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Shakespeare Festival co-founder takes center stage at Actor's Express

You might say that a wasp's nest drove Richard Garner off the stage for years.

The co-founder and producing artistic director of Georgia Shakespeare Festival performed in small roles in the festival's early years, back when the company held its summer repertory in a tent on the campus of Oglethorpe University. In 1991 Garner played one of the murderers in Richard III, and while waiting in the wings for his cue, he noticed a wasp's nest on the corner of the set.

Garner recalls that before stepping before the audience, he had the thoughts of a theater manager, not a murderer: "'Tomorrow I have to get that wasp's nest down, because one of the actors or audience might get stung.' And then I remember being in front of the audience thinking, 'That's not the last thought I should have before going onstage.'"

Since then he's spent little time as an actor, opting to focus on directing shows and running the festival, one of Atlanta's most creative and consistent theater companies. He's made exceptions only for small roles like the oldest, orneriest member of the male chorus in last year's The Lysistrata Project.

But with the cerebral comedy Blue/Orange at Actor's Express, Garner takes on his meatiest and most daring role in years, just as he's leading the Festival in new directions for its 19th season.

Joe Penhall's verbally dexterous play Blue/Orange depicts the friction between an English mental institution's senior doctor (Garner) and his young protege (Daniel May) over the proper treatment for a mental patient (Aaron Todd Douglas) who claims to be son of dictator Idi Amin. Director Jasson Minadakis says that while the witty play takes place in England, it engages issues that are highly relevant to American-style managed health care.

When Minadakis took the reins as the Actor's Express artistic director in early 2003, he not only hoped to produce Blue/Orange, but wanted to cast Garner in the play — although he'd never seen him act before. As founder of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, Minadakis became friends with Garner at the annual meetings of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America.

Garner's audition confirmed Minadakis' belief that he'd found the right actor for the role, so Garner took vacation time in December, the Festival's slowest month, to accommodate the day-long rehearsals. After he agreed to play the part, its enormity sank in. Garner studied acting at the Professional Actor Training Program at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, but says, "When I sat down and really looked at size of role, I said, 'Whoa!' Some actors know how to take on big roles routinely, but I had to re-teach myself. It's given me a greatly renewed appreciation for what the actors at the Festival do."

Minadakis' staging was another source of anxiety. Blue/Orange will be staged in a 16-by-16-foot square with the audience on all sides to emphasize the confinement of mental hospitals, the intimacy of the characters and the arena of Penhall's ideas. "We call it 'the boxing ring,'" says Garner. "You'll have people to the left, to the right, in front and behind you, so if you get stuck on a line there's no refuge. I admit to a flash of apprehension when I thought of that."

Garner sees a kinship between Actor's Express and the Georgia Shakespeare Festival that go beyond his friendship with Minadakis. "I think of Express as a theater of ideas — they stage challenging material that's very idea-driven, and ideas are important for us as well. If we were to start a second theater at the Festival, it would probably be closer to the Express than anyone else in town."

While the Festival has no immediate plans to open a second stage, Garner's eager for the company to stretch artistically. The Festival moved from the tent to the Conant Performing Arts Center in 1997, and then took some time getting used to the luxury of staging plays indoors. "The tent took so much of our energy just to put a season up, and the Conant building is such a better, easier place to work, that it's freed up energy. It's taken us several years to get used to things like sight-lines and acoustics, so how do we make it more challenging now?"

Garner says that the Festival will end its 2003 season in the black — an improvement over the previous two years — and has announced some unusual choices for 2004, with the summer repertory consisting of Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare's rarely produced Coriolanus and Joe Orton's bawdy farce What the Butler Saw, as well as the tried-and-true Macbeth in the fall.

The Festival has use of the Conant Center for 16 weeks out of the year, but Garner's interested in finding another venue in town to potentially expand their lineup. "We want to develop original pieces and original adaptations farther afield from what we've done before," he explains, along the lines of John Ammerman's Booth, Brother Booth and Brad Sherrill's The Gospel of John, both members of the Festival's ensemble.

At the moment, he's enjoying his working vacation with Blue/Orange, where he can simply focus on a single performance and not the details of running a playhouse. "I joke with Jasson that the great thing about being at Actor's Express is that if the toilet backs up, I'm not the one who has to unclog it," he says.