Feature Q & A – Ellen McQueen Goes Local

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The cast of The Local. Photo by Nancy Johnson

Are you on board with The Local? The play, which is a part of the Essential Theatre Festival, is about Atlantans and written by Atlantans. In this Feature Q & A, director Ellen McQueen discusses the concept behind it and what audience can expect when seeing it.

How did you get involved with The Local?

I brought the idea for the project to the Essential. My friend, Jim Wicker told me about a project his playwriting group was embarking on. They decided to each write a piece set in Tampa (where they live.) I said, “You could call it The Local” and my brain took off with ideas.

The most ambitious idea was to have a number of cities all make their own Local shows and then to do national mash-ups, with each city presenting a cross-country slice of America, a show with different scenes from all the participating cities in each show! (Maybe we could call those shows American Pie? Atlanta’s version would be Peach, of course.) The local artists would travel to other cities to share what they’d made, share the culture of their city with audiences in other regions and network with artists all over the country. I still want to do this down the road.

How did you go about selecting the pieces that are in the play?

I knew I wanted the shape of the piece to rise out of the city, and that’s what happened. As I read, and re-read, the over 80 submissions we received and talked to local people about their stories and took field trips and read about the city’s history, themes emerged. One thing I realized is that I wanted to hear voices from many different neighborhoods and backgrounds, I wanted the audience to both recognize their familiar home and to get to peek into an Atlanta that they might not know, to be able to hear from the inside about what was outside their own experience.

There’s a recurring character in the show, The Conductor, who is sort of driving the Local train (trains are one of the connecting threads of the piece, after all Atlanta began as a train station). He carries the audience through the city and through the play, speaking directly to the audience, connecting with them, and connecting the parts of the play. The major themes that arose from my research and consideration were belonging (and not belonging) and reinvention or rebirth – sometimes on an individual, sometimes a city-wide scale.

With time, it became evident which pieces, or which stories from real people belonged in the piece. Some holes in the piece became evident, as well. I had to go seeking the pieces that belonged in the holes. I actively sought a piece in a voice from the “Old South,” for instance. And when I learned that the Latino population was the fastest growing segment of Atlanta’s populace, I thought we needed to hear from immigrant people who choose to endure hardship and danger in order to live here, and why they do it. That piece ended up being written by Dre Camacho, the actor performing it. His family migrated here from Spain, when he was young (legally), and he has worked with a number of undocumented workers.

What has been your favorite part of directing The Local?

The people. I’ve met so many interesting Atlantans, gathering stories for The Local. I’ve learned so much about the city. And it has been an exciting, rewarding adventure to get to work with all the various wonderful artists, and technicians, all the different kinds of home town folk who’ve gotten on board the Local train and been a part of creating this together.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this experience?

While they’re having the experience, I hope they’ll laugh a lot – in recognition of the familiar and in surprise at the unexpected! And I believe they’ll be moved by some of the stories. What I hope they’ll take away is an expanded idea of Atlanta’s identity and a sense of shared belonging – to a place, with the other people who belong in that place. And I hope a new perspective on, and a curiosity to know more about our home town.

How many local authors are represented?
Fifteen. Also two choreographers, four photographers, a videographer, a graffiti artist and more!

What are some of the Atlanta locations in the play?
The Fox Theatre, Piedmont Park, Manuel’s Tavern, The CDC, Spaghetti Junction, and the Cyclorama, among others.

What would The Local’s poster tag line be?
Of Atlanta, for Atlanta, and by Atlanta.

How would you describe The Local?
It’s fabulous! Come see it.

 

The Local plays at the Essential Theatre Festival through August 5 in repertory with Evelyn in Purgatory and Bat-Hamlet. For a performance schedule and ticket information, please visit the website for Essential Theatre.