EVERY YEAR in the thick of summer, Essential Theatre ensures that the play’s the thing. Last year its Essential Theatre Play Festival mounted full productions of three winning scripts and offered staged readings of three more.
This summer, the event’s 16th, two winners will get full stagings, the number of readings grows to six, and the event moves from Actor’s Express to the West End Performing Arts Center. It still focuses on the work of Georgia playwrights.
The changes give the winning plays — That Uganda Play by Theroun Patterson and Ravens & Seagulls by Karla Jennings — enough performances to qualify for Suzi Bass awards, Atlanta’s professional theater honors. The eight plays being featured this year were chosen from 60 entries, according to Essential Artistic Director Peter Hardy. (A record 75 plays were recently submitted for the 2015 fest.)
Patterson’s That Uganda Play, says Hardy, is an “epic, world-spanning, political play” probing the fact that homosexuality is considered a serious crime in Uganda. Jennings’ Ravens & Seagulls involves four sisters, the youngest of whom is dying; Jennings based the play on a family experience.
These two works will be staged in repertory this month and next. The staged readings begin July 7. (See box at right for the full schedule.)
Patterson, who retired from acting when he began writing plays, found his inspiration for That Uganda Play while trolling the Internet five or so years ago. A story on Uganda’s proposed anti-gay law “piqued my curiosity,” he says, “and the more I read, the more emotional my reaction. I wanted to understand how someone could have that kind of hate. How could a person physically sign a bill with that much hatred in their hearts?”
That Uganda Play was one of the scripts read at last year’s Bare Essentials series. It has been nurtured by Working Title Playwrights, an Atlanta organization that helps develop new plays and has close ties to Essential Theatre. Nine actors play 11 characters in Patterson’s piece, and, although it involves political corruption, for the playwright, it’s always been about “how the personal affects the public.” Everything starts with the characters’ relationships and motivations, he says. “Then I try to show how those things echo out in the world. That’s where the play lives for me.”
Says Hardy: “It’s very much about specific characters, while it’s also ‘funny, passionate, theatrical and not always strictly realistic.’ Above all, it’s powerful – definitely something we don’t come across very often.”
For Jennings, the recognition from Essential for Ravens & Seagulls came when she needed it most: She was about to give up on playwriting.
“I was very discouraged. It can be very tough,” she says. The nod from Essential has helped her “realize that maybe I do have something to say that people want to hear.” Jennings has won several awards, including the Playwrights First Award and the Pillars Playwriting Prize, but the Essential prize “matters most because it involves a full production.”
Essential chose Ravens & Seagulls because it’s “a strong family drama about very recognizable people,” Hardy says, adding that its strength lies in the fact that it’s at once heartbreaking and quite funny.
“I have a compulsive sense of humor,” Jennings says, “and I also took care of my sister when she was dying. Taking care of someone you love, who is dying, is as surrealistic an experience as you will ever have. The whole Earth erupts. And it is funny in the cosmic sense, or in the cosmic dance that goes on without us. It’s a strange kind of humor but on the level of living day to day, you have things like people constantly giving you great food to eat, and you have no room for all this food.”
There’s a lot of strangeness and silliness, she says, and humor “can help you look into the core of reality. And the core of reality is not just a stony silence.”
Ultimately, Jennings sees Ravens & Seagulls as a play about real-life experiences of mature women and as a lesson in “how to come through to the other side of grief and gain wisdom.”
So, there you have it. Uganda, anti-gay legislation, political corruption, epic storytelling. Loving sisters, untimely death, learning how to go on. Heartbreak and humor. Plus six other plays to be read by professional actors. No wonder the event is essential.