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April 23, 2018

Atlanta-Grown Playwrights Welcome (Here)


In October of 2016, the Dramatists Guild sent out a press release about a new program called Playwrights Welcome, which offered “available tickets that would otherwise go unsold to DG members on the day of the performance free of charge.” As the DG Atlanta Regional Rep, I knew that for many of our local members this was like scratching a lottery ticket and finding a pay number. But the program had a more elevated — call it an investment in the artistic future of theatre by providing writers/composers an important tool in learning their craft. With that thought in mind along with the belief that the growth and success of industry writers is integral to the vibrancy of American theatre, the Playwrights Welcome initiative was developed for Guild members by Samuel French and supported by virtually all of the major theatre publishing houses as well as a gold standard list of playwrights.

Of course, this exciting opportunity was dependent on there being theatres willing to participate. Happily for the Atlanta-Metro area, the Alliance Theatre came on board as one of the 22 “early adopter theatre companies.” As Artistic Programs Manager Celise Kalke framed it, “I believe it is to the Alliance’s benefit to be in multiple points of contact with Atlanta playwrights throughout the year. The Playwrights Welcome Program is such a great tool for engagement!” It got even better when the Alliance decided to go one step further and provide any interested Atlanta-Metro area DG members with a free reserved ticket to each show in the season. The procedure was simple: in August we would invite members to sign up for the program and using a list of the season shows and the Playwrights Welcome available date for each, those who wanted to take part would return the list of plays they wanted to attend. Participants could pick up all of their tickets at the start of the season or get them at the box office before each show. The only caveat was that these were to be for DG members only, so any ticket a participant couldn’t use was to be released back to the box office. One member said she liked the name of the program because “with all the fees and shit and so much rejection, I was beginning to think playwrights weren’t welcome anywhere.”

That first year of Playwrights Welcome, 25 Guild members signed up and in addition to the excited discussions among participants after the shows, many of them also contacted me to reiterate their (new) feeling of inclusion as they networked among themselves and other theatre professionals, including Alliance artists, both on show nights and thereafter on other occasions. For playwright G. Brent Darnell, labeling himself as “resurgent” — Playwrights Welcome provided new incentive. “I’ve been trying to get back into writing after a long hiatus and this has helped.” He couldn’t resist adding, “Also, it has helped me to use words like hiatus.”

The most repeated comment by participants was that attending the plays had given them a sense of what was possible on stage and also a reference point to analyze and make choices about their own work that went beyond what they could get from reading a script—even so, a good share of the participants decided to read either the script or something else by the author after seeing a show.

Playwright Daniel Guyton spoke for artists who approach theatre from another perspective. Mentioning that he is a actively produced and published playwright as well as an award-winning screenwriter and theatre professor, he went on to say how inspirational the Playwrights Welcome experience was in terms of the profession: “My normal exposure has been to community and education theatre, but this brought up my awareness to a whole new level.”

There were other “learning moments” including from Playwright/dramaturg Daphne Mintz who remarked, “I would not normally attend the shows for children which I’m now discovering was a mistake as [they] are incredibly inventive in suspending disbelief.” She went on, “I regard myself as a master of story and character development and still a fledgling student just now discovering the power of the sensual nature of theatre.”  Addressing her own work, Playwright Valetta Anderson wrote me that after seeing Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, “I find myself allowing a more poetic language to happen, to not edit it away to make it more ‘realistic.’ And Susan Sandler’s Crossing Delancey helped me relax on ‘issues’ and write about people being themselves.” The result was a complete reworking of a piece from ten years ago.

Another point was that these writers and composers were getting a sense of what kind of new work is of interest now and also how more classical work can be re-interpreted for a changing world. Playwright/poet/lyricist/director Sandra Hodge-Hampton commented that, “As a newbie in the playwriting arena, [it] has helped me see the difference between storytelling in film and that in theatre. I love the verbal artistry that creates the visual images the audience can dive into as the story and characters come alive before our very eyes.” In realizing the “topical nature of theatre, how it could work,” she went on to mention the impact of Mark Kendall’s one-man show The Magic Negro… “because it was hilarious truisms that made me and hopefully everyone in the audience re-think our view of how we might not be as racially un-biased as we think we are.”

Continuing on into a second year of the Playwrights Welcome program, I have the added bonus of thinking about more programming that our regional Guild can build around the show nights from more formal Town Meeting conversations to writing groups to interviews or potential workshops with some of the artists whose work is featured. The latter has greater meaning if our members aren’t priced out of seeing the show. Another treat this second season was brought about by what could have been an inconvenience: complete re-construction of the Alliance main stage. To keep from interfering with a full 2017/2018 season, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director, Susan Booth, and her staff and board decided to build on their philosophy of community engagement and “took the season on the road” by producing each of the shows at a different professional theatre in the metro area. This provided even more of an experience for Playwrights Welcome participants. As expressed by Mintz. “I realize now how exploring a variety of venues is key to the study of playwriting.” Expanding on this idea Playwright Janice Lee Liddell spoke to the power of seeing Native Guard in the Atlanta History Center which enhanced the “play’s poetic structure, the audience participation, the simple… set, and the various conventions representing time and place — [It] broke the walls for me as to what a theatrical piece can be and do.”

Liddell’s comment reminded me of the time several years ago when a very rowdy, tough-acting ten-year-old boy from a low-income after-school program slouched into a performance by my touring company. At the end, as others were applauding, he stood up and yelled, “I want to do that.” That’s the way most of us feel. As Playwright Hank Kimmel sums it up, “In theatre we talk about inclusiveness, but, ironically, many theaters are not always so welcoming to other artists. This is an exception, a marvelous example, of bringing the community together to inspire and share.”

For more information about Playwrights Welcome, click here.