Everything’s Essential

Getting back to the Theatre is, for me, like coming home. Like, in person visits with the people and places we love. Like hugs and shared meals; yeah, it’s like that. All the goods.

So, yes, I was more than happy to make the hour drive up Highway 29 last month to get back to the West End Performing Arts Center… and let’s say a few words about that. West End is a truly intimate space, for those of us who love an immersive experience and, the parking is free. FREE. And there’s a Krispy Kreme a block away, for those essential post-show donuts for munching on the drive home.

West End has been the home of Essential since 2014, when they left the Actor’s Express space at King Plow to claim this charming little facility. Director and prime mover Peter Hardy has been at the helm of this mighty little engine since its beginnings, way back in the 1990’s, when they first presented a festival season with one play by a Georgia playwright and others which were selected by virtue of their never being done in the area.

But as more and more scripts by GA playwrights began to come in – and, as Hardy notes, the scripts kept getting better and better – Essential shifted focus to exclusively feature locals. It is the only theatre dedicated to producing and presenting the works of Georgia playwrights. Every year since 2001, Essential has solicited scripts and presented a festival that spans weeks and gives us two, three and even more plays – in their ‘Bare Essentials’ Play Reading series. It should be noted that Lauren Gunderson was the first Essential playwright winner in 2001. She’s done allright since.

These days Essential receives 80 to 100 scripts a year. From that pool, two plays will be picked. These shows get a full production, their authors get a check and a definite boost up. One of the playwrights featured several years ago in a reading of her first full length script has gone on to be one of the two winners this year: Erin Considine, now a rising national star.

As for this year’s plays: High Risk, Baby was a chaotic hoot, a one woman mess with dolls and puppets and everything but the kitchen sink and somehow, somehow, it all worked. The play was written and performed by Shelby Hofer and its the story of her journey to motherhood, and if that’s not a story fit for madness I don’t know what is. I admire her courage in going full tilt boogie, holding nothing back in either performance or the painful but honest emotions revealed in the script. It was an exhausting but very enjoyable evening.

The second show I took in was Raising the Dead, Erin’s show. Wow. This one’s a gem. A two hander, two women, both of them with a few years and mileage, with one set – if this play doesn’t get on the circuit, I don’t know what will. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between two very different ladies. One’s bold and brassy – that’s ‘Harlowe’, acted by Ellen McQueen in a fearless, take no prisoners performance – the other agoraphobic and timid – ‘Myra’, beautifully, quietly, devastatingly portrayed by Laurie Beasley, whom the program says is returning to the stage after a decade. Well then, Laurie, welcome back. Direction was spot-on, with every move being authentic and motivated. Off stage live music only enriched the experience and the writing is both heartfelt and genuine, even if I would have preferred a different, more ambiguous ending. It’s still one of those plays where I said, ‘Wow. Wish I’d thought of that.’ Good luck, Erin. I hope this play goes the distance. Lady, you can write.

Finally, I made the last drive up this year – and by the way, the Festival normally runs in the summer, but, you know, Covid… to see Calming the Man by Anthony Lamarr White. The play takes us deep into the heart of generational black trauma in a way that was courageous and devastating and all too real. I can’t single out any of the actors – Sundiata Rush, John Doyle Jr, Anthony J Nash and Kourage Cooper – all gave intense performances. I did find the script veered into melodrama occasionally, and gave us the sin of telling the story instead of showing it. But the ending felt earned, and those men will live with me for a long time.

Kudos to the technical crew as well, for scenery that supported all three shows.

I am a huge fan of this theatre program. If I could only win the lottery, I’d be tempted to build them a fabulous facility all their own, and fund the work the years to come. Though director Hardy told me that he’s happy there in the West End. He’d rather focus on the plays and let someone else mind the bricks and if this year’s festival is an indication, he’s definitely putting his attention where it counts. His wish list is for ‘more consistent audiences’ that would allow him to ‘pay people more money’. Here here.

If you’re a playwright who’d like to submit, or would like to know more about Essential, go to their website at essentialtheatre.com.

Get out there people. Support this program.

It’s important. You might even say…