Choosing Plays for the Festival

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When I first started reading Melanie Marnich’s A SLEEPING COUNTRY, I knew that we were looking for a comedy to help round out the 2011 Essential Theatre Play Festival – or, at least, something lighter than the two fairly heavy dramas we had already decided to do (Lee Blessing’s GREAT FALLS and Theroun D’Arcy Patterson’s A THOUSAND CIRCLETS).  Right from the start I was pleased with how funny A For the past thirteen years, we’ve been choosing plays to present in the Essential Theatre’s annual three-show Festival.  All we do are World Premieres and Regional Premieres, bringing Atlanta what’s new.  And talking about how the line-up for this year’s Festival came to be chosen will give you a pretty good idea of what the process usually is.

As you may already know, we hold an annual playwriting competition for Georgia resident playwrights – the only one of its kind.  The winner of the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award is given a cash prize ($600, these days) and a full production as part of that year’s Festival.  So, as often as not, choosing the prize-winning plays from the many submissions we received (over 50 last year) is the first thing we do.  After all, if our Georgia-written play is, say, a study of a man falsely sent to Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit (like our 2007 winner, Jean Sterrett’s FIX ME SO I CAN STAND) or a black comedy about an astronomer who discovers that his parents are meth addicts (like 2010’s QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT, by Gabriel Jason Dean), then we’ll want to make sure we don’t do any other plays that year which remotely resemble those, either in style or subject matter.

For the upcoming 2011 Festival, our prize-winner is Theroun D’Arcy Patterson’s A THOUSAND CIRCLETS, a powerful drama about a successful African-American family in crisis.  The director will be Betty Hart, who helmed our productions of JIM CROW AND THE RHYTHM DARLINGS and THE DARKER FACE OF THE EARTH.  Once we had that set, we began to look for two other plays to round out the line-up. 

As always, we only wanted to do plays that have not been previously performed anywhere in this part of the country.  But it’s also very important to us that we present plays that we believe in, that we’re excited by, that we think make a valuable contribution to the cultural and artistic life of this community.  Plays that are worth doing.  Plays that you won’t see anywhere else around here, that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

After looking through a lot of possibilities, the first one to fall into place was Lee Blessing’s GREAT FALLS, the story of a man taking a road trip with his teenage stepdaughter … except it’s more complicated than that.  She’s his EX-stepdaughter (he and her mother are divorced) and she accuses him of kidnapping her (except he didn’t, not exactly) and there’s a lot of bad stuff in the past for both of them, but not really with each other.  It’s a painful love story, a journey deep into their troubled hearts, and it’s a beauty.  I think Lee Blessing is maybe the most consistently fine American playwright of the past quarter century, equally proficient with comedies and dramas, like ELEEMOSYNARY and A WALK IN THE WOODS and FORTINBRAS and NICE PEOPLE DANCING TO GOOD COUNTRY MUSIC and two wonderful plays that the Essential Theatre has already produced – DOWN THE ROAD and GOING TO ST. IVES.  Next season, the Aurora Theatre will be presenting his award-winning A BODY OF WATER.

Directing our production of GREAT FALLS will be my old friend Ellen McQueen, twice the winner of the Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Award as Best Director for the Essential productions of AFTER ASHLEY and ICE GLEN (not to mention last year’s critically acclaimed SALLY AND GLEN AT THE PALACE, which was named one of the best shows of the season by both the Sunday Paper and Atlanta Theatre Buzz).

So, with GREAT FALLS and A THOUSAND CIRCLETS set for the Festival, we needed something lighter, something funny, to help balance things out.  And good comedies that haven’t already been snapped up by other theatres in the Atlanta area are hard to find!  But when I’d finished reading Melanie Marnich’s A SLEEPING COUNTRY I knew that this was the one I wanted to do.  The story of woman who travels to Venice, Italy in search of a cure for her terrible insomnia, I was charmed by its humor and fantastical, fairy-tale flourishes, but what really sealed the deal was the beauty and wisdom of its hopeful ending.  Hilarious, but also another journey deep into the human heart.  I’ll be directing this one myself.

Sometimes it can take a while to find out whether you can get the rights to produce recently published plays, but we quickly got the go-ahead for GREAT FALLS and A SLEEPING COUNTRY, so everything was settled … but there was one more piece of the big picture-puzzle that we hadn’t seen yet, or even guessed at.  A couple of weeks after we’d decided on the plays we’d be doing this summer, I was doing some on-line research for publicity purposes, looking up biographical material on Lee Blessing.  And I came across this completely unexpected bit of information:  “He is married to playwright Melanie Marnich.”

As in, Melanie Marnich, the author of A SLEEPING COUNTRY!  I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so utterly flabbergasted.

So, of course, we contacted Mr. Blessing and Ms. Marnich, and told them the whole story and invited them to come down to see the Essential Theatre’s productions of their plays this July.  No definite word yet, but they have very busy schedules and we’re not holding our breath … but they said they’d love to, if they can, and they haven’t said “No,” yet …!

Last summer we had the distinct honor of hosting the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove at the opening night of our production of her classic tragedy THE DARKER FACE OF THE EARTH, and we’d be thrilled to have TWO celebrated playwrights come down for this year’s Festival (and to meet the third writer we’ll be producing this year, our prize-winner, Theroun D’Arcy Patterson). 

Here’s hoping …

Peter Hardy