Theater Review - Seeking the Essentials

Essential Theatre festival gives voice to new writers

When great plays fall through the cracks of Atlanta theater, Peter Hardy’s Essential Theatre catches them. Beginning Jan. 8, the Essential Theatre’s Festival of New American Theatre returns for a fifth year of finding a place for overlooked work by major playwrights, as well as giving new Georgia writers a leg up.

“We’re fulfilling our purpose by doing plays that larger theaters have passed on,” says Hardy, Essential Theatre’s producing artistic director. “When I started the festival in 1999, I expected that we’d be presenting plays that haven’t yet gotten a national reputation. But more and more, we’re doing plays that do have a national reputation, but for whatever reason, haven’t come down here.”

Last year, the festival included works by two of the country’s best-established playwrights, Betty’s Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang and Book of Days by Lanford Wilson, which became, respectively, the first and third-most popular productions in the festival’s history. “I was actually surprised that we got the rights to Betty’s Summer Vacation,” Hardy says, “although after doing it, I realize that it’s a hard one. It’s the show that did the best, but also had the most walk-outs.”

Although the names aren’t quite as familiar for the 2003 festival, the plays have comparably high profiles, and promise to be as edgy and accessible as its past productions. The festival kicks off Jan. 8 with the Southeastern premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s amnesia comedy Fuddy Meers. (Coincidentally, Horizon Theatre will be offering another Lindsay-Abaire play, Wonder of the World, just a few weeks later.) On Jan. 22, the festival offers Gregory Murphy’s The Countess, a love story of scandal in Victorian England, which has played off Broadway for nearly two years.

The third show, the Jan. 15 world premiere of Karen Page’s Speaking Nazi, represents the other, equally important part of Essential’s mission. Each year Essential stages the winner of its annual Georgia Playwrights Award, with Page taking the $400 prize for her dark comedy about an eccentric Southern family convinced that the Rapture is nigh.

“Only current Georgia residents are eligible, but there are no restrictions on style or subject matter,” explains Hardy, who each year produces the festival’s three shows at PushPush Theater, on a relatively meager budget. “I might regret that decision some day. If someone sent us a three-hour long, 30-character costume epic, and that was the best entry, we’d feel obligated to find some way to put it on.”

Hardy’s life in theater includes being a playwright, director and Theatre in the Square’s dramaturg, as well as acting: He still gets recognized for a Weather Channel promo as a bespectacled businessman in the rain. He began producing shows under the Essential name in 1987. “Before we started the festival, we had done about eight shows in 11 years, often on ‘dark’ nights at theaters like Horizon. One of the problems was that audiences seemed to have no sense of continuity or name recognition for what we did. I had done some fairly obscure plays, so they tended to get almost no attention.”

The festival concept came from the idea that there was strength in numbers. “In 1999 we started the festival, thinking, ‘Maybe if we do three plays no one’s ever heard of, it’ll make more of an impression.’ When you do three plays in repertory, you have more variety of product, and more of a draw as an ‘event.’”

Hardy likes to boost new plays in part because he’s a practicing playwright himself, but also because he’s eaten and breathed drama since boyhood. His parents Bill and Martinell Hardy are retired theater professionals and drama professors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Hardy himself was born while his father was on stage. “Since I’ve seen theater all my life, I’m only so interested in seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof over and over.”

The Festival of New American Plays is Essential’s only endeavor each year, and while Hardy would like to do more projects with it, he first wants to enhance the festival itself. “We’ve done well enough that it needs to go to the next level, business-wise. In a lot of ways, we’re still a one-man operation. We’re actively recruiting a more active board of directors, and we want people who can help with fundraising, building audiences, getting corporate and government funding. I’d like to be able to offer the actors more money. We give them a flat fee of $125-$150. If we were to raise that, it might still be a token payment, but I’d like it to be a bigger token payment.”

He’d also like Essential Theatre to do more to help Georgia writers develop their work. While he’s pleased at the opportunities to stage big-name playwrights, he’s most gratified at having the chance to put the spotlight on such emerging writers as Karen Wurl, Karla Jennings and Lauren Gunderson. “Each of the new writers we’ve produced have gotten more attention following the festival. Getting produced encourages a writer to hustle more and keep on writing. Maybe that’s as valuable as anything else we do.”