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Was it something we said?

Jasson Minadakis leaves Actor's Express

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The Atlanta theater scene becomes both more uncertain and less intense with the impending departure of Jasson Minadakis, acclaimed artistic director of Actor's Express. The theater announced last week that Minadakis will leave to become artistic director of the Bay Area's Marin Theatre Company on Oct. 1.

Wait a second. Didn't Minadakis just get here? Well, actually, he came to Actor's Express from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival three and a half years ago. But, in that time, he established himself as one of the city's preeminent talents.

Creative Loafing named Minadakis "Best Director" in 2004 and the playhouse "Best Theater" in 2005. In shows like Bug, The Goat and Georgia Shakespeare's Hamlet, he's proved masterful at ramping up onstage tension as far as it can go -- and then ramping it up some more.

Minadakis' harsh, heavy programming didn't exactly emphasize "feel-good" shows. Perhaps the most "fun" play of his tenure, Killer Joe, also brimmed with cruelty and misogyny. One hopes the theater's new leader can lighten things up a little while building on Minadakis' clear commitment to thrilling, provocative new works.

He describes Love Jerry, the world premiere, pedophilia-themed musical directed by Kent Gash in January, as the highlight of his tenure. And his last local play as director, Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman (opening Sept. 17), promises to be characteristically scorching.

Minadakis insists he wasn't actively seeking a new job but that the Marin Theatre headhunted him and made the proverbial offer he couldn't refuse. Located at the King Plow Arts Center, Actor's Express has a performing space that can seat up to 200 people on a budget of less than $600,000 a year. The Marin Theatre has a 230-seat main stage, a 99-seat second stage and a $2 million budget. Minadakis adds that the playhouse, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, belongs to a theater community four to five times the size of Atlanta's.

Actor's Express' board now faces its third national search for an artistic director. Founder Chris Coleman left for the Portland Center Stage in 2000, and Weir Harman served as artistic director from 2000-2003. Despite the turnover, the Express has consistently remained the epicenter of Atlanta's most exciting stagecraft.

Minadakis and the Express both spin the situation as a positive for the theater in general and for Atlanta in particular. Though Atlanta theaters face challenges in attracting money and audiences, Minadakis argues that today those would be problems anywhere: "It would have been ideal to be here in the mid-1990s, when corporate philanthropy was so big and there weren't so many competitive forms of entertainment. I'd like to see what I could've done at a time when audiences were growing instead of shrinking."

Actor's Express views itself as an incubator that trains talent for bigger and better things. The theater's press release trumpeted the loss of its artistic director as good news: "Actor's Express Theater Company Sends its Artistic Director Expressly to the Top!" Minadakis described the Express as a vital resource for American theater: "There aren't a lot of places where you can come, learn to be an artistic director, do good quality work and then move up."

Any city benefits from an infusion of new blood. But the loss of Minadakis also emphasizes that Atlanta has yet to break through to an upper-tier position as a national cultural center. A handful of institutions, mainly those housed at the Woodruff Arts Center, still command most of the resources, while smaller ones scrounge for new patrons and sponsorships.

Minadakis' departure reinforces Atlanta's cultural reputation as a professional stepping stone, rather than a destination. In sports terms, it's as if we're a minor league city that talks up the number of players we send on to the majors.

To be more culturally competitive, Atlanta needs not just quality, but quantity. Actor's Express may be as good as any small theater anywhere, but if another city has five times as many equivalent playhouses, then that's the richer city. Atlanta can boast a robust population of young actors, directors and other artists at the entry level, but they face few options if they want to settle down, apart from those with the Alliance Theatre. Moving up means moving out. Unless theatrical attendance and corporate support dramatically defy national trends, this situation will continue to be the status quo.

So be sure to welcome Minadakis' replacement and other theatrical newcomers. Support their work. Enjoy them while they last.

Off-Script is an occasional column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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