is watching "The Golden Girls."
"It's pretty sad, but it's definitely my pop-culture fix," he says. "I've seen every episode dozens of times. When I get on a tear I can quote entire passages of the show, and identify episodes within 10 seconds." He describes it as more than a guilty pleasure, however: "It's some of the best comic writing in the history of television, especially set-up/punch-line writing. It's got the greatest ensemble since 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' There's also something uplifting about seeing these four people form a family in unexpected ways. There's something comforting about the show."
He admits it's not easy to feel responsible for fundraising and financial issues. "It has been hard, but we passed a very responsible budget for the upcoming season. We're not in deficit mode. Things are actually fine – if they weren't, I wouldn't have taken the job. I'm coming from a place where you knew the paycheck would clear every two weeks. I crave stability."
With the right amount of smarts, judgment and luck, Ashley can bring Actor's Express to a place where the risky business only takes place on stage, and the personnel issues don't add to the drama.