SheATL, the summer theater festival that first began as SheNYC and SheLA, will host live performances this week in its first in-person staging after last year’s all-digital debut. The festival specializes in elevating new, young, and emerging women and non-binary theater writers in Atlanta, and also empowers writers by facilitating production needs that, for new artists, can be difficult to source and fund. SheATL executive producers Erika Miranda and Caitlin Hargraves joined “City Lights” senior producer Kim Drobes along with playwright Grace Aki, whose play “To Free a Mockingbird” will be on the stage at this year’s festival.
The event aims to tip the scales in an art form historically dominated, like so many others, by men. “Out of… the disproportionate amount of plays being produced on Broadway that were written and produced by male-identifying artists, versus female-identifying or non-binary artists, that’s sort of the seed that was planted by SheNYC,” said Hargraves. “Erika and I were approached by the SheNYC team and thought that Atlanta would make a really good home for this as well, with all the amazing artists we’ve got. Overall, our mission is to prove that there’s no reason for male artists to have the overwhelming majority of produced work.”
In addition to providing assistance to playwrights in staging, lighting and set design, a unique benefit of working with the festival is its mentorship program. “That’s another part of our festival that I think makes it really special,” said Miranda. “Each festival provides a mentor to each of the shows… and it’s all so versatile in how that tool gets used.” The mentors bring in knowledge from many different areas of play production, and any given playwright might seek to focus on rewrites, production, stage strategy, or other aspects. “Caitlin and I work together to try to find the perfect mentor for that specific show, so that those skill sets come together in a beautiful collaboration,” Miranda said.
The festival producers put out a call for play submissions in the fall preceding this summer’s festival, and Hargraves and Miranda themselves combed through manuscripts looking for the right selections, with the occasional help of teammates from New York or participating readers in Atlanta. Aki’s play, “To Free a Mockingbird,” was among the few chosen.
“We were looking for very unique voices, and… Grace’s is just about as unique as they come,” said Hargraves. “One thing we were really thinking about this year, coming through a pandemic, is these stories of experiences and home. And that’s something that really stuck out for me, of Grace’s beautiful piece.”
Regarding her play, Aki said, “I try to tell people that they’re attending a stand-up show, in the sense of, like, it’s not. And that’s kind of where I like to leave it, because I don’t want anyone to have an expectation. Because when you say that it’s a one-man play, they expect ‘700 Sundays’ by Billy Crystal, and that’s really sweet and I love that for them, and I love that play too, but it can be so much more.”
Aki took advantage of the writing mentorship SheATL offered, and expects her play, whose story is set in Atlanta, to bring a new resonance at this year’s festival performance. “This is another wave in the exploration of this specific piece, and I’m so excited to present it in Atlanta again, where I feel a lot of the heart of the show really resides.”
The story of the play focuses on generational trauma, with Aki’s own family as an inspiration. “I kept leaving myself, my own stories out of it, and then my director looked at me, and she’s like, ‘What are you afraid of?’ And I said, ‘I’m afraid nobody will believe me,’” recalled Aki.
“My family is Asian-American, and a lot of them bury a lot of their generational trauma,” Aki said. “It goes unacknowledged, and undiscussed, pretty much. So I think this has been a really great way to acknowledge some of it.” The playwright admitted that some of her family members were shocked upon first seeing the play, but that her mother has long been an avid supporter of, and occasional participant in, Aki’s pursuit of theater and playwriting.
Aki described herself as an avid reader since childhood, with a special appreciation for Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But she got a bit cagey, so to speak, regarding her own play’s title and why she chose to spin-off of the name of the famous novel. “I would like for you to see it, to find out.”
The festival’s plays will be recorded and available to stream in a digital version of the festival that will be released in September, in case audience members aren’t able to appear in person.
Live performances take place at East Point’s Windmill Arts Center on Aug. 25, 27 and 28. A full schedule and ticket information are available at shenycarts.org/she-atl/.