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The National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program has led to stagings of more than 90 plays, including George Brant’s one-woman "Grounded," about an ace fighter pilot who can no longer fly. It's had more than 150 productions worldwide, including one in August by Atlanta Theatre Club, with Courtney Moors (pictured) as the pilot. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

Eyes of the theater world on Atlanta this weekend with national new-play showcase

If, as an Atlanta theatergoer, you’ve seen Bad JewsBlackberry Winter, Lasso of Truth, Nomad Motel or Project Dawn, among many others, you’ve experienced the work of the National New Play Network. This weekend, NNPN brings the industry’s eyes south with its National Showcase of New Plays happening through Sunday at Actor’s Express.

For six playwrights, this likely will be a turning point in their lives and the lives of their next projects. The showcase is an annual industry convening — not open to the public – with some 140 theater professionals and artists from around the country attending. It includes business meetings, but the main attraction is the half-dozen selected readings done before lots of attentive eyes.

NNPN exec director Nan Barnett
The National New Play Network’s Nan Barnett

Founded in 2002, NNPN began as a way to develop original work and find a way to get it seen around the nation. “Artistic directors were making new theater, often with writers in their own community, and discovering that there was no way of moving those plays out of their own hometown,” says Nan Barnett, NNPN executive director. “How do you go about sharing those plays if they don’t already have a New York Times review of success? The idea was that if these people knew each other, they could start to tell each other they’ve got a show that is a huge success that they think can have a national run.”

More than 100 member theaters are involved, with Actor’s Express and Horizon Theatre in Atlanta as core members and Out of Hand and Synchronicity theaters as associate members. Chief among the network’s offerings is the Rolling World Premiere program, an initiative that gives a new play at least three productions within a 12-month time frame.

That’s vital for playwrights. Getting a world premiere is hard enough, but subsequent productions are even more difficult. “We found that theaters wanted to do premieres, but no one wants to do second or third productions,” Barnett says. “A play is not fully developed — no matter how many readings you do — until it’s mounted in front of an audience. Doing multiple productions would allow a playwright to get the work done on the play that was needed.”

The Rolling World Premiere program was designed to give plays an instant track record and to provide funding to minimize the risks of doing new work, says Freddie Ashley, Actor’s Express artistic director and NNPN’s vice president. “The playwright is involved with each production, so there is developmental work that is continually trying to happen,” he says. “Even though the productions have different creative teams, it is a new model — an innovative one — that puts the play out in the world in a different way. It has been successful. These plays come out of the gate with three or four productions already.”

Freddie Ashley at the Kennedy Center with NNPN.
The weekend “is a chance for us to show off our local talent to the industry,” says Actor’s Express’ Freddie Ashley, seen here working at the Kennedy Center/NNPN M.F.A. Playwrights Workshop. “I think the showcase is the most important convening that the network has each year.”

More than 90 plays have been produced through the program so far. George Brant’s Grounded, about an ace fighter pilot who can no longer fly, has now had more than 150 productions worldwide, including an Atlanta Theatre Club staging in August. Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster — featured at the 2018 showcasehas since had 11 stagings. It follows an artist who’s lost her entire family (and nearly died herself) in an Alabama tornado.

The Express has produced seven premieres, including onetime Atlanta playwright Steve Yockey’s Reykjavik and Blackberry Winter (in partnership with Out of Hand), as well as Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, about a young woman mourning her mother and looking for solace on a bridge. Joshua Harmon (Skintight, Significant Other) was an Express playwright-in-residence through an NNPN grant in 2010–11. While there, he wrote Bad Jews, which has become one of the more widely produced plays in the country.

"Lasso of Truth" - Synchronicity - 2014
Bryn Striepe (left), Kevin Stillwell and Tenaya Cleveland in “Lasso of Truth” at Synchronicity Theatre in 2014 (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

Synchronicity was one of three companies to stage Lasso of Truth, playwright Carson Kreitzer’s Wonder Woman origin story, in 2014. In 2018, it staged a Rolling World Premiere production of Jennifer Barclay’s Ripe Frenzy, about a high-school shooting. Also in 2018, Horizon staged Carla Ching’s Nomad Hotel, about two unlikely friends trying to outrun their parents’ mistakes, and in 2017 did Karen Hartman’s Project Dawn, a fact-based drama about an innovative court designed to transform the lives of women in the sex trade.

Member theaters submit plays for each year’s showcase, and a committee whittles the entries to six. The goal is a diversity of work from playwrights across the country not focused on a single topic. None of this year’s playwrights are local, but almost 40 Atlanta performers will participate in the readings.

More than 85 percent of the showcased plays become Rolling World Premieres, so the event truly opens doors. “A lot of theaters use this event as a shopping trip,” says Ashley. “Not only to find plays but talk to other theaters about brokering these world premieres.”

This year’s plays and playwrights are the following:

  • Cave Canem, a dark comedy by A. Emmanuel Leadon that deals with race relations and the bond between neighbors.
  • Up the Ladder, Down the Slide by David Valdes, in which two friends find themselves coping with declining parents.
  • Predictor by Jennifer Blackmer, the real-life story of the woman who invented the home pregnancy test.
  • The Promotion by Joe Giovannetti, about two friends competing for the same job.
  • Spay by Madison Fiedler, a piece about addiction.
  • A Great Migration by Preston Choi, about a mother, her TEDx Talk and her three sons, who are hunting for their father to avoid getting drafted into the Korean army.
"Blackberry Winter" - Actor's Express -
Joe Sykes as Gray Mole in “Blackberry Winter” (2015), an NNPN Rolling World Premiere coproduced by Actor’s Express and Out of Hand Theater (Photo by Chris Bartelski)

Atlanta last hosted the showcase 10 years ago, and Barnett says the committee has been eager to return. “Atlanta has multiple theaters in the network, and we love to go to a city that does. It helps with the hosting of the event.” Horizon Theatre has provided rehearsal space, and Synchronicity Theatre will host a business meeting.

Besides offering theater artists and playwrights the opportunity to connect, the weekend is a chance to show off Atlanta as a major regional theater presence. “It’s incredibly important,” Ashley says. “It’s a chance for us to show off our local talent to the industry. I think the showcase is the most important convening that the network has each year.”