Now in its 20th season, the Georgia Ensemble Theatre led by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Farley and Anita Allen-Farley has worked to build the most vibrant and exciting theater OTP (outside the perimeter).
Now, as Bob puts it, GET has reached a level of stability – that means it has the financial wherewithal – to take the next step in regional theater and begin commissioning new and original works for the stage.
Key to this step was the fortuitous meeting between the Farleys and Atlanta playwright Topher Payne in the course of producing Payne’s “Tokens of Affection” a couple of years ago. Bob said in developing GET’s next five-year plan, they got together.
“The theater has committed itself to creating new plays and new musicals whenever we can. I had met Topher but I didn’t really know him that well, until we did ‘Affection.’ We finally got together and discussed this play [‘Affection’] that he had already written the first draft for,” Farley said.
That worked so well, Bob and Anita decided to ask Payne to be the playwright to work with them to do a play together. The result was to commission Payne’s next play, which premiered as “Swell Party” and will run through Sunday, Jan. 27.
They met over a pancake breakfast at the Thumbs Up restaurant, about a stone’s throw from the theater. There, Payne had been researching another possible play about the friendship of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
“In the course of my research, I came upon an article that mentioned his friendship ‘with Libby Holman, the notorious actress and murderer.’ And that is all it said. As if I was supposed to know the Libby Holman case,” Payne said.
Payne quickly searched the Internet and found out about the case and how she was involved with the R.J. Reynolds family and the youngest son, Smith Reynolds, who mysteriously dies violently at the family mansion in 1932. There was never much of an investigation into his death since it was quashed by his aunt, Kate Reynolds; such was the power that family wielded in Winston-Salem, N.C.
At that breakfast, Payne pitched the idea of using the themes of power, money and death in the play, and by the way, it will be a wickedly funny comedy.
Longtime GET actor-director Shannon Eubanks was Farley’s choice as director to begin what was a long collaboration of about seven months. Of course, it didn’t seem very long for Payne and Farley because they committed to an opening date long before they had a script.
With the deadline facing them, Payne said he began to put the story together – a bit of Agatha Christie mystery, a wry look at Southern manners and the inevitable culture clash with Libby Holman, the New York actress who marries the youngest son of a tobacco tycoon.
Farley says what makes Payne’s lines so funny is that he is “so intrinsically connected to his characters when he writes a joke.”
That is what makes the dialogue so snappy and funny, because they reveal the truth about the character.
“The line works only in that play, only with that character and only in that moment,” Farley said.
Payne explained the humor with the observation that funny people become even funnier when they are put in extreme circumstances.
“You become much more yourself when the temperature is turned up,” he said.
So the audience has to listen carefully throughout the play, which is hard to do when you laugh a lot of the time. So many of the elements of conflict were already in the story waiting – before Payne ever began to write.
Take the character of Libby. She is a quintessential New York actress who climbs her way into show business. Then, she is dropped into the Southern equivalent of the Hamptons where everything she says or does seems out of place.
The result of it all is a screamingly funny play, and the real thrill is it has never been seen before.
Yes, the Farleys and GET have arrived at a new plateau. Financial stability has fueled artistic horizons. At a time when the arts are under a lot of pressure, GET has weathered the storm and come out the other side.
And with that, we have every right to expect the next 20 years will be better than the first 20.