I came to Atlanta in the fall of 1986, hired by the late Michael Horne to direct a Wendy Wasserstein comedy called Isn’t It Romantic at Theatre in the Square, and then sticking around to perform in the Horizon Theatre’s Christmas production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. By that time, I’d decided to stay. In 1987 I was acting in another comedy at the Horizon, Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, but already I was wanting to make my own productions happen, and in the fall of ’87 I produced and directed the first Essential Theatre show – two ghost story one-acts by John Pielmeier (author of Agnes of God), featuring Scott Higgs and Bill Murphey (two fine local actors that I’m still friends with today) and a lady named Elin Zimmerman, who came down from New York just to do the show.
Over the next ten years I continued to free-lance with other companies, directing three of the first four productions ever done in Theatre In the Square’s Alley Stage space (we opened that place up with a comedy by local writer Karen Wurl, who I’ve gone on to work with several times since). In the summers I directed the outdoor drama Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina, working there with many talented people from the Atlanta theatre scene, and I also continued to produce and direct occasional productions with the Essential Theatre: Vinegar Tom and They Dance Real Slow In Jackson and Wandering Desires at the Horizon space; Down the Road at the 14th Street Playhouse; Cinders and A Child Shall Lead at 7 Stages; and my own play Lubricant at a place called the Atlanta Dream Hostel. (Lubricant finally got a New York production last year.)
Some of these productions got good audiences and good reviews, but mostly we were doing new scripts – World Premieres or Regional Premieres – and I found that when you’re doing plays that no one has heard of, by a company that no one’s heard of, and you’re only producing once every year or so, and you’re usually performing in a different space than where you were the last time – you tend to fall through the cracks. We got great reviews for Down the Road from the AJC, Creative Loafing and WABE (which was doing theatre reviews back then), but three years later none of them bothered to come see A Child Shall Lead at 7 Stages. This was a beautiful, epic play about the Children’s Crusade, written by my friend Charlotte Fleck (originally from Spartanburg, South Carolina and now in New York City) and featuring a stunning performance by Laurie Beasley. In 2007, both these ladies finally got some of the critical praise they deserve for their work in our production of Night Travels.
Anyway, back in the late 90’s, I was wondering if I should keep trying to make my own theatre happen. I didn’t want to be producing year-round, and I didn’t want to do the kind of “audience-friendly” plays I was bored with seeing at so many other theatres in town. And that’s when the idea for the Essential Theatre Festival first came to me: Instead of doing one play no one has heard of, how about we do three plays no one has heard of? Maybe that’ll get us some more attention.
And it worked, right from the beginning. Curt Holman wrote a feature article about us for Creative Loafing in January of 1999, when we presented our first Festival at the old Push-Push Theater space. That year we did Paula Vogel’s Desdemona, Lynn Siefert’s comedy Little Egypt (recently turned into a musical, out west) and the World Premiere of Only Children by the afore-mentioned Karen Wurl. We decided that we’d produce at least one new play by a Georgia writer every year, and by 2001 that had coalesced into the idea of the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award, a state-wide competition that is still the only one of its kind. We’ve been proud and fortunate to present the World Premieres of new scripts by Georgia writers like Karla Jennings, Bill Gibson, Karen Page, Valetta Anderson, Jean Sterrett and Letitia Sweitzer.
In 2006 we did the first production of Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee’s Charm School, receiving critical raves and helping to pave the w ay for a larger, longer-run production by Horizon Theatre – which was so successful they revived it a year later. The play also won the Gene Gabriel Moore prize (part of the Suzi Bass Awards) for best new play produced in Atlanta.
In 2001, the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award when to 18-year-old Lauren Gunderson, a Decatur native, for her family comedy-drama Parts They Call Deep, which was a big hit for us and went on to an Off-Broadway production. Lauren’s continued to have great success, both in Atlanta and around the country, with a new play recently produced in California. Lauren writes: “The Essential Theatre has been fundamentally important for my career …every aspect of my time with them has been full of support, creativity and artistic daring. I will always credit the Essential Theatre with my early success and confidence.”
Along with our World Premieres, we’ve given Atlanta audiences their first chance to see important new work by nationally-recognized writers like Sam Shepard, Christopher Durang, Lanford Wilson, David Lindsay-Abaire, Steven Dietz, Gina Gionfriddo, and Amy and David Sedaris. The common denominator is this: Plays you’ve never seen around here before – exciting and challenging new work — produced by artists who are doing it for love.
Perhaps my favorite show that we’ve ever done was our 2008 production of Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla — which (among other things) was about being willing to go mad in order to create something beautiful. I can relate …
And all that brings us up to today – and the 11th Annual Essential Theatre Play Festival, opening July 5 at Actor’s Express.
More on that soon.