An award winning director for Grey Gardens, Freddie Ashley, Artistic Director at Actor’s Express, stands as one of the major players in Atlanta’s theatre scene. As he was busy getting ready to launch Actor’s Express’ new season, Atlanta Theater Fans recently had the opportunity to ask him several questions.
Sharing information about the upcoming productions of Spring Awakening, Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them and Next Fall, Ashley also provides an insight to the selection process that Actor’s Express undergoes each season. Read our first feature Q & A to see what he had to say about Actor’s Express as well as his thoughts on the recent Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves and his view on Atlanta becoming the Hollywood of the South.
How did you first become involved with Actor’s Express?
I first became aware of Actor’s Express in 1994 when I saw a production of Picnic and knew then and there that it was a theatre I had to work for. I first acted in a production of Jane Eyre at the Express in 2002 and then in a production of Burn This in 2004. I first directed a show at the Express in 2006, a play called The Last Sunday in June. After directing I Am My Own Wife and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, I became Artistic Director in 2007.
You recently directed Beauty and the Beast in concert. Are there unique challenges in directing a concert over a full musical production?
I direct a concert version of a musical every summer at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville. It’s part of Lawrenceville’s July 4 festivities and is a blast. I look forward to it every year. It’s a lot of fun and it’s nice to be a part of an old-fashioned community celebration.
Could you briefly describe the selection process you go through to choose each year’s season at Actor’s Express?
I start every summer in August, just as the season is gearing up. It is a months-long process that I typically wrap up in February or March. I am looking for a blend of plays and musicals that will appeal to our particular audience but that will also have a good bit of variety. It’s very tricky to get the right balance aesthetically, and then, you have to go through the budgeting process and try to figure out if you can afford the season you want to do. Nine times out of ten, the first pass through budgeting indicates that you have to make serious changes. That process takes a few months as well. We try to announce the upcoming season in April, so all told it’s about a nine-month process.
Speaking of the new season, what prompted you to choose Spring Awakening to begin the season?
It’s such a great show! I knew I wanted a familiar musical in the season but had been focusing my energy on Xanadu, which we’re also doing. Then, I thought, why not do two musicals? I wanted something big and theatrical and bold to open the season, and Spring Awakening is those things. It took some persistence to get the rights, but I think it was worth it. I can’t wait to get the show on its feet.
What would you like to tell about Actor’s Express’ staging of the musical? Will it be in the same spirit as the Broadway and the national tour productions?
There is a cool spirit that is inherent in the show. It’s got such great rock and roll energy, but at the end of the day is a deeply emotional story about growing up. I think you’ll find the Actor’s Express production will play by more of its own rules than looking to the Broadway production for inspiration.
We are excited about Next Fall being performed. Did you see it on Broadway, and what prompted you to choose it for Actor’s Express?
I first read the play back in 2009 and knew it HAD to be produced at the Express. Two of my board members were investors in the Broadway production, so I think it was sort of meant to be. I love plays that deal with spiritual issues in expansive and unexpected ways; plus, I love theatre that is deeply emotional. Next Fall delivers on both.
I am sure you are connected to each production, but is there one in the upcoming season that holds a special place for you?
Gosh, that’s tough. You do get attached to each one for different reasons. I am SO stoked about Spring Awakening, but the play closest to my heart is Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them. It is such a charming and moving play. When I first saw a reading of it in Denver last December, I fell head over heels for it. In many ways, it’s a direct inversion of Spring Awakening. It’s also about growing up, but there is a much more hopeful innocence in the play. There’s one scene in which two boys are exploring sex for the first time, and it’s so innocent and charming. Not sexy or dirty at all. It’s also about forming different kinds of family, and I think that is an idea that is important to talk about in today’s times when we have certain segments of the population trying to make everything black and white. Family in all its forms should be celebrated, even the ones that are created by people not related to each other who have nowhere else to go.
What play or musical have you recently seen that has really moved you?
I had the pleasure of seeing The Motherf**ker with the Hat on Broadway recently. I laughed my head off and then found it to be unexpectedly moving too. It’s a really terrific play. I also saw the revival of The House of Blue Leaves and thought Edie Falco gave one of the sweetest and most tender performances I’ve ever seen. The whole production was beautiful (Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh were great too), but Edie Falco broke my heart in a thousand pieces.
Around town, I’m dying to see The Tempest at GA Shakespeare before it closes and can’t wait to check out Essential Theatre’s shows, which are actually performing on the Express stage: I’m a big Melanie Marnich fan so I can’t wait to see A Sleeping Country. Theroun Patterson was in Burn This with me at the Express, so I’m really excited to see his play A Thousand Circlets at Essential.
Would you consider any of them (or are you considering one) for Actor’s Express in the future?
I’d definitely consider The Motherf**ker with the Hat, but it’s really early yet so who knows! Honestly, the 2012-13 season is a blank slate. I have a few pipe dreams. All I know now is that it will be the 25th Anniversary season of Actor’s Express so I want it to be a huge celebration. Stay tuned!
You have directed productions at other Atlanta-area theaters such as Atlanta Lyric Theatre and the Aurora theatre. Is there one that you have not had the chance to work with yet and would like to?
I would love to work for Theatre in the Square, Theatrical Outfit and Georgia Shakespeare. But it’s hard to get out and work for other companies because I stay so busy at the Express. Atlanta has such a great theatre community, though, and eventually I think I want to work for them all. That might be presumptuous of me, but why not?
You recently starred in Actor’s Express’ production of The Judas Kiss. Was it difficult to be an actor again after directing? Was it tempting to want to climb back into the director’s role or was it something that came with ease?
It was like taking a vacation in some ways! When you direct, you have to make hundreds of tiny decisions and have the whole production resting on your shoulders. It was nice to sit back and let someone else have that responsibility and just focus on my own character. There were times during rehearsals when I wanted to put in my two cents’ worth, but I mostly resisted. It was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.
Some people say that it is harder to play a modern-day public figure than it is to play a historical one. Do you agree?
I guess there’s a little more freedom with a historical character since you don’t have to try and mimic very recognizable characteristics or mannerisms. But there is a difficulty in that you have to think of the person as a person, not as a mythic figure. It’s so easy to think of a historical figure as a series of characteristics, but you have to think of him as you would think of any character. What does he want? What motivates him? Why does he do what he does? When you admire the historical figure, there’s an added responsibility you feel to approach bringing a fictionalized version of him to life — you want to do right by the person and honor his memory and legacy. That’s what I tried to do with Oscar Wilde.
With so many movie and television productions in Atlanta and actors moving from LA and New York to Atlanta, do you think any of them might look for opportunities in Atlanta theaters?
The film industry certainly makes Atlanta a more desirable destination for actors, which will certainly help feed the local community with new talent. I think it’s such a great thing. But I daresay the famous stars won’t be making many side trips into local theatre.
If you could direct your dream actor/actress, who would it be?
I have a laundry list of dream actors – Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett especially. I also have local actors I can’t wait to direct. I’ve never directed Carolyn Cook and that has got to change.