With its tree-shaded coves, evocative mausoleums and crumbling Victorian-era monuments, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery is an inherently dramatic place. Horizon Theatre hopes to capture some of that drama as it re-creates Oakland Cemetery on its stage for the Sept. 23 world premiere of the new play “Freed Spirits” by Atlanta-based playwright Daryl Lisa Fazio.
“Oakland is the most interesting reflection of Atlanta,” Fazio said. She chose to set her latest play there because she’s been fascinated with Oakland ever since she moved to town six years ago. “I can’t imagine anything more perfect. It’s got everything. It’s got community involvement, it’s got this long history, and it’s got the juiciest stories to dig into.”
Fazio, who is both a playwright and a graphic designer, said she first started visiting Oakland Cemetery because it was just a short walk from her home in Adair Park.
“I was immediately obsessed with it,” she said. “It’s not a typical quiet cemetery with birds chirping. The MARTA train goes right past, there’s a huge train depot right there, across the streets are restaurants, bars and tattoo parlors, and there’s a busy thoroughfare. It’s as urban as it gets. It’s exciting that way. It makes those little coves draped with crepe myrtles feel even more magical, because you’re in both places at once.”
As a graphic designer for Horizon Theatre, Fazio got to know Artistic Director Lisa Adler and eventually pitched the idea of a play set in Oakland Cemetery. Adler loved the concept, but writing about the place turned out to be more difficult for Fazio than she initially imagined. Not only was there the challenge of capturing the singular atmosphere of the hauntingly somber place, but, also, Adler wanted a comedy. And, though one of Oakland’s most interesting aspects is its long history, the Horizon doesn’t do period plays, only contemporary pieces set in the present day.
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“It went through a lot of drafts,” Fazio said, “but as a graphic designer I’m very accustomed to taking in the needs and wants of a particular audience and trying to address them. So, it went all these directions until it found itself.”
“Freed Spirits” tells the story of four urban misfits — a tour guide, a photographer, a female sleuth and a retired Grady Hospital pathologist — who are all drawn to Oakland for different reasons. A sudden tornado — modeled after a real tornado that hit Oakland in March of 2008 — uproots trees and unearths some mysterious relics, sending the group around the cemetery trying to piece together a story that involves Atlanta’s complicated and troubled history. Along the way, they encounter the spirits, both literal and metaphorical, of the past.
Set designers and twin sisters Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, known for their exacting attention to detail, were tasked with re-creating some of Oakland Cemetery on the Horizon stage. And, in her longtime position as the Horizon’s graphic designer, Fazio also was responsible for the flyers and posters for “Freed Spirits.”
It’s an unusual set of roles — graphic designer and playwright — but Fazio said they came together for her naturally. Fazio grew up in Starkville, Miss., with an “idyllic Southern childhood” as the kid of two college professors. (By coincidence, Atlanta-based playwright and actress Suehyla El-Attar, who will play the tour guide in “Freed Spirits,” also grew up in Starkville. The two briefly attended the same high school and worked on some of the same school plays.)
Fazio studied theater at Northwestern with the hope of becoming an actress, but eventually decided the auditioning life wasn’t for her. She began designing posters for friends’ productions, eventually studying graphic design at the University of Memphis.
After a stint teaching graphic design at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., Fazio moved to Atlanta with the intention of designing for theaters as a way to build relationships with artistic directors, getting her foot in the door and having them look at her growing body of playscripts. “It’s very hard just sending your play out into the universe and waiting for someone to snatch it up,” she said. “It’s always about building a relationship so you can find out what a theater needs.”
“Freed Spirits” will be Fazio’s first major production in Atlanta. She said that, more than anything, she hopes audiences will walk away with a renewed respect for and interest in Oakland Cemetery.
“Oakland is one of those places — even if I weren’t writing a play about it, I’m drawn there all the time,” she said. “You can be contemplative there, but there’s also a great cross section of people. I hope anyone who comes to see this play who hasn’t been to Oakland feels they have to go over there and experience it.”