Saturday, March 29, 2014

TONIGHT AT ACADEMY THEATRE: Shirlene Holmes's Pathways, performed by Brenda Porter

The Academy Theatre's been up to some pretty exciting things since their move from Avondale Estates last year. With two new homes, one in Stockbridge and one in Hapeville, the iconic Atlanta theater is growing so fast it makes your head spin.

This weekend, they're hosting a long-time Essential family member, Brenda Porter, as she performs the one-woman show, Pathways, written by Shirlene Holmes. Pathways takes audiences on a journey through the lives of some of the most engaging, dynamic and successful African American women in our history, women who have often been overlooked or marginalized by history text books. Sometimes funny, always daring, these stories are exciting, fun and inspiring for people of all ages.

You'll get to know the engaging characters in this story when you see the show tonight or Sunday afternoon -- which, having seen it, I highly recommend. Let's take a moment now to hear Brenda's story, bringing Pathways and Essential Theatre together.

What is your connection to Essential Theatre?
My connection with Essential Theatre began as so many others' - with Peter Hardy. When I was just a wee lass, I worked one summer at Unto These Hills...Years later, I was honored to be asked by Betty Hart to do movement at Essential for Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove, which she was directing...And the rest is history!
How long have you been performing Pathways?
Over 12 years. Wow, time flies!
What is your connection to Shirlene Holmes?
We met in the early '90s when I was cast in her show, A Lady and a Woman, which Carol Mitchell Leon directed at SAME Theatre, no longer in existence.

What are yoru feelings about this play? Why should people see it? Why should you be performing it?
While I was teaching a group of young girls many years ago, I asked my class to identify African American women of note. To my surprise, very few were named. Of course Harriet Tubman, but the remainder of the list included Janet Jackson and Salt and Pepper (both of whom had hits on the top ten chart at the time). The girls did better with African American males, naming Martin Luther King, Hank Aaron, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and others. It was at that time that it became apparent to me that young African American girls were not being exposed to the people in their past that laid pathways for them to have the freedom and privileges that they now experience. At that moment the idea of Pathways was born.

Brenda Porter has a degree in Drama from the University of Georgia and began her career as an actor over twenty-five years ago. Her stage credits include The Story, Wit, for colored girls..., The Art of Dining, So Long on Lonely Street, El Hajj Malik, Home, The miracle Worker, among others. She has appeared in television and directed staged productions as well over the years, and she currently co-facilitates The Practice, along with Jen Harper and Donna Biscoe. Brenda is teaching theatre this spring at KIPP South Fulton Academy. She presently serves as a Suzi Awards Board Member and is the Artistic Director of Impact Theater Atlanta.
Pathways is showing tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2:30pm at the Academy Theatre in Hapeville. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door. For reservations, go to or

Nearly New Festival creator Park Krausen on showcasing work by living writers

This weekend, "discover 'nearly new' work by living writers, performed by some of Atlanta's hottest directors and actors in dialogue with amazing writers, producers and theater makers from Haiti, Quebec, Belgium, France, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Los Angeles! Celebrate the voices of women and youth through plays, graphic novels, and readings from and about the French-Speaking World. Shine a light on contemporary issues like bullying behavior, our obsession with Facebook, our litigious society and mothers and daughters."


Meet Park Krausen, artistic director of Theatre du Reve and the person who first conceived of the Nearly New Festival, running through this Sunday at the Goat Farm. Featuring works by acclaimed writers from around the world, this year's Nearly New Festival also featured a play by former Essential Theatre playwright Lauren Gunderson!

A large part of Essential's mission is supporting the writers whose work we produce, even after the festival has closed, and for this reason any festival called "Nearly New" was bound to catch my eye. Why would a company choose to produce work that is "nearly" new? Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk with Park and learn more about what inspired the festival and why she feels so passionately about it.

How long has the Nearly New Festival been taking place?
This is the first year. It may become an annual or a bi-annual event.

And whose idea was the festival?

Where did the idea for the festival come from?
At Theatre du Reve, we have encountered so much new or nearly new work from around the French-speaking world. We cannot possibly produce all of these plays. We were also looking to connect with more women -- writers and directors -- and look at work for younger audiences. This was the impetus. 

What constitutes "nearly new," in terms of whether a play should be in the festival?
Work that hasn't been done in English or in the US before in public.

Why do you like the Nearly New Festival? What is unique or special about it to you?
It gives us an opportunity to look at work that others in the US might not have access to, simply because it is written in French. We get to share it with the world for a first hear.
Sometimes playwrights approach us with work about the French-speaking world, as was the case with Lauren Gunderson's play, The Revolutionists. We were able to give it a read and put her work together with director Joanie Schultz who has done a lot of new play development in Chicago.

What can people get from this festival that they can't get somewhere else?
You can hear work from the French-speaking world that hasn't previously made it to the US. There is a different history, tradition, fearlessness. The government support sometimes gives playwrights from the French-speaking world more freedom.
We are bringing over artist Beleck Georges from Haiti, who generates work in his country with a different urgency and a different relationship to laughter, storytelling and starting from nothing but a meeting of the people in the room.

Where did the themes for this year's festival come from?
Women and youth are often under- or mis-represented in theater. We wanted to hear from the mouths of babes and women -- be they directors, actors, creators, writers, translators or illustrators.

How would you fill the blank: "If you like X, you definitely want to be there for the Nearly New Festival"?
The Kendeda Readings or Essential's New Play Festival or the Playwrights Center or Youth Creates.

Do you have any final thoughts to share with readers about the festival?
We would love to invite audiences and theater-makers into the conversation: might this work find a home in the ATL? Feedback from the audiences is crucial so we can come back to playwrights, translators and theater-makers with questions and ideas.

-Interview by Jennifer Kimball, Managing Director of Essential Theatre 
and occasional stage and production manager with Theatre du Reve

Friday, March 21, 2014

Essential Director Ellen McQueen Chosen for First Atlanta Artist’s Lab

Longtime Essential Theatre director Ellen McQueen was one of the three artists chosen by the Alliance Theatre for the first Atlanta Artist’s Lab (AAL) program, through which she will be able to further develop The Projects Project, a multi-media theatre piece about the experience of people growing up in Atlanta’s housing projects. The Projects Project began as part of the 2012 Essential production of The Local, a collaborative theater project about the City of Atlanta, developed and directed by McQueen, a citywide portrait of Atlanta that Ellen conceived and directed, working with dozens of Atlanta writers, artists, photographers, and storytellers.

“First,” states Ellen, “let me say a huge thank you to the Alliance Theatre for creating the Atlanta Artist’s Lab, and another huge thank you to Peter Hardy and the Essential Theatre for taking a chance when I made the crazy proposal of a project called The Local.”

The Essential production of The Local was created collaboratively by a number of Atlanta artists, she says. “Included were pieces chosen from submission, pieces that were commissioned, and pieces created from interviews with different Atlantans. The idea of The Projects Project began with two pieces from The Local—a monologue and a dance—developed from and inspired by interviews with folks who grew up in the Atlanta housing projects. I was very interested by what I learned talking with those folks and wanted to know more. Then, the strong response from audiences to the material made it apparent that here was a story that ought to be told and was ready to be heard.”

"Atlanta has long been in the forefront with public housing. Construction on the first housing project in the United States began here in Atlanta in 1934. Techwood was dedicated by President Roosevelt in ’35 and officially opened in 1936. Now we’ve torn the projects down and are experimenting with new models. The Projects Project is looking at what life in the housing projects was like, how it shaped people and our city as well as the rest of the country. There’s a phrase attributed (probably apocryphally) to Mark Twain: ‘Atlanta’s a great city—if they ever get it finished.’ This phrase often comes to mind when I’m sitting in traffic stalled by construction. But an essential thing about Atlanta is that it is never finished, that it is, as its symbol suggests, a phoenix born again from its own consuming fires. I want this project to give some Atlantans a way to share their stories and give others a way to learn something new about our home, this great, complicated Southern city that is always making itself anew.”

“Happily for the city,” she adds, “the Alliance Theatre has instituted the Atlanta Artist’s Lab to support the development of projects that Atlanta artists are dreaming up, providing a way for all kinds of ideas to move from inside our heads out into the world. And happily for me, The Projects Project was chosen as one of the first three projects to be developed. The goal of this project, within the Lab, is not a full production, but a presentation in early August of what we will have created by then. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to experiment and explore (hey, that’s what you do in a lab, right?) Working with me already are James Knowles, photographer, Oliver (OT) Turner, rapper, and Meagan Dilworth, choreographer, all of whom I met while working on The Local. Other wonderful folks will be joining us. By August, we’ll have plenty of good stuff to show. I look forward to getting feedback from all of y’all who come to see what we’ve made, feedback that will guide us in continuing the ‘construction’ of our ‘Project.’ And who knows, maybe we’ll end up back at the Essential with it when it’s completed!”

This new program at the Alliance Theatre intends to do for metro artists what its renowned Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition does for playwrights on the cusp of professional careers across the country. It will provide financial support, a home base and space in which to develop new work. It is expected to be an annual event. The AAL attracted more than 60 proposals from 200 artists.

“Watching The Local come to life as part of the 2012 Essential Theatre Festival was an inspiring experience,” states Essential Managing Director Jennifer Kimball. “It was an epic endeavor, especially as part of a larger festival, and there were so many great stories that we got to share! I’m thrilled that Ellen has the opportunity to develop one of these stories more fully through the Atlanta Artists Lab. She has such a powerful and multifaceted vision. I can’t wait to see the end result!”

Congratulations, Ellen! We’re proud of you, and it’s just one more example of new work that began with Essential moving on out into the world -- that’s a big part of our mission!