Speakeast with - John Gibson and Anthony Morris
Peachtree Battle creators
With the possible exception of Driving Miss Daisy, John Gibson and Anthony Morris' Peachtree Battle qualifies as the greatest success in Atlanta theater history. The comedy about an African-American waitress from Hooters marrying into a rich, zany Buckhead family opened Sept. 7, 2001, and has played nonstop ever since, seeing 44 extensions, 120,000 patrons and a change of permanent venue to the Ansley Park Playhouse. In a telephone interview from a hotel in Los Angeles, playwright/producers Gibson and Morris explain why they're closing the show on its seventh anniversary, and what's next for them.
Why are you closing the show now? Has it peaked, or could it run for years and years?
Gibson: It is something we thought could go on for years and years. But now we're working with people from Sony for a motion picture version of Peachtree Battle, so for us, it's time to close it.
Morris: We feel the next step forward for Peachtree Battle as a play would be to bring in a big-name actor for the cast, and we just don't have that size theater to support it. I think Atlanta theater is open to that idea. You saw the success of the Cybill Shepherd play at the Alliance.
What can you tell me about the film version?
Morris: We're working with producers from Sony who did Terms of Endearment, Shrek, Snakes on a Plane, Broadcast News – the list goes on. We've been in L.A. numerous times working with them. Right now they don't want to go forward until the potential actor's strike is resolved.
Gibson: Waiting for the actor's strike is giving us more time to work with them. The writer's strike last winter probably saved us. We were ready to sign with Mandalay Entertainment, but during that strike, the people who green-lighted us were fired. So if we'd signed, we probably would've been shelved. Then this past spring, we got a call from Warner Independent, who said they loved the script, and wanted to meet with us when they got back from the Cannes Film Festival. But while they were at Cannes, Warner shut down their independent division, so it's a good thing we didn't sign with them. Later that afternoon, we got a call from our agent saying that Sony was interested.
Are you adapting the play yourselves?
Morris: Yes. We fully expected that they would basically take it over and try to bring in their own writers, but so far that hasn't happened. On trips out here, we've literally been spending days in a conference room. The production team is going through the script line by line with us, making cast suggestions, vetting everything.
Apart from cast changes and the addition of topical jokes and material, did the play change over seven years?
Gibson: Yes. We've seen race relations change in this country over the past seven years.
Morris: When we first wrote the play, we got hate mail about having a white person with a black fiancee. That reaction really seems to have changed.
Gibson: At first, when the young woman makes her entrance, the reaction was, "Oh my God, a black woman is involved with this white family." Now the empathy seems to have shifted to her, and it's like, "Oh my God, honey, you don't want to get involved with this family!" Partly it's because of the people in their 20s – race, sexuality – none of that bothers them.
Morris: Has the play changed? The basic premise has always been there, but we've made changes that most people wouldn't notice. In writing the screenplay for the movie, we have used our audience to test new scenes, so at the meetings we can say things like, "That line gets a laugh 99 percent of the time."
How did you approach adding topical jokes?
Morris: We can change things so quickly. On the day Britney Spears shaved her head, we had a line about it in the show that night. The audience reacted wildly. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we wrote three different jokes before we found where our audience was. It's wasn't about the breaking of the levees, and it wasn't about President Bush – it was about FEMA being late. That's what they were comfortable laughing at.
What were some of the high points during the run?
Morris: There have been lots of highlights, like some really enjoyable outside-the-box moments, especially our guest appearances. Having the governor and first lady of Georgia on stage, saying lines we wrote, that was a thrill. Roy Barnes started adlibbing, and he was great.
What about examples of things that went wrong?
Morris: We had one man who passed out...
Gibson: ... right when the gunshot during the play went off.
Morris: He'd been sky-diving that day and had a little to drink. This was back when we were in our old theater next to the Vortex, and the gunfire cue comes from outside.
Gibson: The woman with the man started screaming, "Help, we need help!" I was downstairs at the time, and I made it up those 30 steps in three jumps.
Morris: The audience initially thought there'd been a drive-by shooting. When the man woke up, he bolted out of the theater. But we called 911, he was OK, everything was fine, then we backed it up one scene and started the play again.
What's next for the Ansley Park Playhouse?
Gibson: We decided to bring Veranda back as a holiday show beginning Oct. 3, and because we enjoy the show so much. Then in March we'll be debuting a new comedy, A Sunday Afternoon at Loehman's. We didn't want the new show to be coming out while we're in Los Angeles. When we first start a show, it takes so much energy and so much focus. We don't want to put on a bad show, because it affects us in the long term. With Loehman's there's going to be greater pressure to make it right immediately, after Peachtree Battle.