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Atlantic Stage kicks off season with drama

Growing gradually and incrementally has worked for Atlantic Stage each year since its founding in 2008.

The Grand Strand’s lone professional acting troupe opens its fifth season Sept. 6 with “God of Carnage,” continuing Thursdays-Sundays through Sept. 23 in the 79th Avenue Theatre, at Coastal Carolina University’s Myrtle Beach Education Center. The play, a Tony Award winner in 2009, showcases two pairs of parents, each with a child who has hurt the other in a park, but a meeting by the adults to discuss the situation unravels.

Thom Penn, artistic director and a founding member of Atlantic Stage, talked about milestones made this past season, including three members of the company reprising “Three Viewings” in June at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston and staging two summer plays.

Penn, who also teaches theater at CCU, said performing at Piccolo Spoleto provided “a great opportunity for us to increase our regional profile and let some other people know we we’re here.” Having Atlantic Stage’s name printed on the back of festival tickets there also doubled the marketing effort. Returning to Piccolo Spoleto already ranks high in future aspirations, he said.

Extending Atlantic Stage’s season into summer lets the troupe experiment with a children’s show at the beach, premiering with “The Oodles of Strudel Scrumptious Kitchen Caper” at The Cooper House in Socastee. This run also let CCU theater students gain experience through internships, Penn said.

“Educational outreach is one of the pillars of our mission,” he said, reiterating the partnership with Coastal.

The other summer show, geared to ages 12 and older, “The Complete History of America (abridged): Special Election Year Edition,” played at Atlantic Stage’s home venue, at 79th Avenue.

Penn said Atlantic Stage officials learned from both ventures to plan for a successive summer schedules and build on that foundation, especially with learning more about the market.

Remembering that the company in its infancy worked to achieve success with time and experience, Penn said a new-play festival this past spring afforded another avenue in developing its own material. The product of that event will close the 2012-13 season, with a world premiere of “Child’s Play” April 25-May 12, leading to plans for introducing a new play every year.

“We’re trying to diversify our offerings,” Penn said. “We’ve learned from the past few seasons that audiences are more drawn to comedies.”

Selecting each season’s slate takes “a balancing act,” he said, part of a continuing process to give crowds “what they want,” but also for the troupe to fulfill “a responsibility to give them what they need and not necessarily know what they want,” including shows they’re less aware of but merit importance in the theater realm.

Seeing plays for what “they reveal about human experience,” Penn said that aspect factors in Atlantic Stage’s choices for a season, and presenting a Pulitzer winner annually remains in the blueprints.

Three and three

Co-producing three of the six shows last year with CCU, Atlantic Stage will mount all its own shows this season as the college also will use the 79th Avenue Theater space for two if its own productions this school year.

Each show cycle breaks down to three weeks each of rehearsals and performances, Penn said, “but that each play demands a different type of approach in terms of the rehearsal process.”

“We have found a way to make three weeks work,” he said. “One thing that helps is we are working with professionals. ... All of the people have years and years of experience. They hit the ground running.”

Understanding that rehearsing with students needs more time and some teaching, Penn said with stage veterans, “they just have to learn their lines and plug in their technique.”

Reviewing last year, Penn said “Boeing, Boeing,” co-produced with Coastal, achieved the most success, and that all six plays – including four that each sold more than $20,000 in tickets – ranked in the top 10 of highest grosses in Atlantic Stage’s first four years. The peak for any show had been $15,000.

“Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls,” which developed through a workshop format and play run last winter, “was bigger than we thought it would be” because of its musical nature, Penn said, and “Boeing, Boeing” won at the box office as “a classic farce, with slamming doors and mistaken identities.”

“We have one like that this year,” Penn said. “ ‘Lend Me A Tenor’ ” – March 21-April 7.

With enhanced publicity thanks to Coastal and hitting a new “point of discovery” last season, Penn said, “all of the work from past seasons is just sort of culminating.”

New faces in small core

Atlantic Stage’s cast numbers about 15, with some recent newcomers and more sought through regional and national networking, Penn said.

Jon Hayden of Atlanta will make his debut with Atlantic Stage in “God of Carnage.” He said “the choice of material” attracted him, along with Penn’s “honoring the playwright and making the script true to its creation and building the theater company with a core group of actors.”

This worked out as the right place, right time for Hayden, who said “Boeing, Boeing” auditions caught his eye last year, but his work and tour schedule nationwide, which has included a play with Sally Struthers, and “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Damn Yankees,” did not coincide for that opportunity.

Looking ahead to the intimacy of 79th Avenue’s 144 seats, Hayden called the casting for “God of Carnage” a great mix, with a plot that’s “challenging, but I’m enjoying it.”

Compared with bigger playhouses, this setting resembles “a living room” for Hayden.

“The audience will feel like they got invited into a living room,” he said, “and they’ll wish they could step out for a little time.”

Hayden sees this smaller scale stage, without the big sound and aura, as “a quieter tone of acting.”

Joining a boys choir as a young teen and performing in places such as London and Scotland led to his starting in his high school drama program as a freshman, and a lifelong comfort level on the stage.

“At age 14,” he said, “it was a pretty fast start. I just kind of kept the wheels going.”

With studies that later advanced to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where “he saw two Super Bowls and one World Series,” Hayden said he even has gotten involved in the alumni committee for his alma mater.

Hayden said he’s eager to help Atlantic Stage widen its marketing, and he has called area media, met with concierges in local hotels, and distributed posters and fliers for “God of Carnage” to help allow “the product to speak for itself.”