By Lisa Nanette Allender
Arís was founded by nine talented and enthusiastic members of the Atlanta theatre community, including award-winning actor, director and educator Kathleen McManus. On June 5, Arís will launch its first full season of productions, starting with the The New Electric Ballroom starring Holly Stevenson, Patricia French, Barbara Cole-Uterhardt, Steve Hudson and under the direction of McManus. The play will be staged at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s studio on 14th Street in Midtown.
Written by Enda Walsh, the play finds two older women living in a remote Irish fishing village who constantly relive the night at the eponymous nightclub when, as teenagers, they were almost seduced by the dreamy singer of a touring band. I spoke with McManus ahead of opening night of The New Electric Ballroom about how Arís was founded and the state of theater in Atlanta.
Tell us how Arís got its name and what you hope to do in raising awareness of Celtic culture in Atlanta by producing the plays of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Pronounced ah- REESH, it is the Gaelic word for “encore,” and we very much wish to revive the notion of celtic-based theater in Atlanta, not only for the general theater-going public, but also for the high percentage of Atlantans of Celtic origin. Also, many of us are alums of Theater Gael, which is currently not producing plays, so this is a task the nine founding members, with several decades of theatrical experience between us, have willingly have taken up.
Tell us about your partnering with Joanna Daniel, who also co-starred with you in Whistling Psyche, your kickoff to the the first full season of Arís . That was quite a wild choice, given the play’s feminism, and gender-bending history/herstory. Whistling Psyche, an Irish play by Sebastian Barry, is a meditation on a meeting of the minds between a pair of pioneers of 19th century medicine during the reign of Queen Victoria- the celebrated nurse Florence Nightingale and the obscure James Miranda Barry. I found the play quite by accident while researching for an audition. And once I’d heard of Dr. Barry, the first female to practice medicine in the Empire while in disguise as a man, I just had to follow that muse to the stage. Joanna and I produced the piece as a Members Project Code through our union, Actors Equity Association. We folded the proceeds into our first season for Arís. Actors are quirky people, you know. Once a play gets under our skin, we will go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of it! Jo and I are looking into touring this piece. We think it’s a perfect fit for the college circuit, especially colleges with strong Women’s Studies departments.
Why do you think Atlanta is such a magnet for talented actors and theatres? And why – given how much talent is here – do theatres often have a challenging time, obtaining season-subscribers and regular patrons?
Atlanta is the first city of the South. I’ve been here for 30 years and watched the population triple since my arrival in the early eighties. Big cities are always magnets for artists of every stripe and variety, we thrive in the hustle and chaos of crowded spaces. And we are not all bound for the coasts. I knew as a young person that I wasn’t going to make myself miserable in New York City or Los Angeles. It was the 1970s, not the 1940s, and I’m from the working class. With not much money in my pocket when I left New Orleans, and after a few romantic misadventures, I headed here. 31 years later, married to a fellow actor and with a son graduated from Emory University honing his skills as a writer, I can say it’s the best decision I ever made.
I’m not sure I can answer your second question as it relates to the decline of subscription series theater, except to say that maybe it is time for “the theater” to change. Perhaps the 20th century for-profit and not-for-profit models, with their emphases on bricks and mortar to maintain and administratively top-heavy personnel structures, need to evolve. I think more youthful companies are doing just that. Site specific pieces like the ones occurring at the Goat Farm or in peoples’ living rooms. When the going gets tough, the creative get tougher. In Cornwall, there is a company called Knee High, creators of the theatrical experience Brief Encounter, based on a David Lean film itself based on a Noel Coward play. It came to the US a few years back and enjoyed a sold out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. A multi-media extravaganza with a decidedly un-realistic yet utterly romantic approach to the art of storytelling. Astonishingly good theater!
Any final thoughts on theatre in Atlanta, and on Arís in particular?
As long as young theater artists continue to move here and call it home, as long as local producers and artistic directors continue to advocate for the region as a whole, and as long as there are people who are curious about this most ancient of art forms, theater may not always thrive, but it will survive. It will. We are, all of us, the products of survivors.
As for the future of Arís, we have only to continue looking and reading eastward to plant our imaginations in the fertile soil of that tiny, mighty empire of Celtic wordsmiths. From J. M. Synge to Brendan Behan to Enda Walsh, from Lady Gregory to Marina Carr to Morna Pearson, they leave me breathless with the worlds they weave.
For tickets and information, visit aristheatre.org.