Essential Play Fest’s ‘Outrage Machine’ has grown more topical in wake of COVID-19

Everett (Matthew Ferro) and Rina (Hannah Morris) in "The Outrage Machine," a 2020 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award winner that opens the 2022 Essential Theatre Play Festival at West End Performing Arts Center.

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Everett (Matthew Ferro) and Rina (Hannah Morris) in "The Outrage Machine," a 2020 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award winner that opens the 2022 Essential Theatre Play Festival at West End Performing Arts Center.

Playwright Daniel Carter Brown crafted a timely, urgent work with his script “The Outrage Machine,” which was set for its world premiere with the Essential Theatre Play Festival in 2020. Then, the pandemic delayed his production for two years.

The play opens opened last week, and Brown is excited for audiences to finally see it.

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Playwright Daniel Carter Brown: “We all have some level of engagement with modern-day news sources and fake news sources and intentionally satirical sources that some people don’t realize are meant to be satirical.”

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Playwright Daniel Carter Brown: “We all have some level of engagement with modern-day news sources and fake news sources and intentionally satirical sources that some people don’t realize are meant to be satirical.”

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Combined ShapeCaption
Playwright Daniel Carter Brown: “We all have some level of engagement with modern-day news sources and fake news sources and intentionally satirical sources that some people don’t realize are meant to be satirical.”

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

“When the show got canceled because of COVID in 2020, artistic director Peter Hardy told me the intention was to produce the play whenever it was safe to open again, and I didn’t know what that meant,” Brown said. “I assumed it meant that one year they’d do two festivals to make up the missing one or they’d work in a weekend somewhere. I was expecting to get, in some way, less than the Essential Festival. And I didn’t hear anything for a while and thought it was possible I’d been forgotten about.”

When John Mabey’s play “A Complicated Hope” was announced as the 2022 festival prize winner, Brown received an email, though, proposing that the two shows could run in repertory until Aug. 28.

“The Outrage Machine” centers on Rina, played by Hannah Morris, a young woman in an unspecified city who drives for a rideshare company. She gets a new freelance gig crafting catchy, shocking headlines — and only the headlines — for a news website looking to drive up traffic. Her grasp of eye-catching clickbait eventually puts Rina and her sister Ellie (Ellie Styron at the center of a political firestorm while Rina is still driving around rideshare customers.

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Rina (Hannah Morris, left) appears as a guest on the talk show of Val Moon (Daryl Patrice) in Essential Theatre’s “The Outrage Machine."

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Rina (Hannah Morris, left) appears as a guest on the talk show of Val Moon (Daryl Patrice) in Essential Theatre’s “The Outrage Machine."

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

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Rina (Hannah Morris, left) appears as a guest on the talk show of Val Moon (Daryl Patrice) in Essential Theatre’s “The Outrage Machine."

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Essential Theatre

Brown said the first draft of the script he wrote was in 2015, when he noticed how people were consuming misleading news through social media.

“I sensed a growing awareness of the problem of irresponsible journalism online and maliciously irresponsible journalism,” the playwright said. “It was an idea that wasn’t talked about much, at least where I was reading. And then 2016 happened, and it became what everybody was talking about because it was impacting all of us.”

Reality had started to mirror satire.

“This fringe issue was no longer a fringe issue, so my next draft of this script after the dust settled was a version that didn’t have to introduce the idea that it was an issue,” he said. “I needed to go deep into how it happens and get into the heads of the people who are creating these headlines. And ultimately the story shows how someone with good intentions even ends up doing the same thing.”

The delayed production hasn’t forced much to change in his script, aside from some details, including a reference to the former Washington Redskins — now renamed the Commanders.

Also, one of Brown’s characters is germophobic, yet that detail has to be illustrated differently since the pandemic.

“Carrying hand sanitizer in your purse is no longer a character trait, it’s just something that we all do,” he said.

Another moment resonated differently for him in 2022 than it did when he wrote it.

“One thing that’s really fun is that we’re in the midst of all this fallout and investigation of Jan. 6, and there’s a moment in the script that wasn’t written in response to that but feels like it was,” Brown said.

The production features nine actors portraying 20 characters, many of them rideshare passengers in Rina’s car. Brown drove for Uber several years ago, and he used moments from his own work experience to flesh out the script.

He said that one aspect of the show of which he’s proudest is that most of the characters can be played by any performer. He avoided pronouns and used gender-neutral character names.

“I wrote all the ensemble roles to be played by any gender without having to change the script, so if you see the next production of “The Outrage Machine,” Blair Weeks may be played by a man or a non-binary person,” said Brown, who has directed and produced at Onion Man, Academy, Onstage Atlanta and Out of Box theaters. “My background as a director and producer informs my writing, in that I can make writing decisions that make my play easier to produce. So if a casting pool at a college has 20 women auditioning and three dudes, the play is still doable. It also opens up opportunities for non-binary performers.”

As divided as the country is, Brown said he has created a play that he hopes appeals to both sides of the political spectrum.

“With each draft of this play, as the world changes, I want this play to be enjoyed by conservatives,” he said. “I want them to not feel like they’re being attacked. We all need to work on this. This impacts all of us. Picking examples of things that everybody gets wrong, all over the political spectrum, is important for this piece. It’s very political. I think it’s a moderate play, but the moderate line has moved drastically in past years.”

Brown hopes the work leads the audience to better consider who delivers their news to them. He aimed to critique the echo chamber that social media becomes when consumers only surround themselves with like-minded voices.

“It’s easy to see that the other side has this problem,” he said. “It’s harder to see that we all have this problem. When we read something that confirms what we want to believe, we don’t question it. And so I want the audience to develop that awareness, that it’s worth taking a moment to question who your sources are and who your source’s sources are.”


Essential Theatre Play Festival

The Essential Theatre Playwriting Award, which launched in 2001, has been awarded to 29 plays penned by 26 Georgia playwrights, including Lauren Gunderson, Gabriel Jason Dean, Avery Sharpe and Topher Payne.

John Mabey’s “A Complicated Hope,” the 2022 award winner, runs a full production from Aug. 5 to 28. $12-$28.

Daniel Carter Brown’s “The Outrage Machine” runs through Aug. 27. $12-$28.

Hush Harbor Lab presents a reading of “The Wash” by Kelundra Smith, taking place one night only, Aug. 18. $25-$28.

The Bare Essentials Play Reading Series presents “The Exhibit” by Ozzy Wagner on Aug. 9, “Barbie Liberation Organization” by Robert Fuson on Aug. 10 and “Shark Week” by Anneka Rose on Aug. 22. Free.

All events take place at the West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Atlanta. 404-212-0815, essentialtheatre.com.

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