Dramatist Guild Report from Atlanta

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Dramatists Guild of America
Regional Report from Atlanta
Pamela Turner
July 2, 2008
New Play Festivals can be a playwright’s best friend or they can be the crassest means for a theatre to benefit on the backs of the eternally hopeful. In the first case, the playwright can get exposure and a chance to learn more about her work. In the latter, the play is just fodder for someone else’s money cow: be it a grant, a newly oriented mission statement, or some coins toward last season’s deficit. Fortunately, there are Forces of Good positioned throughout the country to face off the forces of evil (those guys will get no capital letters from me). Examples of these Golden Kingdoms in the SE Region are the small, as in the Essential Theatre in Atlanta, and the large, as in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Southern Writer’s Project in Montgomery. Though a budgetary Mutt and Jeff, these two theatres have a few very important things in common. Each is committed to producing new work, each includes a development component to the process, each encourages participation by the playwright, each has a regional emphasis, and each holds a high opinion of playwrights even before they’re20famous. Imagine that, Mama!
The Essential Theatre Power Plays Festival is only a stone-throw away—just navigate through impossible in-town-Atlanta traffic till you get to Little Five Points, a true counter-culture melting pot where a bong is still available in a shop next to the place with the $200 Nikes, park by the huge 22 x 145-foot Singing in the Dark mural painted by David Fichter in 1992, and stroll past the 7 Stages Theatre box office on the way to their 65-seat Back Stage Theatre. There the ten-year old Essential Theatre, under the helm of Founding Artistic Director Peter Hardy, produces its month-long Festival each summer, featuring a repertory of three new plays running in rotation. Although some of the plays have been produced elsewhere and may be by “known” writers, they are all at least regional premieres and one of the pieces is always by a Georgia Playwright. To emphasize their commitment to local writers and in order to encourage “the creation of new dramatic literature”, Essential inaugurated the annual Essential Theatre Playwriting Award in 2001, dedicated exclusively to Georgia playwrights. The winning play, chosen from open submissions, is a world premiere that provides local performance teams “the chance to work on exciting new plays” and also allows an interested audience to participate in the development starting with open workshops and staged readings, and right through to the full productions. The winning playwright receives a cash award of $500 in lieu of royalties for the approximately 12 performances. As an added benefit, Hardy submits the festival plays into consideration for The Metropolitan Atlanta Theater Awards, established in 2004 to recognize local playwrights as well as actors, directors, tech staff, and choreographers. The Metropolitan folks have limited some of the categories for the “best of the best” awards, but they (brilliantly) allow for unlimited submissions of original work productions. Just ready to open, the 2008 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award winner is West of Eden by Letitia Sweitzer, a “clever, insightful comedy about the world’s first dysfunctional family.” The Power Plays productions are minimalist and well-regarded, with an emphasis on showcasing the script. One of the reasons the Essential Theatre is so playwright friendly is that Hardy is one himself, as well as an actor and director. He reports that “by the late 1990s, I’d already won a few contests [including a stint at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 1993 with his play Mysterious Connections], gone through some development programs, and seen my work produced.” He decided he wanted to workshop plays as part of the Festival because he hoped to “provide writers with the kind of support and helpful experiences I’d like to receive with my own plays. From what I’ve seen, a bad (or wrong-headed) production or workshop can do a writer more harm than good.” He says that although “Production wo rk is our primary goal…we’re hoping to be able to give more time and resources to development work as well.” Starting with the first Essential Theatre Playwriting Award winner, a 19-year old Lauren Gunderson, Hardy has been shrewd in his selections and devoted in his support of other playwrights. As I waited to see the first of this year’s Power Plays, he mentioned that although he could do it, it wouldn’t “seem right” to spend all these resources producing plays all written by Peter Hardy.