Athletes train for years for the Olympics--and then--it's over. But shows that participated in Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Arts Festival had just begun their careers.
The festival's two major world premieres, When the World Was Green by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard, and Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo are still enjoying rewarding levels of success. The former is currently running at the San Francisco's Magic Theatre through May 11, after successful New York and Boston productions, while the latter is playing on Broadway, and was nominated for a Pulitzer, and several Outer Critics' Circle Awards--and it has a good chance earning a share of upcoming Tony nominations.
Ballyhoo was originally commissioned for the Olympic Theatre Festival by Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and the Cultural Olympiad. The play, which has retained much of its original Atlanta cast on the journey to New York, highlights the Jewish social scene of1939 Atlanta , which revolved around a traditional Christmastime dancing celebration called Ballyhoo. Through the story of how two cousins deal differently with the event, family dynamics and issues of anti-semitism amongst Southern Jews are explored.
The Alliance had developed a healthy relationship with native Atlantan Uhry and director Lagomarsino after they had collaborated on the first regional production of Driving Miss Daisy. Daisy holds the record as the longest running show at the Alliance, running there for more than two years, and then touring with Uhry to Russia and Shanghai. During their travels, when the Olympic city bidding process was going on in October 1989, then Alliance Managing Director Edith Love was approached by the Olympics to be a director of the cultural component, the Cultural Olympiad. She approached the native Atlantan about writing a play.
Love remembers when she first presented the idea to him in Moscow, that any problematic situation that arose in their travels would jokingly become the subject matter of his next play. However, as the reality of the Olympic Festival in Atlanta became clearer, Uhry began to think of Atlanta subject matters. "Alfred looked with great pride at his city hosting the Olympics," Love said, "people who grow up in Atlanta, no matter how far away, they still have a real soft spot for the city. . .he said 'I want to place this play in the time when Atlanta was the center of the world's attention the last time. That was Gone With The Wind..." After Ballyhoo premiered at the festival, it opened the 1996-97 season at the Alliance. Alliance artistic director Kenny Leon said, "What was important to me was to have our [Atlanta's] most well known, most accomplished playwright to write something for the Olympics, of which one should be African-American." In the Studio Theatre, the Alliance revived its production of Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky which had premiered there the prior season. Blues, starring Phylicia Rashad, was well received and has been subsequently produced in Hartford, Washington D.C. and Boston.
According to Leon, both of the Olympic festival plays were hugely successful and the Alliance theatres were consistently packed. "It was an incredible time, and we can only build on it... To be here last year and see people pack the theatres to see two shows here, to see people out, to have two theatres packed during a time when all the sports venues are packed--people were coming to see plays when there were so many other things to do. To have to turn people away [from the sold out theatres]--I don't like it, but in a way, I'm thankful."
The success of Ballyhoo has been a boon for Atlanta's Alliance, whose last and only show to transfer to Broadway was Sandra Deer's short-lived So Long on Lonely Street in 1985. When asked how the Alliance is benefiting, Public Relations director Mary Anne Chew, said, ". . . I read the review in the NY Times. . .and I know we are mentioned in the Playbill. Also I've read statistics-- we hope the more our theatre is mentioned in New York, the more the word about the Alliance will get out.
Furthermore, since the Festival, the theatre has grown. She continues, "I do know that we have more subscribers, and we surpassed our subscription goal for the year. Ballyhoo probably was responsible . . . but I don't really know."
Leon is happy both the theatre and the play are doing well, but is cautious of becoming focused on commercial success. "I don't think one, as an artist, should be trying to get the plays to Broadway-- I am always trying to get good playwrights." But for Alliance morale, Leon admits, "It [Ballyhoo's success] probably worked on a local level, with people saying --"Oh yeah, we are on Broadway--let's subscribe."
Love remebers, "As we worked on the Olympics, we kept talking about what was going to be the cultural legacy." Love feels Ballyhoo fits that slot, and agrees that it, along with Blues has certainly boosted Alliance's reputation.
Leon is currently working on the world premiere of Cleage's new play Bourbon at the Border, about survivors of the Civil Rights Movement, which will close the '97 Studio season at the Alliance, April 26-June 8.
"To be working on a play like Bourbon is great," Leon says. And whether or not he contributes it to the artistry of Cleage, Ballyhoo, or sheer luck, he continues,"Producers want to come see the opening. People didn't want to come to Atlanta to see a play. Now they do."
Did the Festival increase Atlanta's reputation as a one of the nations leading theatre towns? According to Del Hamilton Artistic Director of Atlanta's Seven Stages, "Not really." Hamilton sums up his response by saying, "We were promised the world, and the world came and went."
Hamilton's perspective about the Olympics is a result of watching what happened to an entire community of Atlanta theatres who were involved in the Olympic Festival. Hamilton feels they were promised cultural funding, but instead, they witnessed a few bridges being built, and no theatres, or much else in the vein of culture.
Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable), debuted at Seven Stages. The show, revealing the relationship between an old, imprisoned chef and his young female interviewer, has tentative plans to tour to Moscow next season with Harvard's American Repertory Theatre. It would be the first play by Chaikin and Shepard, long-time collaborators and experimental theatre pioneers, to tour to Russia. Yet despite the regional and now possible international success of the play, its birthplace, a cutting-edge venue largely responsible for building up a creative community in a formerly run down section of Atlanta called "Little Five Points," has had a different post-Olympic experience than the Alliance.
Seven Stages has been collaborating with award-winning director Chaikin, one of the founders of New York's The Open Theatre in the early 60's, as a director in residence for a few years. An aphasic stroke in the 1980s reportedly has left Chaikin without the same faculties for communication. According to Hamilton, although Chaikin lost many of his artistic collaborators, Atlanta's Stages, who had not worked with Chaikin prior to the stroke, welcomed the prospect of the working with the greatly revered theatre artist. War in Heaven, a collaboration with Sam Shepard, marked Chaikin first success at the theatre, and a healthy relationship began.
Chaikin told Playbill On-Line he finds Atlanta audiences responsive, and likes working at Seven Stages because, "they let me direct the plays I love." In recent seasons he has directed the works of himself, Beckett, and Miller. Chaikin will direct Maria Irene Fornes' Springtime and Tango Palace at Seven Stages in their upcoming season.
However, it was New York's Signature Theatre, devoting their '96-97 season to Shepard, that initially approached Shepard for a new play, which turned out to be ...Green. Stages knew Chaikin was collaborating with Shepard on something new, so they obtained Olympiad funding and used it to ensure the team would premiere their new work first at Seven Stages, as its showpiece for the Festival.
Chaikin's assistant, translator and artistic collaborator Anders Cato said that both Chaikin and Shepard viewed the Festival as "a way to give a deadline to the piece "-- to finish it before opening at the Signature in New York. Unlike Uhry, the creating artists of Green are not natives of Atlanta. Shepard was involved with other things at the time of the Olympic Festival and did not show up for the rehearsal process or . . .Green's premiere. Subsequent press releases for the show remember it as part of the Olympic Arts Festival, but neglect to mention Seven Stages Theatre.
In addition, the Shepard/Chaikin style lends itself to a different type of theatre appreciation than Uhry's realism. Uhry, who was in Atlanta for the festival and the entire rehearsal process of Ballyhoo, saw . . .Green. Hamilton quotes him saying , "It was quite beautiful, but I have no idea what it was about."
On the other hand, Cato's review of Uhry's Ballyhoo, was that "It was a well written, well acted play....to me a rather safe choice."
In addition to its neighborhood being less centrally located than the Alliance Theatre at the Woodruff Arts Center, Seven Stages is more focused on new work by new artists than the Alliance. During the Festival, Seven Stages invited theatre companies from other nations to come and perform and celebrate, keeping the theatre open sometimes open till 4 AM. However, plans for their mini international arts festival were often squelched, due to a barricade the city had put up, blocking visitors from the neighborhood late at night for security measures. It often was difficult to get to the theatre.
Seven Stages hosted another world premiere at the festival, Blue Monk an improvisational jazz play about Thelonius Monk, by Robert Earl Price. Hamilton was pleased with the production, but did not feel the show reached it's potential. The script is extremely poetic and has a highly improvisational nature, and the characters are billed as instruments, so it requires extremely dexterous performers. Hamilton feels "It's really a show for singers." Blue Monk is being considered by a jazz group in New Orleans, but no other theatres have yet taken active interest.
Although both Seven Stage's Festival shows were sold out, in contrast to the Alliance, Hamilton reported that "Seats in our theatre were empty-- we had to turn our friends away from the theatre because we had to sell tickets to corporate audiences who never showed . . .It was really frustrating."
Currently, the theatre is preparing for the world premiere of Jo Carson's Whispering Horses commissioned by Seven Stages and AT &T, running May 14-June 16. Although Seven Stages reputation was not bolstered by the Olympics, this world premiere by the author of Daytrips is a very exciting coo for the trendsetting venue.
. For more information on the Alliance Theatre or Seven Stages, please refer to the 7 Stages Website at http://www.mindspring.com/~burnett2/7stages.htm, or the regional theatre listings on Playbill On-Line.
For information about When The World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) at the Magic Theatre through May 11, please refer to the regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By Blair Glaser