By Howard Pousner
Atlantan Pearl Cleage has been awarded a three-year residency by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand her work with the Alliance Theatre.
The playwright-novelist already is the Artist-in-Dialogue at the Alliance, where her credits have included “The Nacirema Society Presents…,” “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” “Flyin’ West” and “What I Learned in Paris,” the world premiere that opened the current season. But as part of the Mellon Foundation’s initiative, she will join the full-time staff, with salary and benefits.
“I’ve been working in theater for a long, long time and there’s a moment when you kind get tired of being a gypsy — going from one theater and town to the next, always trying to find a place to develop something,” Cleage said Tuesday. “This gives me a place to really dig in and work with the other people there, and that’s great.”
The goal of the $3.7 million project, which will provide residencies to 14 playwrights nationally, is to give the writers a stronger voice in nonprofit theater and to stem the talent drain to better paying work in film and TV.
Cleage’s voice already resonates at the Alliance, where she’s in her second year as Artist-in-Dialogue, a part-time role in which she works as an advocate and conductor of community dialogue and engagement. The Mellon support will allow her and all 14 playwrights to focus more fully on their writing, liberating them from the struggle to make ends meet.
The playwright said she’s currently “really obsessed with telling Atlanta stories,” and has two projects in mind that the Mellon backing will enable her to continue.
The Alliance did not release financial terms of the residency, but it is believed to be worth more than $225,000 over three years.
The theater expects to benefit in many ways from Cleage’s expanded role. She will continue to be involved in audience engagement, but also season planning, mentoring young playwrights involved in the Alliance’s National Graduate Playwriting Competition, advising the theater’s High School Collision Project, teaching advanced playwriting workshops and serving as an artistic liaison to administrative leaders.
The grant, she said “really pushes the theaters toward looking at the artists as not just people who are going to come in and write a play and leave but people who have something valuable to say about how to build an institution.”
Next up for Cleage at the Alliance are free performance readings of “Dear Dr. King” at 1 and 3 p.m. Jan. 21. Inspired by the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Cleage’s script uses the voice of teenagers to explore issues of legacy and the power that each individual life can play in effecting social change. (To RSVP for free tickets: 404-733-4749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre also shared in the Mellon excitement. Peter Nachtrieb, whose play “Bob” opens there Jan. 17, was selected for a residency with San Francisco’s Z Space.
The Alliance launched the National Graduate Playwriting Competition, which solicits scripts from leading U.S. master of fine arts/graduate programs, to help student playwrights begin to build careers in the professional theater world much like Cleage’s.
The next Alliance playwriting winner is “Bike America,” written by Mike Lew from the Juilliard School’s Drama Division, which will receive its world premiere on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage Feb. 1-24. It’s the story of Penny, a student who struggles to find her place in the world.
Artful new year greeting
Strings of colorful fabric have been waving at passing drivers at 50 public spots around the city of Atlanta since the new year, no doubt causing some motorists to wonder what gives. It’s Atlantan John Morse’s latest public art creation, “Rainbow Prayer Flags,” loosely based on ancient Tibetan and Indian prayer flags.
“The notion is that as wind blows over them, they will convey good will,” Morse explained. “It’s a small love letter to Atlanta.”
Find a brief video on the project and map of the flag sites at www.stardogstudio.com. HOWARD POUSNER