“Day of the Kings” is the kind of play theaters love but rarely produce. Written by Daphne Greaves, an untested talent fresh out of grad school, it sparkles with imagination and exhilarating language, but it also tackles “risky” themes such as slavery, cross-dressing and interracial love in 18th-century Havana. Throw in the dark ending, and it begs that dreaded label: the tough sell. In a pleasant twist, though, “Kings” premiered Jan. 21 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater Company.
The Alliance is a major regional house — the kind that can open its season with the Broadway tryout of new tuner “The Color Purple” — so it could easily thrive without gambling on work from promising unknowns. However, the company has recently made gambling part of its policy. This season, it launches the Graduate Playwriting Program, designed to support the best recent grads from the top M.F.A. playwriting departments.
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Greaves, a Juilliard alum, is the first winner, but the “Kings” preem is only the program’s most public event. Four other finalists have received $1,000 grants and staged readings to help them move from the classroom to the pro circuit.
Alliance artistic director Susan Booth says this transition is the program’s focus. “Will these playwrights have success without us?” she asks. “Yes. But can we help speed up that process? Yes. That’s what I want to do.”
Of course, a production or a reading can do only so much to kickstart a career. To that end, the Alliance also introduces finalists to a large theater community.
Introductions begin the moment the students’ entries are received: This year’s judging panel included playwrights August Wilson and Regina Taylor. “We chose these artists,” says literary director Megan Monaghan, “because we wanted the students to forge relationships with established writers.” Relationships also were born at New York’s New Dramatists, where the finalists were taken to network with agents, literary managers and artistic directors.
Greaves says having the Alliance’s imprimatur has helped these connections pay off. “High-profile theaters (are) requesting my plays,” she enthuses.
The Alliance’s thoughts have been guided by contact with playwrights and playwriting teachers. Both groups cite a common problem: what Booth calls the “killer challenge” of getting serious support from professional theaters.
Marcus Gardley, a finalist from the Yale School of Drama, has faced the challenge head-on. “Of the writers I’ve talked to, most are not writing right out of school,” he says. “They’re looking for day jobs and don’t have anyone to write for. A lot of theaters are interested in you while you’re in school or when you’re established, but not when you’re in transition.”
This is why finalist Megan Gogerty, late of the U. of Texas at Austin, calls the Graduate Playwriting Program “a godsend for emerging writers.” The Alliance plans to work with these playwrights for years to come, giving them an immediate artistic home.
Marsha Norman, who wrote the “Color Purple” book and mentored Greaves at Juilliard, believes the company can “absolutely” nurture developing talent. With professorial pride, she declares, “Daphne’s work will be treated well (at the Alliance), and therefore she will be treated well.”
Others involved with the program agree. New Dramatists artistic director Todd London says, “I don’t think the Alliance could have done anything more wonderful for these emerging playwrights. … The best resource they have is each other and (this) community of fellow artists.”
Even regular Atlantans are proving enthusiastic. In fact there is one private donor, identified only as the head of the Kendeda Fund, who has given the program a $250,000 grant. Kendeda spokesman Barry Berlin said the donor supports the initiative because its focus on exceptional new writers will not only support their careers but also “bring more people into the theater.”
The benefit to auds should not be overlooked. If crowds fall for “Day of the Kings,” they will get the thrill of discovery, which could leave them clamoring for more fresh material. That, of course, would be a boon for all the writers just leaving school.
There’s hope that other theaters will make room for these writers, and that their commitment will match the scope of the Graduate Playwriting Program. This would certainly make the Alliance happy. As Monaghan declares, “We don’t think this is a market anyone should corner.”