Essential Theatre documentary (2016)
We do this work because we love it. I, just as that the artistic director, I don’t want to do a play that I don’t feel excited about in some way. It’s just too hard. I grew up in theater. My parents both worked in theatre, both professionally and as educators. So I first went on stage in a professional production when I was like nine years old, just as part of the ensemble of a musical at a summer stock theatre my parents were in. So I was around theatre the whole time I was growing up. I didn’t specifically think I wanted to have a theatre company for a long time. I was interested in directing. I was interested in writing and acting. Sometime I think in the eEarly 1980s, I began to think, “Well if I ever had my own theatre company, I would call it the Essential Theatre Company.” Even when we did the first festival in 1999, I didn’t think so much of, “This is something that I’m going to do every year, and we’re going to start building a company.” It was more a question of thinking — because up to that point, when we would do our occasional one time projects, I was almost always doing plays that were not very well known. A few of them I’d written. But they were newer plays. I was interested in doing less familiar material that other theaters in town weren’t doing. And when you’re doing not part of the regular season, when you’re just renting or borrowing somebody else’s venue to do a production of a play that no one’s heard of, by a company that no one has heard of, it’s hard to get noticed. So I got the idea around 1998, that maybe if we did three plays no one had heard of instead of just one, that might get more attention. And at that time, really, when we were just starting out, space rental — the money we paid to rent the theater space — was the biggest expense we had. And so doing three plays wasn’t that much more expensive than just doing one play. That’s changed over the years, but, but that was part of the rationale for it. And it worked, really. From the very first year, we got more attention than we ever had before. And what I wanted the focus of the theater to be was to have at least one new play by a Georgia Playwright in each year, each group of three plays. And then the other plays we did would just be plays from around the country that had not been seen in the Atlanta area before. I’m a playwright myself, and I wanted to do something just to be supportive of writers in the area, to give them an opportunity. And at that time there were not really very many new plays by Georgia writers being produced on any regular basis by companies in the Atlanta are. That’s something else that’s exchanged a lot over the years. Which is wonderful. But at that time, there wasn’t that much —
For a long time, I was the only constant factor, but gradually over the years, more and more people started gathering into the circle. I volunteered with Essential, and then Peter and I just started exploring ways that I could get further involved, and he invited me to be on the board. At different times it’s meant different things working with Essential. It may mean working in the box office. It may be helping to sell tickets. It may be refreshments. It’s reading plays, sitting in on auditions with the actors, watching the play as it starts from a page of paper and all the way to a production with audiences. So I really enjoy the process and it’s been a wonderful ride for me. Over the years, first as managing the company, then stepping on and bringing Jennifer in that role — Jennifer Kimball, who is now Managing Director of the theater with me, started working with us in, I think, 2003. Basically the way that we work together is he’s responsible for all of the creative vision. I’m sort of the logistics and communication person. Of course there’s a lot of crossover. But when it comes down to it. He’s the guy who makes the creative choices, and I’m the person that helps them happen. This is actually my tenth year working with Essential as a stage manager or in some production capacity. Basically I came into Essential at the time that it was ready to grow from a one-man show into a process that involves multiple people. And to be trusted with that is beautiful and amazing and something that I’ve never experienced before and I’m so thankful for. The thing that kept me coming back to Essential, and I think that really has kept a lot of people coming back to be involved with the festival in the summer over the years, Is that Peter really creates a fantastic work environment where everybody is valued. And he has a wonderful knack for bringing together fantastic teams. It is amazing how much you want to go to work when every time you have an idea to make something better, the response is, “Great. Okay. Let’s do that!” And some of the amazing people that have come through Essential over the years want to be involved with Essential and care about Essential because of the experience they have working here. I get to work with a lot of different professionals. I come back because Peter is very easy to work with. Most of the directors we’ve had have been easy to work with. In a lot of ways, I’m left alone to do my work and explore things, and I get the chance to try things that sometimes work well and sometimes they go, “No, that’s not going to work. Let’s go back and try something a little safer.” It gives me a chance to expand my abilities as a lighting designer. This is my first year with the Essential Theatre. I have seen Essential shows for the last several years and was invited this year by Jen Kimball to come and do a little bit of technical directing which is a thing that is relatively new for me. Before this I was a high school theatre teacher, so– I have a great love of new theatre, and what I love about the Essential Festival is that every year it gives two playwrights a chance to put brand new work in front of an Atlanta audience. In 2001, we started doing the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award Competition. And so we put out the word for submissions, and there was a young actress who I knew, who had acted in one of our shows, who was even younger than I realized. Actually she was just turning 18, and I thought she was in her early 20s. Her name was Lauren Gunderson. She just asked me if I would read this play she had written. And I was kind of thinking, “Sure kid. Yeah, I’ll take a look at your play.” And I read it, and it was really good! It was called PARTS THEY CALL DEEP, and I was very impressed with it. It was interesting, it was funny, it was well crafted. And I asked her if we could consider it for this new competition that we had. And she said sure, and and we gave it the prize. And she has gone on to a very big national playwriting career. She’s had, I think, close to a dozen plays now that have been produced around the country and she’s received awards and commissions, and she’s doing very well for herself. She was our first prize winner and because she has gone on to have a very successful career, that was very lucky for us, you know, because it gave us someone very distinctive to look at and brag about. One of the things I like about this year’s festival, the 2016 Festival, is that we’re doing two plays, one of which is written by a woman who we have a long history with going back 25 years — or I have a long history with going back 25 years — and then another play, WHEN THINGS ARE LOST, written by Derek Dixon, who’s never had a play produced before. My history with the Essential Theatre goes back pretty far. I think that I met Peter Hardy, the Artistic Director, in 1986 or 87 and I remember that I think the first time we had a conversation he talked about the fact that he wanted to have his own theater company, and so did I. And fast forward a few years, and he actually does have his own theater company. I’m really weak at sending my play out into the world where people in towns where I’m not living and people I don’t know in rooms I’m not going to be in, where they might possibly be able to work on the play, because — because it matters, because I enjoy it so much. I get so fed off of being in the room with people doing it that I’m really weak about letting it go have a life of its own. And so for me that’s kind of a challenge. And that’s actually a thing that that the Essential and the history that I have with it, and that other playwrights have with it, is encouraging to me. Because at this point there are so many writers who have been supported and nurtured by the Essential Theatre who have sent their work out into the world and have had it done all over the place. I’m not a known writer. I had never written anything before. I was wanting to submit this play out to a theater company, and I was researching Atlanta theaters and Essential Theatre popped up on my search list, and there was an ad that said, “Submit plays for this contest,” and you don’t have to have an agent or an artistic statement. Just submit your piece and– And I did, and a couple months later, I heard that I won. This cast has been a particularly wonderful, gorgeous, talented cast. And I know when when I wrote this play, I had characters. I saw the characters in my mind. And I don’t remember what how I saw them anymore, because these people have become these characters for me. And I think any time I work on this script in the future, I’m going to hear their voices and see their faces. This being my first show with Essential, it’s been a lovely experience of nice, generous artists who are giving a lot of their time and energy to this production and to the other show that’s running at the same time, and I love the focus on the playwrights. My mother is actually a playwright as well, and from Georgia, so it’s nice to have a production that is so directly involved with the playwright. Karen has been in a lot of our rehearsals. We were able to interact and ask questions of her if she’s there. They’ve done a little bit of rewriting, but not any of those massive rewrites at the last minute that people sometimes are worried about if the playwright’s in the room. It seems like a really healthy relationship between director and playwright at this theatre, and that’s been fun to be a part of. I like the people that Peter finds to work on his shows. I like the plays that Essential Theatre Company produces. They’re always interesting, and I know that they go through a huge vetting process to find the winners of the play contest. When I’m not doing a play, I do come and see them. What separates Essential Theatre from the rest is that it’s always new plays by Georgia playwrights, and it’s really, really interesting to help nurture that talent here in the state of Georgia, and to nurture playwrights and to give them an opportunity for new works to be produced. Otherwise we’d be stuck doing everything that everybody else has always done. You want to be a part of Essential Theatre because of its collaborative type spirit. It’s just that easy. It’s just that simple. The people that I have been a part with, I literally have lifetime friendships with. How did it happen? Essential Theatre. You know what I mean? It’s essential to have Essential Theatre, to be a part of that. This company itself has allowed me to meet people I never would have met had I not come. I’ve shot my own projects, produced my own projects, with people that I met with the Essential. Everybody that I know that is dealing with this is, like, a mover and a shaker or are going to be movers and shakers. I think as a female artist in this industry, it is so important to find plays that offer strong female characters, that offer a female playwright an opportunity to produce something, and a bunch of different things that can only really happen when local theaters begin fostering and developing those opportunities themselves. You can’t just wait for Broadway to call and go, “You know, we’d really like to do a play by a woman that features strong women.” Because probably that hasn’t been workshopped around enough or they’re just gonna not take a bet on something that’s so new. So I think one of the reasons that local artists should give their time to Essential Theatre, and one of the reasons I’ve been happy to, is to nurture those opportunities for artists of various backgrounds and cultures and whatnot, to have the opportunity to get their work seen and professionally produced. So if I’m coming to you, and I’m saying “This is a great organization,” Number one, you get a chance to work with people who are up-and-coming. You get to work with plays that are new. You get to help form how a playwright take a piece and goes forward with it. So that chance to be sort of on the cutting edge, but also the chance to work in a way that is The way theatre should be, which is not a huge budget, problem solving, figuring out how to make things work and get a beautiful production out of something small and get back to the essence of what are the words, without the clutter? It’s going to challenge you iIn all the ways that you should want to be challenged. It’s going to challenge you if you’re an actor working on new material. You’re the very first person to coin that character. You’re going to get to work with the playwright in the room. If you’re a writer, you you should be trying to get your work produced, so submit submit submit, and cross your fingers. And come and see the work to hear what other people are doing. If you’re a technical artist, a designer, it’s easy to design when tje sky’s the limit and money is no object. It’s going to hone your craft more if your resources are more limited, to create magic with less. Those are all reasons why you should want come work for Essential. I think people should come and work with Essential because it’s fulfilling for the actors, it’s fulfilling for the directors. It’s fulfilling for the artistic people that are involved in set design, scenic design, lighting design, props, costumes, all of that. You can see I’m in a costume now. Beautiful makeup job. This is a fake beard. Do you love the arts? Do you love Atlanta? And if you do, why wouldn’t you want to work with Essential Theatre? They’re all of that and more. They have the essence of the South, which I think is really important. But then they also have the essence of the city of Atlanta. And then of course the writers that are coming out of our state and out of our communities, which have stories to tell that are our stories. And so why wouldn’t I, as a local artist, want to tell those stories? To become a well-rounded theatre artist. To be exposed to it, to participate in it and, you know, you can own that and use that for many many years. For people who have been here in Atlanta doing theatre for a while, it’s kind of like a reunion every summer. For people who are new to town, it’s a great way to meet a bunch of folks and figure out where you want to go next. So that’s, that is a thing that I love about being involved with Essential Theatre. There’s nothing like a full production of a play to really bring it to life and to teach the writer and the people working on it about it. Until you see it with an audience you don’t really know what a play is, until the audience is in the room with it. It’s that growth. It’s the respect. It’s the fact that I don’t think about whether Essential is going to be there or not. I know it is, and I’m very proud that with my involvement and all the help of all the people who have served on the board, and Peter and Jennifer and the dedicated theatre artists, we’ve made this a company that’s there to stay.