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SAYING A ‘SWEET’ BYE-BYE TO BROADWAY

Anyone who saw the Tony Awards ceremonies a couple of weeks ago couldn’t help but sense serious hand-wringing about the state of Broadway’s health. Those ills are now driving artists even farther afield.

Donald Driver’s “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” is a case in point. At 62, he has been a New York director for 20 years. He was a Tony nominee for his direction of the American production of “Marat/Sade,” wrote and directed the Off-Broadway production of “Your Own Thing,” directed Henry Fonda in “Our Town” and wrote and directed “Status Quo Vadis.” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” premiered in 1983 at Buffalo’s Arena Stage and is currently playing in Sydney, Australia, and Detroit.

For all that, Driver does not have eyes for Broadway, or New York. Where is “In the Sweet Bye and Bye’s” next stop? The Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys--an Equity Waiver house--where it opens Saturday.

“It’s a comedy-drama about a group of people in a small town in Oregon,” Driver said. “Bill Leland, who is 35, is coming home from the hospital. He has a heart condition. The play is about how people discover each other, and the little ways they miss each other too. The comedy comes out of the relationships, not the plot--this isn’t ‘Admiral Perry Goes to the North Pole.’ The title refers to one’s reward--one character believes it comes in the bye and bye; another says it’s already here and if you don’t see it, you’ve missed it.”

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It would appear Driver personally favors the latter notion. He still takes ballet lessons every day (he started out with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was a Broadway chorus boy) and, when he recently went to Barcelona to learn Spanish, wound up buying choice hillside property on the Mediterranean.

As for New York: “I did a play called ‘Oh Brother,’ which the critics killed. It was the final blow, among a lot of other things. They’ve soiled their own nest.”

Somebody once noted that the definition of maturity is knowledge of your limits. If that’s the case, Thomas Braddock, producing artistic director of the Grove Shakespeare Festival, is a mature 37-year-old. Braddock, who was an actor with the Burbage Theatre Ensemble and the South Coast Repertory, as well as a summer stock producer in Pennsylvania, has over its seven-year history shepherded the Grove Shakespeare Festival (where “The Rivals” opens Friday) into an increasingly sophisticated concern.

“When the city of Garden Grove hired me in 1978, they already had an idea for an outdoor theater and I was able to convince them to spend $700,000 to expand the amphitheater’s seats and lighting system,” Braddock said. “We opened the 172-seat GEM theater the first year, and the 550-seat amphitheater in our third season.

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As for choice of material, Braddock says: “We plan a season based on what I feel we’re ready for artistically. We haven’t done Shakespeare’s histories yet, because we haven’t the maturity level on the part of our actors--we haven’t the money to go out and hire 40 Equity artists. We’ve stuck to the comedies, romances and tragedies. ‘The Tempest’ will be the final play outdoors, opening July 12, and we plan a full version of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ opening Aug. 16. As for the GEM, we’ve found that Moliere and Restoration comedy have proven very popular in that space. In that regard, ‘The Rivals’ is attainable.”

Other plans for the summer include Donald Freed’s “Shakespeare, 1614--Alive!” and an Equity production of “Going to See the Elephant” in October. Sometimes, it’s by knowing your limits that you can exceed them.

Adam Small, a South African educator and playwright, had his play “Kanna, He Is Come Back” produced at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre (the title is a rough translation from Afrikaans), and since he managed the trip to Atlanta all the way from Capetown, Caltech’s Ned Munger extended him an invitation to travel a little farther for dinner and discussion in Pasadena.

The gesture was more than academic. Munger is chairman of Caltech’s African Studies Department and, as president of the Cape of Good Hope Foundation, has a special interest in, among other things, local university life. Small, who once headed the philosophy department at University of the Western Cape, now heads its “social work” department.

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Though there has been student-police conflict in the past, Small said pridefully of the school: “It’s the only place in the country where students can say exactly what they feel and, goddammit, they’ll be protected.” His own status at home is less secure. “I am writing in English now because of pressures. It’s an acquired language. I have been saying goodby to my family for a long time. You can never close down your roots totally. South Africa is not a simple place. It’s sorrowful, tragic, happy and joyous. Like life. I’m white, black, Catholic, Calvinist and Muslim. I try to avoid exclusiveness.”

Small implied that “Kanna” represented the seed of the idea that was later developed in “Woza, Albert!,” the South African work that has toured America (it played Taper, Too several seasons back). “It’s about someone people think is a savior. They want him to come back to deliver them, and it expresses my feelings about South Africa. Every time I’ve made up my mind to leave South Africa, I’ve unmade it. Your relationships with your friends, as well as your dreams and concerns, are what drama is about.”

As for political conditions, “If I hate the regime out there, my compassion includes them. I detest what they’re doing, but at the same time I’m trying to change people. The most important thing is to be in touch with people. Resentment is the name of the game there, whites versus blacks.”

Is disinvestment proving effective in changing the South African government’s policy of apartheid? Replied Small: “Andrew Young has a symbolic line--'Disinvestment will not move that regime; it is working on ideological lines.’ But I think it is a signal from the world that says: ‘We are not happy with you.’ The regime is playing for time. They know the game is up.”

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