Invigorating Atlanta troupe is fascinated with all things Southern

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ironically, a regional theater's success is all too frequently measured by its impact on New York. The Southern Theatre Conspiracy -- a tiny, offbeat Atlanta-based theater -- is one company determined to prove this dramatic axiom rong. Levi (Eddie) Lee, Rebecca Alworth, and Larry Larson, a trio of actors-cum-writers and the company's collaborative core, founded their theater seven years ago as more than an arena for local acting talent. It was to become a forum for exploring, albeit humorously, the regional characteristics of the South.

Using the ancient art of storytelling coupled with the modern technique of improvisation, the company addresses inherently colloquial concerns and produces work that is an invigorating, if occasionally irreverent, addition to regional theater. ``We're storytellers,'' says Ms. Alworth simply. ``It just happens that we want to tell our own stories.''

Known to their devoted if eclectic local audience for staging such improvised cultural high jinks as mock trials, interrogations of Richard Nixon, and other spur-of-the-moment dramatics (audience members have been asked to imitate snakes and pass the offering plate), the company has gained new-found prominence with the recent road success of their work ``Tent Meeting.''

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An impious and potentially controversial look at Southern revivalism, ``Tent Meeting'' was one of the few plays presented at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville that earned a nod from the ranks of international critics, producers, and directors. On the back of that success, ``Tent Meeting'' will open this month as the sole theater event of the Spoleto '85 Festival in Charleston, S.C.

This purposefully comic but possibly antagonistic portrayal of an overbearing Fundamentalist preacher (Lee), and his two unusual offspring (Alworth and Larson), was noted not only for its unique creative process (the trio wrote and performed the play after months of improvisational work) but also for its original story. Indeed, ``Tent Meeting'' is based upon an earlier collaboration, ``The Illuminati Play,'' which used the Gnostic gospels as its source. Together the two works reflect the company's continued fascination with all things Southern, including the religious influences. ``[Church services] are like theater in a way,'' says Larson, a stocky actor dressed rather Miami Vice-ish in blazer and T-shirt. ``The audience is directly involved with what's going on.''

Although none of the three is an actor or writer by training (Larson moved to Atlanta to open a clothing store), collectively they came to theater out of a desire to reflect and comment upon their own community. Their expansion into improvisation and writing stemmed naturally from this concern. ``We wanted greater control over our [artistic] lives,'' says Larson. To this end they formed their own theater and have written more than a dozen scripts between them, including one, ``The Gatherer,'' for public television.

While much of the Southern sociological terrain might be considered ripe for caricature, the trio prefers to use humor as a means of inquiry within the immediate community. Although Lee and Larson had previously worked as writers for a locally produced TV comedy show, neither professes a fondness for humor for humor's sake.

``We're interested in the human condition,'' says Lee, a large, silver-maned man in the style of Kenny Rogers.

Larson decided against starting an Atlanta version of Chicago's ``Second City,'' the unofficial center for improvised comedy, because ``[comedy] has got to go on to some higher purpose. . . . Our work is based on improv[isation], but we're not just doing scenes. We've passed that. Now we work on outline and concept.''

As befits professional improvisers, the conversation explodes in many directions at once -- outright humor lacing their comments on their craft. ``Many of these things we're just discovering as we talk right now,'' says Lee. ``In fact we'll need your notes later on.''

Ms. Alworth, who is married to Lee, and looks much prettier than her character (the daffy daughter Becky Ann) did on stage, interrupts to point out, ``I was Miss Niceville [Fla.] in high school.'' Nodding to the reporter's notebook, she says, ``I want that in there.''

The trio's collective responses to an interviewer's questions take the form of theme and variations. Do they consider the subject matter of ``Tent Meeting'' offensive to their regional Southern audience?

``We're not malicious,'' says Lee.

``We're not interested in stirring up bad press,'' adds Alworth.

``We wouldn't take it to the mountains,'' says Larson. ``Or Charlotte, N.C.''

Such an awareness of their cultural constituency, coupled with their collective decision to remain based in Georgia, testifies to the company's regional roots. ``I think it would be a big mistake not to go back to Atlanta to write,'' says Alworth. ``I've always said the worst place to write is New York.''

``There's more poetry in the South,'' adds Lee, ``there's music in the air.''

The group does acknowledge one benefit of their recent road tour. ``The work had to stand on its own,'' says Lee. ``The audience wasn't sitting around waiting for us to tell them to stand up and [imitate] snakes. . . . But then that's what theater is all about . . . coming to see what's going to happen.''

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