For more than a decade, Theroun Patterson maintained a cool, canny stage presence in edgy plays at Actor's Express, Synchronicity Theatre and other Atlanta playhouses. His unflappable demeanor was part of the act, however. "In plays as an actor, I was a nervous wreck," he admits. "I don't have formal training as an actor, so going into a new show always felt like starting over: 'Can I do this part?'"
Patterson began writing plays soon after he began acting in the late 1990s, and had a transformative experience at the staged reading of his first script at Dad's Garage in 2005. "That was the first time I felt completely comfortable in a theater." After his 2009 role as a shadowy kidnapper in Synchronicity's 1:23, he decided to retire from acting. "When 1:23 started, I kind of knew it would be the last one. I'd said all I wanted to say as an actor."
He seems to be on the right track in his new career as Atlanta's most handsome playwright. Patterson, 37, won Essential Theatre's $600 Playwriting Award for his new drama, A Thousand Circlets, which makes its world premiere July 15 as part of Essential's Summer Festival of new plays.
Most of Patterson's plays to date are dark comedies that experiment with theatrical structure. But with A Thousand Circlets (named for a line from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), he wanted to tackle a traditional American family drama using Arthur Miller's work as a model. He'd written a few scenes, but nothing clicked until his friend David Limbach had to leave Atlanta to care for his father with Alzheimer's disease. Over lunch, Patterson recalls, "His dad was fairly accomplished — a fire chief and a councilman — and those things were taken away from him. I started thinking about how a family would deal with that. What does a family name mean when they're all gone?"
Directed by Patterson's longtime friend Betty Hart, A Thousand Circlets depicts a successful African-American architect (Tony Vaughn) hired to build a Manhattan skyscraper, and the family crisis that erupts when his Alzheimer's becomes unavoidable. Patterson strove to write a universal story, even though some of his early readers said, "There's nothing here that speaks to being an African-American."
"But that's the point," Patterson says. "We don't sit around at home and talk about how tough it is to be black in America. We talk about our work and how we want to achieve things. It's a side of our lives that I want people to see. Sometimes it feels like there's a hole in American theater, and African-American characters, along with minority characters in general, are not represented in contemporary plays. I wanted to write a play about African-Americans that didn't deal with issues of race."
Patterson's submission of A Thousand Circlets to the Essential Playwriting Award immediately impressed artistic director Peter Hardy. "With over 50 submissions a year the choice can get pretty tough, but there wasn't really any question about A Thousand Circlets being the winner this year. He's really come into his own with this strong new play," says Hardy.
News of the award thrilled Patterson, who tempered his excitement almost immediately. "I went into work mode, since I'd considered Circlets to be the least-finished of the plays I've done," he says. "The production draft is the eighth draft, so it's gone through some changes. I can't celebrate this until opening night, but then I'll let all the joy out."
He works a day job as a personal trainer at IQ Fitness in Buckhead, which occasionally puts him back in touch with former colleagues. "One actress called me because she had to be in her underwear in a show, and she said, 'I have to drop a few pounds and tone up.'"
Patterson won't swear that he'll never act again. "There's been some tempting shows out there. Pinch 'N' Ouch are doing some great shows, and Theatrical Outfit is doing Red, and I love that play. There's always going to be some plays I want to do, but once I get into rehearsal, will I regret not having the time to write?" He seems comfortable conceding the spotlight to the next daring young man who comes along.