The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project welcomes LMDA 2012 Conference — Jaz Dorsey , LMDA — AAPEX

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project welcomes LMDA 2012 Conference

Atlanta skyline

Since this year's LMDA conference ( is in Atlanta and given the topic, I would just like to take a moment to share with y'all a little history of a thing which I like to call The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project.

In 1978 I was recruited to be the first student in a newly founded graduate dramturgy program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Unfortunately I had to drop out in 1980 when illnesses hit both my mother and grandmother back home, so I hitch hiked (you could still do that then) from Richmond down to Atlanta and moved into my grandmother's home at 99 Peachtree Battle Avenue, which, over the next 10 years, also served as the offices of The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project.

My first job stop was as the assistant to the directors - Fred Chapel and Chuck Abbot - at The Alliance Theatre. The managing director at that time was Bernard Havard. The first play I ever wrote was a birthday card to Bernard, produced on the Alliance main stage and starring Al Hamacher. Al still teaches at The Alliance 30 or so years later.

Family health issues interrupted again, but the 3 months that I spent in that position at the Alliance gave me an opportunity to see Atlanta theatre from the highest peak in town. As a German major at The University of North Carolina, I had had the awesome experience of a year on scholarship in West Germany and the theatre city I saw in my home town resonated with the kind of artistic and theatrcal energy that I had discovered in my travels around Germany - in fact, Atlanta reminded me at that time more of Munich than it did of New York. And Atlanta also had a Goethe Institute, which was eventually to play a large role in the Atlanta theatre, as I believe it still does today.

Atlanta in 1980 was home to an amazing number of wonderful theatre companies and an astounding population of artists of all ilks, and I had the historical thrill of being one of the first dramaturgs on the scene. My VCU professors had been "European" - either by origin or by training - and I had also taken an entire course on Lessing at UNC, long before I had any idea that I would take the Lessing route in life. I was 25 years old, a native of the city and the grandson of a Georgia governor, so after leaving The Alliance, I asked myself what could I do in the service of the advancement of the profession of dramaturgy given Atlanta's theatrical environment.

Before going the dramaturgical route, I was a university librarian at Chapel Hill and again at VCU, and as a graduate dramaturgy student I had spent half of my life lugging books from the library to the rehearsal hall, so my next stop was The Atlanta Public Library, which graciously granted me a room at the Main Branch - I believe it's the Margaret Mitchell branch. I dubbed this "The Actors Reading Room" and immediately set up a shelf of research for every production in town. Then I invited everyone to come down and check it out. And no one came. Apparently Atlanta folks don't go downtown - it isn't safe, it isn't tasteful. Actually it's pretty cool down there and the library is right on MARTA, but whatever. However, the Atlanta Dramaturgy Project had been born. Look out.

The most astounding theatre in Atlanta was & is 7 Stages, - Del and Faye Hamilton's shop over in Little Five Points. Among other things, 7 Stages served as the monthly meeting place for an organization called ACTORS IN RENAISSANCE ( except actually we spelled "renaissance" differently and I can't remember how.) I don't remember the exact year that it started, but one Saturday a month for most of my Atlanta years, pretty much every actor in town was at 7 Stages, regardless of Equity status or theatre affiliation, and A.I.R gave birth to many things. Among two important theatres to emerge in these years are Horizon and Actors' Express, both also still playing critical roles in Atlanta's theatre scene.

Right across from the Alliance Theatre - aka The Woodruff Arts Center - is an interesting facility called Colony Square. In addition to having a great food court, Colony Square is also home to Atlanta's Goethe Institute, which, among other things, had a great library. Having spent the previous 7 years of my life studying German drama, this was a favorite hang out. In those days prior to the reunification of the Germanies, the Goethe Institute had some amazing funding at their disposal and was a tremendous supporter of Atlanta Theatre. I worked on two 7 Stages productions of Brecht - MOTHER COURAGE and THREE PENNY OPERA - where there was wonderful and productive partnering between the Institute and the Theatre.

Along those same lines, Atlanta is the Consular Capital of the South. The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project had great partnerships with Quebec - producing the English language premiere of Roch Carrier's LA CELESTE BICYCLETTE - and with Sweden - producing MISS JULIE as part of the program for the Royal Visit of the King and Queen of Sweden in 1988. The consular community in Atlanta has grown - among new arrivals is an Irish Consulate General, headed by Paul Gleeson - and pretty much guarantees that Atlanta is going to continue to evolve as a theatre town at the international level.

Back in those days, The Academy Theatre was located just down and across from the Alliance, today the 14th Street Playhouse - right there where Margaret Mitchell was run down by that off duty taxi driver (who strangely enough was named after my grandfather). Just a short way on down Peachtree Street was The Theatrical Outfit and for a brief while, just behind Theatrical Outfit, was the Performance Garage. These companies were under the artistic direction of Frank Witow, David Head and George Lawes respectively. For a while it almost seemed as if Atlanta would have it's own theatre district in what we call mid-town - and that area still seems to have great theatre energy. Some of my deepest memories are of muggy Atlanta nights of theatre on Peachtree Street, either working or seeing shows at these legendary theatres.

Despite all this, there was still a very provincial attitude towards theatre, often fused with a kind of Southern Christian fear that actors were somehow the spawn of Satan. Having spent most of my adolescence in mental institutions because I insisted I was going to become an actor, I was very sensitive to this. Especially in my family, where it was ok to be on the Board of Directors but not on the boards. Polite people would ask "If you're going to be in the theatre, why aren't you in New York." The A--holes would just snip "If you were any good, you'd be in New York." There's no tasteful way to say this - it just pissed me off, so when the opportunity came to take a job in New York, I went to see what all the hoopla is about. But I still got the job out of Atlanta, thanks to my boss Sheila Biggs, who had moved to Decatur with her husband, Harold, but was still in business with her partner, Katie Rosati, and their company, Biggs Rosati Productions up on W. 54th Street.

10 years in New York did show me what theatre can be at it's zenith, but 10 years of The Atlanta Dramaturgy Project showed me that the American Theatre goes a lot deeper than Broadway. It is exciting to know that this year's LMDA conference will be in my home town and that the dramaturgs and literary managers who are a part of this amazing organization will have an opportunity to experience one of our country's greatest theatre towns for themselves.

Jaz Dorsey
AAPEX Dramaturg
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project

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