Dead pythons, dead gorillas, live theater

O Happy Day, Abby Awards raise profile of Dad’s Garage

Normally, no eyebrows go up when a playwright attends the debut of his work. But when the writer in question happens to be dead, that’s something completely different. Next week, when Dad’s Garage Theatre premieres O Happy Day by the late Graham Chapman, among the honored guests will be a portion of the cremated remains of the former member of the legendary comedy troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“The Chapman archives sent us some of his ashes when we held the auditions for O Happy Day,” explains artistic director Sean Daniels, who doesn’t doubt the ashes’ authenticity. “But a greater percentage of the remains will be here for the actual performance. We want to place them prominently near the stage, maybe with a gin drink next to them, since Graham drank gin. Ideally, it’d be a glass that drains itself as the show goes on.”

Chapman’s ashes have accompanied Python reunion performances in the past decade (at the Hollywood Bowl, for instance, they were spilled and hastily vacuumed onstage). While ordinary theaters might blanch at taking responsibility for a celebrity’s remains, it’s typical for Dad’s Garage to seize a mad notion and run with it. The world premiere of O Happy Day is the most conspicuous sign to date that the 5-year-old theater’s reputation for creative frivolity is being heard across the city, the country and even the world.

“What got us here was our style,” Daniels says. “That’s why the Chapman archives wanted us, for our irreverence. Another company could take O Happy Day and do something respectful, a Python period piece of what might have been, not something wild and breathing. We’ll do what we’ve always done, only louder.”

Chapman and comedian Barry Cryer wrote the play in the mid-1970s for London’s West End, but never saw it produced, and the script ended up in Chapman’s effects following his death in 1989. Dad’s Garage became involved when Atlantan Jim Yoakum, director of Graham Chapman’s archives, saw the theater’s 1999 production of What the Butler Saw, the Joe Orton play written in a similar vein of British farce. Unbeknownst to Daniels, Yoakum suggested to Chapman’s partner David Sherlock that the Atlanta theater debut the play, which could then move on to London or New York.

Daniels says that Python fans can expect the play to feature silly walks and men in dresses, but points out that, “The hard thing about O Happy Day is not doing it the way the Pythons would have done it. It’s an ensemble show, and everyone does a fantastic job of making the roles their own.”

Never having been produced, Chapman’s script required some tinkering, but the company has gotten a little help from his friends. “John Cleese and Michael Palin have served as consultants to the show, helping us understand Graham’s sense of humor,” says Daniels. “He loved non sequiturs, like the way the main character, played by Doyle Reynolds, screams ‘Dear octopus!’ at moments of frustration.”

He adds, “It’s technically finished but needs some rewrites. In rehearsals we’ll touch stuff up — this is as much a workshop production as anything we’ve done. Probably we wouldn’t be able to do it without people like George Faughnan, Matt Stanton and Kendra Myers involved, who have a ton of ideas and are incredibly helpful.”

The production coincides with the 11th anniversary of Chapman’s death on Oct. 4 and the 31st anniversary of the first “Python” broadcast on Oct. 5. Apart from American Terry Gilliam, the surviving Pythons all provided tributes and good wishes, including Cleese’s remarks: “Graham would have just been tickled to know that a bunch of American boys were doing his British farce. Then again, Graham had a very tenuous relationship with reality.” Daniels has tried to entice the former Pythons to attend with the offer of a free sandwich, but he won’t be surprised if they’re no-shows.

Daniels’ next big night is Oct. 16, when he’s directing the 2000 Abby Awards Show. Presented by the Arts & Business Council of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the 7-year-old awards honor the city’s arts organizations. “The Abbys are the one night that some members of the business community come to the theater, which helps get the word out about new groups like Synchronicity and PushPush. It’s for all performing arts, as well as visual arts and some film and video,” Daniels says.

“I think it was clearly a good move on the Arts & Business Council’s part to get such a shooting star in the arts community to direct this year’s Abby awards,” says Maria Belais, the organization’s director. “We’re excited to have someone of his age group and caliber of talent in our organization, and even the business leaders have him on their radar. For the Chamber, he’s been a breath of fresh air, but for him, the environment might be a little more conservative.”

“It’s been interesting trying to inject humor into the Chamber of Commerce,” Daniels acknowledges. “At the [Abby] board meetings I often suggest things for the show and they all laugh — and then they get quiet when they realize I’m serious.” For instance, he points out that this year’s host will be celebrity gorilla Willie B., brought back from the dead in puppet form. He hopes that such an approach will make for a lively evening. “In previous years, everyone knew who the winners would be before-hand, and it lasted three hours. This year no one knows until Willie B. announces them, and it’ll be 90 minutes. I’m all about short attention spans.”

Daniels is also involved with the council’s High-Tech Committee, and Belias says, “He’s a poster child for our technology and arts initiative. We’re trying to build the relationship with the high-tech community and the arts community, which have a lot in common. They’re each very team-oriented and holistic.” The organization wants to develop a website to be a portal for Atlanta arts organizations as a means not just for promotion, but to purchase tickets, download video clips of shows currently staged and other ways of taking advantage of the World Wide Web.

“Like the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Dad’s Garage is increasingly Web-based,” says Belias. “Their press releases, updates, ticketing information [are] increasingly online, moving away from postcards and paper announcements. It’s more cost effective.” Live theater might not make a comfortable fit with the Internet, but Daniels says, “We like to think of our website as a way to be at Dad’s when our doors aren’t open.”

Dad’s Garage is receiving increased attention from national media outlets such as the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and American Theatre, the latter of which has named 27-year-old Daniels one of 15 up-and-coming theater professionals under the age of 30, as well as one of seven reinventing the modern American musical. “Which is funny,” he points out, “because I’ve only done two musicals. But one was by Stephen Sondheim and one by “South Park’s” Trey Parker, so I guess it covers both ends of the spectrum.”

Last spring Daniels attended Harvard University’s Act Two Conference on theater, a national gathering of 100 professionals in both for-profit and not-for-profit theaters. “I was invited to talk about small- to mid-size theaters producing new work, and after I returned, I realized that someone has to get new plays into the American repertoire. Partly because of that, this season at Dad’s Garage, it’s all new plays.”

Even the playhouse’s improv shows, TheatreSports, are getting a bigger rep, and the “World Domination” tournament, held each Labor Day, is becoming more than just a campy name. “With visitors from Sweden, Australia and Canada, this was the first time we had four different countries represented,” Daniels says.

If Dad’s Garage is increasingly becoming a go-to source of theatrical creativity at the dawn of the 21st century, Daniels is quick to credit all of the theater’s artists. “I think anyone we have working with us is individually better than the general idea of Dad’s. The attention is great because it allows us to do more stuff. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing Matt Stanton’s commercial about telecommuting. When we do Zurich Plays by Brian Griffin and Marc Cram in the spring, it’ll go on to New York for two weeks.”

Apart from crawling out of bed for the 7:30 a.m. meetings of the Arts & Business Council, Daniels is currently directing the rehearsals of Chapman’s play. “We’re trying to find a place in O Happy Day to set someone on fire,” he comments. Today an actor, tomorrow the world?

O Happy Day opens Sept. 22 and runs through Oct. 28 at Dad’s Garage Theatre Co., 280 Elizabeth St. Performances are 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15-$20. 404-523-2144. The Abby Awards will be Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Center. $35. 404-586-8531.??