This year's Essential Theatre Play Festival highlights social media misuse, overcoming grief and the fight for equity

Camille Monae (Rose Marie) and Burke Brown (Arnie) in John Mabey's "A Complicated Hope." (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kimball)

Essential Theatre has been nurturing new plays for Georgia playwrights since 1999, launching the careers of successful playwrights such as Lauren Gunderson and Topher Payne.

Taking place now through Aug. 28, this year’s 23rd annual Essential Theatre Play Festival will showcase three new plays and a play reading series. Founding artistic director Peter Hardy joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom and playwright John Mabey to talk about what this year’s festival has in store. 

Throughout the lifetime of Essential Theatre, its scope has shifted from narrow to wide and back again.

It originated as a vehicle for founder Peter Hardy to produce his own plays and soon began to present annual slates of plays by writers from all over the field. For many years, Essential Theatre made a point of hosting at least one new play by a Georgia playwright. Soon after, the festival developed its Essential Theatre Playwriting Award Competition, “still the only one of its kind with the winning plays getting both a cash prize and a full production,” according to Hardy. “The cash prize currently stands at $750.”

Now, Essential Theatre has narrowed its focus to exclusively representing and celebrating new plays by Georgia writers, a specialization in effect since 2012. “It’s very important to me,” said Hardy. “I’m a playwright myself. It’s very important to me to have a situation that is supportive and helpful to playwrights and is the kind of opportunity that I would like to find as a writer myself.”

The 2022 Essential Theatre Play Festival opens with a production of “The Outrage Machine” by Daniel Carter Brown, which Hardy describes as “a satirical drama about the misuse of social media.” He added, “It’s not just about technology. It’s about the all-too-human tendency to make quick judgments about other people without really knowing their whole story. It’s very easy to get terribly angry at somebody when you’ve heard them say two sentences.”

In addition to workshop readings and stage readings, the festival presents one other full production, John Mabey‘s “A Complicated Hope.” Mabey said, “At its core, it’s a story about three very different people – a mother, a daughter, and another gentleman that come together through grief. They all have a common bond connecting to someone that they lost.”

Reflecting on the story’s vacillations between sorrow and optimism, Mabey offered, “What I’ve realized in my own life is, hope… doesn’t always look the way you think it’s going to look. And I wrote each scene with that in mind so that there are sparks of hope in each scene, and the characters discover them, and work their way to find them.”

Mabey brings a background in mental health counseling to his work, which he credits spurs him to become a “much better writer.” He said, “In my training as a counselor, I’ve… clocked hundreds of hours with clients where the goal is to sit with the other person through active listening, and listen to them speak both what they’re saying, but also what’s beneath and between the words. Because we don’t often say what we mean, especially when we’re trying to fight something within ourselves. And so I bring that into my writing – everything the characters want to say but struggle to say.”

John Mabey’s “A Complicated Hope” opens on Aug. 5 at the West End Performing Arts Center. More on this year’s Essential Theatre Play Festival and its other events and productions can be found at