Atlanta Artists Find a Safe Haven in ‘The Come Up’

Sitting on the floor of actor Jake West’s living room, audience members of Atlanta’s recently founded variety show, “The Come Up,” experienced live theater brought back to its roots.

“I decided I wanted to create a show dedicated to people on the come up in Atlanta, a show that was about highlighting Atlanta talent, showing how powerful that can be,” West, the founder of “The Come Up,” said. “For me, a large part of that was cultivating community as opposed to just putting out content.”

In many ways, “The Come Up” challenges what the modern theater industry has become. 

“I think projects like this are so important because my personal experience within the performing arts and any kind of art is someone has to let you do it,” Atlanta performer Dani Herd said. “We go to auditions, and we apply for programs. I think it’s so exciting to see the next generation of artists to go, ‘I’m not waiting around anymore for people to tell me I can go make my show.’”

Herd uses they/them pronouns and has performed on “The Come Up” once so far. For them, the first step into openly using these pronouns was when West asked which ones to use for the show. For their segment of the show, Herd performed stand-up comedy as well as a live reading of an essay from their blog. 

“The title of my essay is ‘Short hair as a means of devotion,’” they said. “It’s basically about the ways in which fictional characters that have meant a lot to me throughout my life has kind of inspired my hair choices.”

Unlike in most theatrical settings, Herd was given the opportunity to perform whatever they wanted and to change their segment content multiple times throughout the week leading up to the show.

“I [knew] at the end of the day that I wanted to create a place where I could do the work I wanted to do or my friends can do the work that they wanted to do,” West said. “There’s such a variety of stuff that we’re doing that it’s really easy to catch the light of other artists. It’s a different way to express your artistry, because a lot of us do [many] different things, but [there isn’t] always the space to do it [in professional theater].”

Although West is the founder and host of “The Come Up”, he tries to keep his involvement to a minimum and instead focus on the featured artists.

“I don’t do anything for the show,” he said. “I set it up, [I host it and] I clean up the house afterwards. The show’s about the people. That’s the coolest thing I think we have to offer.”

“The Come Up” isn’t intended only for performers who are already established in the Atlanta theater community; any artist is welcome, Georgia State students included.

“Events like this are the best thing to show off the budding talent coming out of [Georgia State],” Georgia State student Gabrielle Cohen said. “Even in Atlanta, getting the right exposure is difficult, but if [Georgia State] sponsored a similar event for their students, who knows how many awesome people would get the push they need to succeed?”

In fact, the primary purpose of “The Come Up” is to bring attention to budding artists.

“It’s about creating community and finding that next crop [of young performers],” West said. “That’s where a lot of my research is going. It’s finding people who are young and hungry. What Georgia State students can offer is the same thing that any artists can offer: being a part of the bigger thing and also bringing their artistry to it.”

The welcoming environment of the show is open to artists and audience members around the city, including those who might have some reservations about public performance. 

Herd personally feels a lot of anxiety participating in open mics and for this reason hasn’t participated in stand-up comedy in two years. However, the relaxed setting of someone’s home and an embracing audience made this experience more enjoyable for them.

“The couch was reserved for the performers and the panelists in the show, so everybody else was sitting on the ground,” they said. “It felt like we were at a slumber party, which was fun. So, the community factor of it felt really special and engaging. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but it ended up being so genuinely cool and supportive and comfortable.”

This experience can have a lasting impact on participants, but for West, the consequences of the show are permanent in a different sort of way, as he has a special stake in the incoming donations to the show.

“The person who donates the most [to ‘The Come Up’] gets to choose my next tattoo, and then the November show is when I get that tattoo live on stage,” he said.

This contributes to West’s hopes of creating a captivating live show. Unlike most theater, he wants the focus to be on the connection with the audience rather than telling a story.

“I think theater has these grand aspirations, and I think there’s some really cool stuff that can be done with theater,” West said. “It’s absolutely changed my life, but I think more or less what I crave in a world that doesn’t have enough laughter is the idea of laughter and community.”

Projects like “The Come Up” provide not only the opportunity for artists to express their talents in their preferred way but a safe and comfortable space to do it.

“To anyone reading out there who is a performer or an artist in any sense of the term, I think it really behooves you to check out things like ‘The Come Up’ because just to be in that room was such an inspiring experience of what is possible,” Herd said. “We can do art anywhere. We can perform anywhere. We don’t have to wait for someone to give us permission.”

More information about “The Come Up” is available on Facebook and Instagram under the name “TheComeUpShowATL.” The next show takes place on Nov. 15 at 11 p.m.