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A UNC playwright is challenging audiences, first in Chapel Hill and now in New York

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Actors Adam McDonald (left) and Giovanna Drummond, soon to take the stage in New York for a UNC student's play.

NEW YORK – A search. A click. An email.

Then, magic.

Two weeks after Kenan Theatre Company produced Gage Tarlton’s play, “Just Like Now,” he surfed the web, eagerly wanting to submit it for more productions.

A swift click brought him to the homepage of a small venue. He typed up a quick email with a couple production photos attached.

The next thing he knew, Tarlton was in New York City discussing his play as a potential pick for the “Spotlight on Queer Artists” series with the theater company, Sitting Shotgun.

A week later, they emailed Tarlton saying they picked his play. That exchange happened in January.

Now, after months of preparation, Tarlton travels back to the city this weekend to watch the New York premiere of “Just Like Now,” the first play he ever wrote back in February 2018.

“I started to get frustrated with some of the stories I was seeing,” he said. “It was like a rhetorical question, like, ‘Well why don’t you just write (a play) yourself then?’ And they say it as a joke, and then I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to.’”

“Just Like Now” tells the story of Brody, Lissa, Thomas and Beth as they navigate queer relationships and friendships in an age of digital dating. Though Tarlton wrote the show, he adopted a somewhat hands-off approach in its production.

“I sent it, and it’s out of my hands now,” Tarlton said. “Throughout the whole thing they asked me however much I wanted to be involved I could be involved. It was kind of my own decision to separate myself from it.”

He wanted to see the play soar on its own, under the direction of Joe Reault and the small cast of four New York-based actors.

One of those actors, Adam McDonald, said he submitted his audition for Sitting Shotgun’s entire season of shows after seeing it posted online. He sang and performed a monologue, then got a callback for “Just Like Now.”

It wasn't until a couple weeks later, when McDonald was out to lunch with a friend, that he realized he got the job.

“Do you know Gage?” his friend asked.

“I don’t know a Gage, I’ve never known a Gage in my life,” McDonald responded.

“He just sent me a text saying, ‘Do you know Adam McDonald?’” she said.

She said she typed back that she knew McDonald, then asked Tarlton if he did as well.

“I will soon,” the playwright texted.

McDonald got the call. Soon after that he booked the role of Brody.

He was immediately excited about digging into an original play with no source material.

“There’s a different level of care you have to put in,” McDonald said. “It’s been a lot of puzzle pieces and fun figuring out what’s in me that’s emotional and that I can gravitate to with this piece.”

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Similarly, his onstage best friend Giovanna Drummond, who plays Lissa, said she was attracted to the original play because it felt so modern and applicable.

“I think Gage did such a good job of relaying that,” Drummond said. “(The characters) are young, and they’re kind of tossing and turning their way through it until they find their way out. That rawness is what I really appreciated.”

Going forward, Tarlton wants to write more plays that challenge audiences and present authentic stories onstage.

After “Just Like Now” this weekend, he will travel to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the first week of June as one of four undergraduate playwrights selected to produce a staged reading of an original work.

Drummond said being a young artist and being able to support the work of other budding artists gets at the heart of what it means to work on original plays, such as “Just Like Now,” in New York City.

“One of the most important things we can bring is this fresh new spring of what it means to live and be,” she said. “For an artist to come and be like, ‘This is my work,’ and for there to be a team that can put it together – that’s all you need.”