Theater Review - Real life inspires Essential Theatre Festival works

Local playwrights Peter Hardy and Gabriel Dean reveal inspiration for new plays

Where do plays come from? A) The North Georgia mountains B-) A movie house in Chapel Hill, N.C. C) The vast reaches of outer space D) The memories and instincts of a playwright

At this year’s Essential Theatre New Play Festival, the answer is E) All of the above, at least for the two Georgia plays in the repertory. For its 12th year, the festival presents new work by two local writers: artistic director Peter Hardy’s Sally and Glen at the Palace and Gabriel Jason Dean’s Qualities of Starlight. (Rita Dove’s Darker Face of the Earth, which transplanted the Oedipus myth to a slave plantation, opened this year’s three-play festival.) In discussing their plays, Hardy and Dean reveal the alchemy of personal experiences and artistic impulses that underpin a play’s inception.

Sally and Glen at the Palace makes its Georgia premiere after winning a playwriting award at Nashville’s Southern Theatre Festival. The initially lighthearted drama explores the relationship between two mismatched college students (Kate Graham and Jacob York) who work at the Palace movie theater circa 1972. Hardy, 56, acknowledges that he lent some of his DNA to Glen, an intellectual movie buff: “I worked at a movie theater in Chapel Hill when I was in college, so there’s a lot of similarities. But Sally’s a completely made up character. If anything, Sally’s another part of myself.”

Palace’s first act features plenty of pop references and complaints about customers, not unlike a Clerks with red blazers and an art deco lobby. Hardy builds to some serious ideas about sexuality and human connection, partially through naïve Sally’s discomfort with the Palace’s X-rated fare. Hardy points out that in the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for mainstream theaters to show pornography: “We’d have maybe an Ingmar Bergman, then a Woody Allen, then an X-rated film. It was reflective of the breaking down of barriers of the time, and it was a confusing time to grow up. Of course, all times are confusing — that’s just when I grew up.”

In high school, Hardy started creating a list of the movies he’d seen. Palace director Ellen McQueen drew from Hardy’s list for the production’s rotation of vintage movie posters — an engaging detail that brings visual variety to a two-character play on a set that never changes.

Palace is the first of Hardy’s plays produced at Essential Theatre in nine years, and he admits to a little awkwardness about programming himself. “I felt shy about it. We only produce three plays a year, so doing one of my own seemed like a vanity project. But lots of people told me I should, and no one told me I shouldn’t.”

This summer, Hardy also directs the world premiere of Qualities of Starlight, winner of the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award for Georgia writers. Starlight depicts a young cosmologist (Matt Felten) who brings his wife (Kelly Criss) to visit his parents (Patricia French and Daniel Burnley), only to discover that they’re hooked on crystal meth and prone to hallucinate Sleestak-like lizards that dance to Elvis songs.

“I wasn’t sitting around waiting for a play about meth addiction in North Georgia,” says Hardy, who found Starlight to be the best of the 50 or so scripts submitted to the contest. “I thought it had very high potential, with very strong characters and situations. It also has a lot of humor and an interesting theatricality. It’s Sam Shepard-ish, and almost has a magic realism.”

Dean, who lived in Atlanta from 1999-2009 (and worked as a Creative Loafing intern), says he’d been developing the idea for a while. “I’ve written about the idea of a prodigal son who was vastly more educated than his parents, but I didn’t do it justice and wanted to visit it again.”

The playwright comes from a small Georgia town and frequently explores the notion that where you come from is different from who you are. “I think my people got off the boat in 1733,” says Dean. “They were Georgia’s original debtors and convicts — and not a lot has changed. I’m one of two people in the entirety of my family that has a college degree.”

While contemplating the idea of a young scientist returning home to find his parents tweaking like mad, Dean found inspiration from an unlikely source. “I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about how the starlight we see could be from a star that’s not there any more. I can’t remember the punch line, but something about the idea clicked for me as a theme for the play. And the idea of blending drug use and cosmology was interesting to me on a poetic level.”

Dean researched cosmology and interviewed a drug counselor about the process of meth recovery, but didn’t need to talk to actual users: “I’ve had significant people in my life involved with crystal meth addiction,” he says. During the writing process, Dean surrounded himself with images of people addicted to meth and Hubble telescope photos. “Ironically, in writing a play about crystal meth, I became addicted to cosmology,” he says.

Dean recently turned 30 and his playwriting career has taken off in the past year. He’s studying in the MFA program at the University of Texas’ Michener Center. His play Pigskin won at the Samuel French Off-Broadway Short Play Festival, and he’s currently spending a residency with the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., working on a play called The Freeman Elegies.

As an actor, Dean gives off a cheerful, boyish presence — a characteristic in stark contrast some of the extremely dark subject matter he tackles in his work such as incest and molestation. Qualities of Starlight is tame by comparison. “I guess you write about who you are, and I do have a dark sense of humor. These things are rampant in our culture, but people don’t talk about them, so theater can be a way to discuss these things out in the open.”

When it comes to characterizing Georgia playwrights, Hardy, who’s read hundreds of plays over the last decade, says the range of themes and approaches is too broad to generalize. “I’d say there is as much variety in themes and subject matter to the work of Georgia playwrights as there is in the work of American writers generally, or writers anywhere, for that matter.”