Preview: Theater Emory’s “4:48” project gets instant results with four new plays in 48 hours

Atlanta playwright Johnny Drago.
Atlanta playwright Johnny Drago.
Atlanta playwright Johnny Drago.
Atlanta playwright Johnny Drago.

While four new plays will debut this weekend as part of Theater Emory’s 4:48 project, these aren’t works whose playwrights have spent years fine-tuning them. It’s just the opposite: The playwrights have just two days to start and finish writing. It’s the 48 Hour Film Project, only with plays, individuals and Red Bull replacing short films and movie crews, with the finished works getting a July 11 reading at Theater Emory

4:48 is the creation of playwright Edith Freni, Theater Emory’s inaugural Emory University Playwriting Fellow, as part of Theater Emory’s annual residency of new work development, Breaking Ground.

She fashioned 4:48 after playwright Paula Vogel’s “bake-off,” which developed while the Pulitzer Prize winner conducted workshops for students at Yale and Brown universities. “I took her workshop at the Colorado Play Summit this year and she gave her own backstory of starting it,” says Freni. “The process emerged from a similar frustration at what was happening regionally, the thought that there was one kind of play that was happening, the same in every city. So they said, ‘Let’s define what that play is and come up with the elements needed.’”

Emory's Edith Freni
Emory’s Edith Freni.

The bake-offs use source material that its playwrights read and respond to. Freni has selected the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jetha, which examines monogamy in relationships.

The selected playwrights got a copy of the book to read and were to meet Monday morning to discuss it. Collectively, the four came up with required elements for a play, and then went to work that afternoon. After the plays are written, actors will come aboard and the playwrights will briefly workshop the projects before the all-day readings.   

Besides Freni, the event will feature local playwrights Johnny Drago, Michael Winn and Daryl Fazio. Freni knew Winn briefly from their days together in New York — they reconnected together after a play reading at the Alliance Theatre — and met Drago when she came to Atlanta for the fellowship. Playwright Suehyla El-Attar was originally scheduled to participate but had to pull out; El-Attar and Drago recommended Fazio as a replacement.

This kind of writing is different than the work each of the playwrights is used to. One of the reasons the participants were gung-ho is that they haven’t done this before — and wanted to push themselves. “I think the process is so crazy because it requires you to get out of your own way,” says Freni. “It’s about pushing through a draft. You discover so much along the way. This process allows you to get to the end a lot faster. It helps you do it more automatically and be less precious.”

Fazio, though, wasn’t automatically sold on the concept. “My first reaction was to run away screaming in terror,” she recalls. “It sounded like the most horrifying process, but I put the email away for a minute, took some time to breathe and decided to do it.” 

It generally takes her six months to a year to conduct relevant research, then three to six months to get a first draft on the page. She’s looking forward to seeing what comes out of this fast-paced project. “When you are trying to be creative sometimes your logical brain can be a detriment, so if you take the critical brain away and not let it be part of the thing, who knows what your subconscious and creative part is capable of?”

Fazio did ask a lot of questions before agreeing. Her initial thought was to have some characters prepared going into the July 6 meeting, but Freni suggested that the best approach was to have some ideas but be prepared to throw them all away if needed

Daryl Fazio
Daryl Fazio

Fazio has prepared by getting lots of rest and being prepared with the text. Like her counterparts, she is hopeful her 4:48 project will lead to a produced play eventually.

Freni’s own work has been staged around the country, including at Actor’s Express and Theater Emory. Her fellowship began last year and will last through 2016. Being the first Emory playwriting fellow has been an honor.

“It means a tremendous amount,” Freni says. “To be the first is great. When I came in, there was no set way of this working, so I have had a lot of freedom to develop programming, things I hope the next fellow will continue. Everyone here in the department has been great about keeping this on a long leash. Every idea I have brought up seems to have worked out in some way.” 

Besides this project, she is working on helping student playwrights develop their work. She would like to keep a one-on-one mentorship in place for potential playwrights when her gig is over next year.

Freni has been very impressed with the quality of fellow playwrights in the area. She concedes it’s no longer a must to live in New York and Los Angeles. “I was in New York for all my playwriting education and when I was in New York, I was solely focused on New York,” she says. “But it’s difficult to break into because the competition is so fierce.”

It is no longer a requirement for successful playwrights to live in New York or Los Angeles. “More and more, though, I am meeting playwrights not living there who are doing well,” Freni says. “When I came to Atlanta, I was really excited. I wasn’t expecting to meet this many playwrights.”

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