Theater Review - Glancing askance

A backward look at First Glance Atlanta

Will First Glance Atlanta warrant a second look? With the close of the city-wide festival of theater, dance and performance art Nov. 3, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the event's organizers will decide whether it merits bringing back in future years. First Glance lived up to its goals of presenting a diversity of original work, yet proved a mixed success when measured against theater festivals of the past.

From the outset, First Glance employed an elastic definition of "new," including a few bona fide world premieres, some revised versions of shows already staged in town (like Atlanta Classical Theatre's Beached Wails) and numerous regional debuts. It seemed to echo the promo that NBC airs during summer reruns: "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you!"

Most of the festival's full productions, like Horizon's The Spitfire Grill, seemed like plays the theaters would have staged whether First Glance existed or not, making the event seem driven less by creative collaboration than by cross-promotion. Not that there's anything wrong with that: First Glance drew attention to more than 40 companies, with the presence of established playhouses like 7 Stages helping to raise the profile of smaller groups like Atlanta Writes.

Developing new work is crucial to maintain the vitality of the performing arts, yet prior festivals have had more focused themes than "newness." Consider Atlanta theater's celebrations of playwrights Athol Fugard and Naomi Wallace in prior years. Those festivals had far fewer participants, yet fostered a greater spirit of urgency, inquiry and interdependence, with the different plays speaking to each other across the city.

The spirit of First Glance often seemed strongest in readings and smaller events like the playful "Chain Letter Play," in which five Atlanta playwrights — Lauren Gunderson, Valetta Anderson, Jim Grimsley, Karen Wurl and Sherry Shephard-Massat — each wrote a scene, then passed the work along to the next writer, with the finished script given a public reading Nov. 2. (Steve Murray was to have participated, but suffered a catastrophic computer crash.)

First Glance may have had its biggest success in the dance community. Creative Loafing dance critic Tom Bell described the festival as "an important event in the ongoing growth and maturation of the Atlanta dance community," adding that "we'll look back on this festival several years from now and see it as a watershed moment for Atlanta dance." I'm not sure I'd say the same thing about First Glance and Atlanta theater. All of the shows I saw were worthy, but I'd hesitate to call any of them landmark works.

For the peak experience of the Atlanta theater community, I recall the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival. Before a global audience, Atlanta's playhouses truly rose to the occasion, not merely staging hit revivals but a lineup of world premieres that still impress, including Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo at the Alliance Studio, Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard's When the World Was Green at 7 Stages and Jon Ludwig's unparalleled Frankenstein at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Admittedly, the presence of the Olympic Games created extraordinary circumstances that First Glance couldn't duplicate. Still, assessing the individual shows that made up the festival, First Glance felt like business as usual. The festival's true beneficiaries may not be the freshly minted plays, but those audiences getting their first sight of Atlanta theater's pleasures and professionalism.

br>?A Tale of Two Shrews
It may not be a parlay worthy of one of The Bard's history plays, but the Shakespeare Tavern and the Georgia Shakespeare Festival have used the scheduling coincidence of their back-to-back productions of The Taming of the Shrew as a means of opening lines of communications.

As each theater is devoted to Shakespeare, they can find themselves in competition for Atlanta's Shakespeare audience.

Fearing there was a perception in the community that they were bloody rivals, Kristin Dunstan, the Tavern's managing director, arranged for the Tavern's board of directors to host the Festival's board for the Tavern's production of Shrew in September. The Festival reciprocated for the Tavern's board last month, and Dunstan and the Festival's Richard Garner both believe that goodwill gesture will help foster understanding between the two houses.

br>?A Guy Thing
John Gibson and Anthony Morris, owners and playwrights for Peachtree Playhouse, have received the rights to stage Anne Nelson's The Guys, one of the first successful plays to dramatize the events of Sept. 11. So far Gibson and Morris have specialized in staging their own works, yet they're |making an exception for The Guys, a two-character piece in which a journalist assists a fire marshal in composing the eulogies for eight |firefighters killed following the attack on the World Trade Center. The play will be staged at the Ansley Park Playhouse in spring 2003.


Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??