Southern Comfort 

Folksy favorites keep whistling 'Dixie' while Horizon Theatre nurtures contemporary perspectives on the New South

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Some of the festival's "alumni" have received national attention, such as Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl, which had its first workshop at Horizon and debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Lisa Adler sees such successes as a fringe benefit. "Our intention is to build relationships with playwrights. A lot of other national play festivals tend to be just workshops, but until a writer sees a play fully produced, they can't move on, they can't grow as writers. We have a commitment to give full productions to plays in our workshops, so this festival is really for them."

Adler says attendance at the New South festival has steadily grown. "Over the first three years, we've doubled the audience for the festival on the main stage, and doubled the readings as well." But it's not a self-sufficient event. "The festival costs $200,000, so it's really expensive to produce," says Adler. "The money's mostly raised through our commercial stuff like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," a cheerful, toothless musical about modern relationships.

Which brings us back to the land of cotton. Playhouses re-stage the popular Southern Comfort shows not just to please its fans or to court new patrons. They stage them because they're proven moneymakers that help fund theaters' riskier productions, which tend to draw smaller audiences. Palmer Wells says Smoke on the Mountain and Sanders Family Christmas help subsidize the rest of Theatre in the Square's season.

"The big performing arts are like that," says DePoy. "People call Broadway 'The Museum of Broadway' because they do such old plays, or old-fashioned revivals of shows they know will work. The ASO makes money not by doing new symphonies or new operas, but Mozart and Puccini. That's where the audience is."

DePoy, whose brother plays Uncle Stanley in Smoke, would love to have his own perennially popular show. While not yet a cash cow like Smoke on the Mountain, DePoy's Appalachian Christmas Homecoming is growing into something of a cash calf. "It played at two theaters last year, and is going to be at five this year. If I had four or five plays that were produced that often, I wouldn't have to worry about the electrician coming today.

"Appalachian gets produced in places I'm always surprised," he continues. "Even outside the immediately contiguous Appalachian states, people still like it. It was the biggest moneymaker in the 20-year history of Seattle's Taproot Theater. One of the guys from Seattle said, 'It's like a family reunion -- and that kind of thing is something people in the South do better than people in other parts of the country.' When you can accomplish that feeling in anything, people like it."

While folks line up at Theatre in the Square to get reacquainted with the Sanders, attending a gathering of Negro Dance Lesson's dysfunctional Harper brood is a harder sell. Both kinds of Southern theater can strike universal chords with audiences. But at a hypothetical reunion, who would you rather sit next to? The brutally honest uncle who talks about the skeletons in the family closet? Or the doting aunt who's generous with hugs and gives you heaping helpings of dessert? Given the choice, Atlanta audiences lean toward plays whose message is no more profound than, "Y'all come back now, you hear?"

Smoke on the Mountain plays July 9-Aug. 4 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com Negro Dance Lesson plays in repertory with Easy through July 19 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450. www.horizontheatre.com

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