I've always thought the phrase "world premiere" contains a little wishful thinking. It's just a grand term for a play receiving its inaugural production. Just because a show has never seen the light of day before its opening that night doesn't mean it'll have any further life after it closes. The world may not even notice.
Whether they thrive or sink without a trace, world premieres provide the defining characteristic of Atlanta's 2005-2006 theater season. Most of this city's theatrical brain trust aspires to cultivate and launch new writers, and this year those ambitions paid off. Virtually every inside-the-Perimeter playhouse -- except, obviously, the Shakespeare theaters -- staged new plays, many by local writers.
Granted, many of the biggest events were established works from out of town, like Jelly's Last Jam at the Alliance Theatre, or 7 Stages' Caryl Churchill Festival. Since new, at times rough-edged works may not spur ticket sales, they frequently embody a playhouse's sense of identity and values. By their new plays shall we know them.
Under Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, the Alliance premiered two newbies. Kenneth Lin's ...," said Said, winner of the theater's second Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, explored dying languages and the persistence of terrorism and torture. "The bigger, the better" seem to be the watchwords for the kind of dramatic material the award supports: The third Kendeda winner, Darren Canady's False Creeds, takes place against the backdrop of the race riots of 1921 Tulsa and promises a similar big-canvas work for next year.
The Alliance also staged Bluish, the sharpest work to date of Atlanta's Janece Shaffer. Though Bluish touches on the comic possibilities of a WASPy woman who discovers her hidden Jewish heritage, Shaffer focused primarily on the tension between the cultural and the religious aspects of American Jewishness. Bluish, as a smart, cosmopolitan play set in Atlanta, neatly defines the Alliance's target audience.
Religious themes extended to other theaters. Horizon Theatre's A Perfect Prayer, by Suehyla El-Attar (incidentally, a scene-stealing actress in Bluish), explored growing up Muslim in Mississippi and affirmed Horizon's fascination with the cultural changes in the New South. Theatrical Outfit's comedy-drama Keeping Watch by Thomas Ward felt a little more Old South and "churchy" in its portrait of small-town Alabama, but emerged as the season's finest new work.
Actor's Express typically gravitates to edgy new work, and may have gotten more than it bargained for with Love Jerry, Megan Gogerty's musical about the repercussions of child molestation (and one of last year's Kendeda finalists). Love Jerry faced some misguided protests for its uncomfortable themes but achieved an almost unbearably powerful catharsis.
7 Stages frequently stages works that can be avant-garde and perplexing, but Come On in My Kitchen by playwright-in-residence Robert Earl Price gave the audience more entry points with its dense, poetic juxtaposition of bluesman Robert Johnson's legendary Faustian bargain and the political careers of Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.
Humor and youth remain watchwords at Dad's Garage Theatre, as demonstrated in this year's theme The Birds and the Bees at its annual new short play festival, 8 1/2 x 11. More intriguing is the company's interest in corporate satire, shown in the spring's Get Downsized! an inventive, dialogue-free workplace spoof, and Travis Sharp's upcoming Lawrenceburg, about a Wal-Mart-style superstore destroying a small town, opening Fri., June 23.
Steve Yockey may have been the year's most prolific writer, debuting new shows (frequently of short plays) at Dad's Garage, Actor's Express and Savage Tree Arts Project. Out of Hand Theatre's Cartoon represents the writer's most fascinating and ambitious work to date. Its combination of Orwellian tyranny and animated slapstick provided the kind of madcap event of the youthful company's specialty. Woman-oriented Synchronicity Performance Group staged the staggeringly ambitious, company-generated Women and War, presenting a multiplicity of feminine perspectives on armed conflicts. Jewish Theatre of the South offered a disappointing dud in Chopped Liver in Paradise, a thin comedy that didn't do justice to the company's intellectual curiosity, despite its promising cruise-ship premise.
Even smaller theaters have gotten into the act. Neighborhood Playhouse, a longtime stronghold of tired chestnuts, changed its name to Theatre Decatur and in 2006 presents two new works by playwright-in-residence Patrick Cuccaro: the currently running family story An Imperfect Order (see review, p. XX), and upcoming holiday show The Third Howl. And that doesn't even touch on the contributions of such smaller groups as Process Theatre, Working Title Playwrights and Essential Theatre, whose commitment to local writers is so easily taken for granted.
Most theater people I know would wince at the term "branding" and its implication of treating art as a commodity. Nevertheless, the new plays of 2005-06 gave Atlanta playhouses opportunities to define and at times expand their brand. If the best of the world premieres escaped the notice of the rest of the planet, it's the world's loss.
For its 19th season, Actor's Express has announced a typically intriguing lineup, beginning Sept. 19 with Pillowman, a thriller by savagely entertaining playwright Martin McDonagh. Following the Hollywood satire Based on a Totally True Story, the playhouse offers an intriguing repertory of two monologue plays: Pulitzer-winner I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing), the latter directed by Susan V. Booth and starring ace Atlanta actor Chris Kayser. The Express winds up its season next spring with The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which one can only hope lives up to its title.
Off Script is an occasional column on the Atlanta theater scene.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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