Essential Theatre Playwriting Workshops

The support, encouragement and development of new plays by Georgia writers have always been an important part of the Essential Theatre’s mission. Ten years ago we committed to producing an annual festival that would always present at least one World Premiere by a resident Georgia playwright – after a couple of years, the selection process evolved into an actual contest, the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award competition. The first winner of the award was 18-year-old Lauren Gunderson of Decatur, whose play PARTS THEY CALL DEEP went on to win national prizes and was produced Off-Broadway.

In the past ten years we’ve also produced new plays by Georgia writers such as Karen Wurl, Karla Jennngs, Bill Gibson, Karen Page, Valetta Anderson, Ellen McQueen and Jean Sterrett. Since we premiered it in the Essential Theatre’s 2006 Power Plays Festival, Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee’s CHARM SCHOOL has gone on to a successful production at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and will next be seen at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia.

When we started producing these annual festivals in 1999, it seemed to us that the best way for us to help Georgia writers was to give their plays a full production, rather than the staged readings which were pretty commonplace back then. I’m a playwright myself, and I’ve had productions and workshops and staged readings of my plays done all over the country – and there’s no question in my mind that you can learn more about a play from a full-out production than from even the best-intentioned reading. The set, the lights, the costumes, the (rehearsed!) actors, the audience – they’re all vital to the theatre experience, and to the fulfillment of the playwright’s vision.

But you can’t produce every play of promise that comes your way – at least, we can’t, not right now. So, when interesting plays were submitted to the contest but failed to win the prize, we’ve tried to offer some development help to the writers – not as often as we’d have liked to, but we’re hoping to increase our efforts in that area.

For a few years we’d present staged readings on dark nights of the Essential Festival. More recently we’ve taken a new approach – getting the playwright together with a group of actors, in a private setting, to read and discuss the play. A great deal of care goes into the selection of the actors for these readings – I think that the wrong group of actors can do a playwright more harm than good , leading them to think something’s wrong with the play, when it’s really the actors who are the problem. But when the right actors — not just talented, but well-cast — are reading a script, the playwright can get a much better idea what’s working and what isn’t. When the readers are bringing your work to life, making your words sound like everything you wanted and more – and then they come to a passage they just can’t make work, chances are you’ve got some rewriting to do.

After these sessions, we encourage the playwright to do whatever revisions they want to – and then, after a while, we get them together with another group of actors to read the play again. (Sometimes the same actors, sometimes not.) And if that seems to go well, we’ll probably try to put together a staged public reading, to bring an audience into the equation.

That’s the process we went through with APRIL 10, 1535, a play by Cheryldee Huddleston of Athens, culminating in a public reading at the Stage Door Players space in Dunwoody, in the winter of 2006. We also went through that two-reading process with WEST OF EDEN by Atlanta’s Letitia Sweitzer – but by the time of the second reading, the play (through some very simple and minor changes) had been improved so greatly that it was chosen for the 2008 Playwriting Award.

We’ll be presenting its World Premiere in our 2008 Power Plays Festival, running in the Backstage Theatre at 7 Stages from June 27-July 27 this summer. Other shows in the Festival will be the Regional Premieres of Paul Rudnick’s historical comedy, VALHALLA, and Gina Gionfriddo’s drama AFTER ASHLEY. It’s always our policy to present our World Premieres by Georgia playwrights alongside the work of more nationally established authors, on an equal footing.

Just recently we had our first development workshop meeting with Atlanta’s Pamela Turner, reading her play ME OWN PERSONAL HERO. This Ireland-set drama had already gone through some productive workshopping at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square and other places, but the playwright seemed to find our session with her both helpful and encouraging, and she’s planning to rewrite. We look forward to meeting with her again and seeing what she’s done.

Coming up soon we’ll be having our second read-and-discuss with Glen Slattery on his play THE LEAST-LOVED NAZI, a dark fantasy-comedy set in the aftermath of the collapse of the Third Reich. We had our first reading of the play this past November, which was the last time I saw our dear friend Johanna Linden, who played the title role in the Essential’s 2007 production of Christopher Durang’s MRS. BOB CRATCHIT’S WILD CHRISTMAS BINGE. Johanna passed away a couple of months ago, and the 2008 Power Plays Festival will be dedicated to her memory. I’m pretty sure she was the one who encouraged Glen to bring his play to us in the first place.

The submission deadline for the 2009 Playwriting Award competition was April 23 of this year. (Shakespeare’s Birthday, and that’s going to be our entry deadline every year.) Over 40 scripts were submitted – the most we’ve ever received! It’s going to be a busy year –

Peter Hardy
Artistic Director
Essential Theatre