September has always marked the moment of New Beginnings for me—under the turning leaves and crisping air in my Oregon home town all plans seemed grand, anything was possible, and folks were sure to be impressed by the latest revision of me. I was thinking about all that while taking in Rachel Graf Evans’ intelligently quirky play Built to Float at The Essential Theatre Play Festival in late August and then discussing it with the play director Peter Hardy. To put things into perspective, Hardy is also the Founding Artistic Director of the Essential which is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. Round about Labor Day, he’ll already be thinking about Year 21. Graf Evans is the 2018 co-winner of The Essential Theatre Playwriting Award (along with Avery Sharpe for his piece Woke). On Labor Day, she will have said adieu to Atlanta and her position as DG’s Atlanta Region Ambassador and begun navigating the graduate school scene at Temple University. So let’s do a little review.
Playwright/Director/Actor (and DG member) Peter Hardy founded The Essential Theatre in 1987, with the goal of “presenting challenging and entertaining new works to Atlanta audiences” while also seeing some of his own work on stage. By 1999, The Essential had been re-framed into a yearly Festival of New American Theatre that presented one world premiere by a Georgia writer and two southeastern premieres of plays from around the country. Things got even better when, in 2001, Hardy established The Essential Theatre Playwriting Award and sent out an open call for submissions that included the promise that each winner would receive a full production and a cash prize. With an obvious eye for talent and the presentation of twenty world premieres (half women writers) Hardy has now refashioned his yearly festival once again to present only new work and feature only Georgia playwrights. Until recently he did it all as the sole “employee” aided only by family, friends, and some dedicated board members. Fortunately, the addition of Managing Director Jennifer Kimball is making many more things possible including special projects, a play reading series, and some guest artist showcases during the fest. In terms of the script submissions, Hardy says that “We’re interested in what we consider to be artistic excellence, rather than any particular style, theme or subject matter, and we want to encourage writers to feel free to pursue their own ambitions and creative inspiration.”
Rachel Graf Evans knows all about ambition. After academic work at NYU and Oberlin, and some impressive exploits in NYC (props building at New Georges, training at SITI company, literary intern at York Theatre Company), Graf Evans hit the road running in fall of 2016, when she arrived in Atlanta to begin a playwriting apprenticeship at Horizon Theatre Company. Already a DG member, Graf Evans initiated a coffee date, where I discovered she was a Quaker boarding school kid who had grown up in Jerusalem, Jakarta, and Baltimore, sang in a Barbershop Chorus, wrote her first play after a break-up using the LiveJournal Quizz answers of her ex, and – well, just say that with all her energy, ambition, and generous spirit, Graf Evans felt like the right person to fill the shoes of former Atlanta Region Ambassador Amina McIntyre. Fortunately, our new Ambassador also had time to write (and get a literary internship at the Alliance).
In his director’s notes, Hardy described Graf Evans’ Built to Floatas “a magical-realist variation on that classic form of American writing, the family drama.” The play opens with a young woman whispering the words, “For a long time I believed my father loved me.” After some off-center kitchen scenes with a “former addict” sister and increasingly bizarre nagging mother, we realize the oldest woman is actually dead. Quick to assure me that her own mother is nothing like the one in the play and in fact she thanks all of her “lovely” family for their support of the (mother’s voice) “vivid imagination” which basically got her through all the stuff of childhood and adolescence, Graf Evans goes on to say that mental health and addiction are common themes in her work. (And “Mothers Who Are Dead” she texts later with a wry emoji.) Also common is humor within darkness and a rich command of dialogue.
There’s more to say, but what’s important is that Graf Evans is heading toward a great future. I’m going to miss her, but, since it is September, I’m also looking forward to making plans for our two new Atlanta Region Ambassadors. Step forward Laura King and John Patrick Bray. We’ve got big plans.
The 2019 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award deadline is April 23. More information at www.essentialtheatre.com.