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Best Local Actress 

Ashley Cooke

Five years ago, the founding members of Savannah Stage Company were the new kids in town. This year, they rule the roost.

This is the first time Savannah Stage Company or associated members have won in the Best of Savannah awards. When the five founding members moved to the Lowcountry with pure passion, the desire to do something great for the community and, as Best Local Director Jayme Tinti phrases it, “zero dollars,” they were ready to bring theatre to every citizen, regardless of age or financial situation. Now, their literary-based, pay-what-you-can productions tour schools, nursing homes, and even Forsyth Park.

click to enlarge Ashley Cooke - JON WAITS | @JWAITSPHOTO
  • Jon Waits | @jwaitsphoto
  • Ashley Cooke

Bringing works of literature like The Call of The Wild, Romeo and Juliet, and The Scarlet Letter to life with a handful of actors playing multiple roles and little to no props, SSC makes all its decisions based on its core values: accessibility, action-driven storytelling, growth, imagination, and bravery.

“Ever since our inception, when all else fails, we look at our mission,” says Best Local Actor Wesley Pridgen. “If we are ever feeling off-track in any way, we turn to our value and mission—that’s what we’re here for.”

Pridgen, who broke onto the acting scene as Baby Jesus (“He’s playing it again this Christmas,” Tinti teases), grew up acting in community and high school theater. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Theater at Barton College, he took an internship at the Barter Theatre, where he met Tinti.

Working at the nation’s longest-running professional theatre, the talented up-and-comers gained hands-on experience that would shape the identity of Savannah Stage Company.

“I’d never directed before, but I had been working at The Barter and absorbing for five years, like a sponge,” Tinti says.

Tinti made her directorial debut working on Pridgen’s senior thesis, a one-man show.

“He would go to school all day and I would be like, ‘How do you direct a play, Google?’” she laughs. “I was saved by the low pressure. You’re with your best bud with a play you know and love. We literally just rehearsed in the theater at night and by ourselves, built the sets ourselves, the lights, everything, ourselves. That was the first time I was like, ‘That was ridiculously hard and fun and yes, let’s do that again.’”

When they were ready to begin a theatre company of their own, the founding members of SSC found Savannah to be the perfect home base.

“You cannot help but fall in love with a city that looks like this,” Tinti says. “We saw such a value in SCAD and in the people here who were looking to make art and learn.”

For their first production as SSC, Pridgen wrote the music, his brother, Bryan, wrote the script, Liz [Whittimore] did the costumes, and Tinti directed. They were rehearsing at eight a.m. in an old school that had a funny smell, but they were living the dream.

“It was the time of our lives,” Tinti grins.

Though Tinti, a stage manager, didn’t expect to fill a directorial role, Pridgen thinks their great foundation helped Tinti become the strong director she is today.

“I think the largest help for Jayme was just the fact that, as a stage manager working at the Barter, she literally sat behind the table for five years with some of the best directors that I’ve ever met in my entire life,” says Pridgen.

“There’s never been a director like Jayme,” adds Best Actress Ashley Cook. “She’ll say something, and something clicks in me. There’s just so many layers to her directing, and it’s so rewarding.”

Cook, who studied theater in college and taught it later on, discovered Savannah Stage Company in 2016.

“I remember going on the [SSC] website because I needed to find a couple of auditions,” she says. “I went on there and was like, ‘Boy, I really like this mission and values.’”

“I got to the audition and Jayme said, ‘We work really hard, there is nobody behind the scenes.’ And I’ve never worked so hard or had to be so brave.”

Tinti remembers the moment perfectly.

“We all knew about this one,” she smiles, nodding to Cook. “I saw someone who was inside, peeking through the curtains. I just wanted to rip those curtains apart! That’s what happened!”

SSC’s fifth season has been a welcome challenge for its members. The first production, January’s It’s BIG: The Improv Musical was a true test of bravery and exhibited the troupe’s inventiveness.

“I wrote all the music we used,” Pridgen explains. “I basically wrote like, 26 vamps in 26 different genres of music. That was really fun, getting to transition from taking the music hat off and putting my improv player hat on and just getting to have fun with all this stuff. It was definitely one of the hardest things we’ve ever done as a company.”

For Cook, The Call of the Wild encouraged her own artistic growth.

“It really pushed me in a lot ways,” she says. “I have never played a male character before, so having to change how I walked and talked, that was very different for me.”

Without hesitation, she lists The Wicked Witch of the West as her favorite SSC role.

The Wizard of Oz was a blast for Pridgen, too.

“The major of Munchkin City was probably my all-time favorite character I’ve ever done,” he declares. “It was literally a dream of mine, and it came true. That character lives in the world for like, a minute and a half, then you never see him again. You only have that minute and a half to make this person come to life, to a degree.”

Above all, SSC’s members are most inspired by their audiences.

“Watching people’s imagination activate is something I could go on watching for the rest of my life,” Tinti says. “That our work has that possibility, to have a 60-year-old woman use her imagination, that’s what I’m proud of: the potential of what we’re doing and what we can do. You watch people watch plays, and they’re not engaged. I feel it, I see it happen. So to be able to engage someone one hundred percent of the time—that assures me that we’re on the right path. It’s all about those moments.”

“I’ve never experienced so many people who have come into a performance and said, ‘I have never been to a play,’” adds Cook. “After the show they say, ‘This is great! I can’t wait to come see more.’ Again, going along with our values of accessibility and being approachable to people who thought theatre wasn’t something they would ever be interested in or fit into.”

With their first-time Best of Savannah wins, Cook, Pridgen, and Tinti are excited to give Savannah all they’ve got. Look for Working: A Musical in July, followed by Savannah Playwright’s Series in September and It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play during the holidays.

“Going into this year, I couldn’t help but really believe in us and really believe we had done stuff to warrant something like this,” Tinti says. “We’re not taking it lightly. Now, our work begins. Now we live up to it.” —Anna Chandler

Runner-up: Angelique Chase

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