Timothy Mason, playwright, walked into the rehearsal, took a place at the conference table and started working on a crossword puzzle. His head down, he somehow managed to stay silent for 10, maybe 15 minutes of discussion about why he was having the characters in his new play at South Coast Repertory do what they were doing and not do what some of the actors at the table thought they should be doing.

Conversation circled around him: What were Alex and Louise like before the play started? How long had they been married? Did they see each other when Alex was still married to his first wife? Just what were they doing on that out-of-the-way, politically flammable Caribbean island anyway?

Mason, however, could have been at his desk in New York, given all the attention he seemed to be paying to their questions. Never mind that the assorted actors and crew members kept looking over at him, trying to affect casualness. He wasn't filling in very many of the boxes down or across, but he wasn't looking up either.

The playwright, it seems, was waiting his turn. His new play, "Before I Got My Eye Put Out," has its world premiere Tuesday at South Coast, and who better than he to explain why his people do what they do. The actors can theorize, director David Emmes can postulate, but Mason knows .

After all, Mason had been carrying Louise, Alex and the others around in his head for a good four years before South Coast came along and handed him $6,000 to turn his characters and plot into a play. Now he was plunked down here for most of the last six weeks, and the 35-year-old writer says his silence was "sort of a self-conscious attempt on my part to establish protocol. As the playwright, I'm not going to step in and dogmatically give everyone the answers."

But he does know some of the answers, and that's why he was here. "Our primary goal at this theater is to bring the production as close to the playwright's vision as possible," says John Glore, the dramaturge who has been working most closely with Mason. "So it's really important to get his input and have him let us know if we get way off the track. Particularly since this is the play's first production."

And the down side? "It's a fine line you walk in terms of the playwright's knowledge of his characters," Glore says. "While you want to know what he had in mind, you want to leave room for the other collaborators to bring in their own ideas, experiences and emotions."

So Mason learned the very first day of rehearsals. Just after an uneventful, brisk reading of his play about the dark side of literary stardom, several of the actors surrounded the slight, intense-looking playwright in the hallway.

Actress Jessica Drake, who plays the novelist's daughter, wanted to know if the character of Hector, a Caribbean youth who lived with her character's family when she was growing up, was written to be her brother. "Up until yesterday he was," Mason explained, looking uncomfortable. "But then I did a bit of genetic engineering and now he's your spiritual brother."

Drake seemed satisfied, but neither James Olson, who plays the father, nor Rick Najera, who plays Hector, felt the discussion was over. Mason, who had for some reason decided to stop smoking during the play's rehearsal period, first listened patiently as the two actors gave their reasons for wanting a blood relationship rather than spiritual one. But, when Olson started repeating his position, Mason first looked heavenward, then called out, "Who has a cigarette?"

Mason was off cigarettes again the next day as, over coffee in the non-smoking area of a nearby croissant shop, he told a visitor how Olson and Najera had pursued their point well into dinner.

"I told them to back off," Mason said. "I could hear what they were saying, but I didn't want to be talked into anything.

"Actors' observations of a play are most valuable when they have to do with a moment-by-moment examination of their own characters. That's because they crawl into the particular skin of a character to the exclusion of all else. But I sometimes find their observations less valuable when they are commenting on the whole from their perspective."

Mason has had plenty of experience looking at the big picture. "Eye Out" is his 24th produced play--17 were produced at the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, where he also began as an actor 20 years ago--and he has often been present in the delivery room. "It used to be that the first reading was pretty rough, and I was wildly impatient for everything to be exactly right immediately," Mason says. "Now I know better."

Not that he was willing to sit patiently, crossword puzzle in hand, listening forever. Take his knowledge of Caribbean politics, for instance. The setting for "Before I Got My Eye Put Out"--its graphic title comes from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem--is an unnamed Caribbean island off Puerto Rico, and Mason occasionally provided background on both the natives' restlessness and war games on the island's U.S. military base.

Costume designer Barbara Cox credited Mason publicly at one rehearsal for a costume suggestion. And during just the first half hour of script study, Mason was called on to explain motivation of one character, relationships between the two main characters and the significance, not to mention origin, of a line from Dickens' "David Copperfield."

Mason, in turn, shortened one character's first speech, a result of hearing it spoken at an early rehearsal. Besides putting back material he had taken out earlier that day, he busted one of his characters from captain to commander at the suggestion of a cast member who apparently knew more about the Navy than Mason did.

"We spend the first week working with the text and playwright to get as much exchange as possible regarding what the playwright intended and how the actors react to the text," explains Emmes. "Our next responsibility is to make it as full and dimensional as possible. Then we bring the playwright back in toward the end."

Emmes and company thus sent Mason packing the second week of rehearsals. "They sent me off to Laguna Beach, to a beautiful apartment overlooking the ocean," relates the sun-tanned writer a few weeks later. "After four days of sand, surf and sun, I was saying, 'Play, what play?' It was really lotus land out there."

Then the dreams began. "I had a nightmare in which I returned to rehearsals after the two weeks in Laguna and found David Emmes in his office, looking 10 years older, with a script in front of him and his head in his hands, and he was saying, 'It made sense when I read it. It was interesting, and it was funny.' "

Mason thinks it may be that he was just too detached. "I never had this much time off during a rehearsal process. It's taken some adjustment for me."

It was hard, he concedes, to step away at all. Mason has defined his play as being about the artist's responsibility to his art, his family and himself. Does that mean that his hero--a prize-winning, middle-aged novelist who cannibalized everyone he knew before fleeing Manhattan for the Caribbean--isn't purely fictitious?

"Is there such a thing as anticipatory autobiography?" Mason asks. "No, that's called fiction. But I did try and imagine what I'd be like 20 years from now if I continued as I am."

Mason's play marks the first time one of its commissioned plays has graced South Coast's 507-seat Mainstage rather than its smaller 161-seat Second Stage. South Coast co-founder Emmes had read and liked Mason's earlier plays, "Levitation," which was produced at Circle Repertory Company in New York, and "In a Northern Landscape," which had been produced first at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and later at the Cast-at-the-Circle Theatre in Hollywood.

New plays are risky for a theater, of course. "The main difference between working on a play that has been done and one that hasn't is that you don't know if it is going to work," says actor Timothy Shelton, who has appeared in several new plays, including this one. "If the play's been done successfully before and you're having a problem, you know it's up to you to find a solution because somebody obviously has before. But, if it's a new play, you don't know if the problems are solvable or if it's the writing or your work."

That's why you bring the playwright back. Shelton, for instance, recalls a place in the dialogue where his character contradicted himself. "After wrestling with it a while, I pointed the contradiction out to Tim. He realized the line was left over from an earlier draft."

Whether alone out in the audience or crouching near the stage talking with the cast, Mason seems to enjoy watching his play come to life. Asked how the actors jibe with the characters he imagined, he replies: "The image in your head is never quite reproduced by the flesh and blood that walks through your door. And if that bothers a writer, he or she shouldn't be writing plays. They should be writing novels.

"At the same time, what so often happens is that an actor will explode a character in a wonderful way. The actor, who may not resemble the image who existed in your head, will, by virtue of his or her talent, complete the human being you only guessed at."

Mason felt similarly about the set design for "Eye Out": "You really can't write about real things going on in a space without seeing the space. So I had to generate an image in my head, and the design that Cliff Faulkner created is not that image. It's so much better and fuller and more real than the image I had."

The last ingredient, Mason points out, is the audience. "As theater, it doesn't exist until all of the elements come together, and the audience is the final element," he says. "I would hope to be finished by opening night. Then the audience begins to participate and participate in as potent a way as the designers, director and actors."

Two days to go.

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