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Against the current

Playwright Phillip DePoy surfs the wave of new theaters

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Several new theater groups are launching in Atlanta, but Phillip DePoy isn't giving them much advice. "I can only speak for myself," says the playwright, director, composer, novelist and artist-in-residence of the newly formed Metropolitan Theater Alliance. "If you can get by without a life in theater, do it, because it's not that easy."

But for people who want to get involved with theater, he counsels, "You always have to ask yourself, 'How is this different from what everyone else is doing?' If what you're doing is different, if it makes a contribution in a positive way, and you think you have to do it, you should do it."

"Different" seems scarcely an adequate word for DePoy's latest venture, as he writes and performs in Metropolitan Theatre Alliance's Preacher From the Black Lagoon, an original, definition-defying show debuting at 7 Stages July 13. "It's probably the strangest thing I've ever been involved with, and that's going some, considering I was involved in musical versions of Beowulf and Hamlet," says DePoy, former artistic director of Theatrical Outfit and, before that, composer for the Academy Theatre.

Written by and starring DePoy and Lee Nowell, president of the Metropolitan Theatre Alliance, Preacher combines the theatrics of tent revivals, trapeze artistry, magic tricks and traditional acoustic songs in a 90-minute show. "It's like the obvious huckstering of Jim and Tammy Faye, but with a very positive spiritual message behind it all," says DePoy. "It grew out of a year-and-a-half of conversations -- and dares -- with Lee Nowell about what we want to do in theater."

The Metropolitan Theatre Alliance is but one newly formed theatrical outfit in Atlanta, which also recently has seen the establishment of Rogue Planet, Out of Hand Theatre and Histrionics: A Family Theatre. (See p.41) DePoy says the name "Metropolitan Theatre Alliance" reveals the group's interest in reaching out to all performing arts. "Its influences are beyond the scope of what ordinarily happens in theater. Subsequent work will draw from all disciplines and some visual arts," says DePoy. The Metropolitan Theatre Alliance's upcoming plans range from fresh takes on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Mozart's The Magic Flute to a show called White Trash Christmas.

Preacher finds DePoy resuming his active role in Atlanta theater, as he also plans to revive his musical Beowulf for PushPush next season. He's on tap to direct Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies for Theatre in the Square in 2002 and his own Appalachian Christmas this winter at Georgia Ensemble Theatre (where he hopes to cast his brother Scott DePoy, whom he says is "a much better actor and musician than I am").

DePoy left Atlanta in 1997 to head the theater department of the State University of West Georgia. That year also marked the publication of Easy, the first in his series of Atlanta-based mystery novels about Zen detective Flap Tucker. The Flap Tucker books, all of which have "Easy" in the title, take place in and around lesser-known Atlanta landmarks like the Majestic Diner and Ponce de Leon Avenue. "Mysteries give the cities they take place in an almost mythological feel," he says. "But though lots of them have been set in cities like Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans, there aren't as many about the Southeast.

"I used to play in bands in the 1970s, and after playing we'd always go to the Majestic," he continues. "I remember in 1974 or 1975 my little band hung out there one night with Tom Waits, Steve Martin and a pre-Ru Paul Ru Paul, before any of them had been discovered. I condense into the Easy books a lot of things from that era, which is a part of Atlanta I think is fast disappearing."

July 30 will see a staged reading of DePoy's theatrical adaptation of Easy as part of Horizon Theater's New South for the New Century Play Festival, and he's found it challenging to rethink the material for the stage. "It's so much easier to translate someone else's work for the stage than your own," he says, crediting the assistance of Horizon dramaturg Jennifer Hebblethwaite. "It's considerably different from the novel, which was intentional. If you've read the book, characters turn out differently and there are some surprises."

DePoy's fifth Flap Tucker book, Dead Easy, will be released this fall, but he has no plans to continue the series, explaining that its main characters were drawn from his relationship with his ex-wife, actress Heather Heath (their recent divorce is part of the reason DePoy has returned to Atlanta). He's excited about The Devil's Hearth, a mystery with new characters set near Black Rock Mountain and due for release in 2002. "It's my first book in hardback," he says, "so I feel like I'm finally graduating."

He acknowledges that Atlanta doesn't have the nation's most receptive audience for theatrical work, but he's pleased to be back. "I love Atlanta arts and theater. I remember when the Pocket Theater and the Piedmont Arts Festival were the coolest things in the universe, and it's still a great town for music. And even if it's not always supportive of the arts, then why are so many theater companies coming here?" That's a mystery DePoy seems happy to leave unsolved.

Preacher From the Black Lagoon plays July 13-Aug. 5 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid St., with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. $20. 404-523-7647. The staged reading of Easy will be at 8 p.m. July 30 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. Free. 404-584-7450.

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