WRITE ON! : SCR Can Trace Much of Its Success to the Words, Because It Treasures Those Who Use Can Them Well

Mark Chalon Smith is a theater writer for The Times

It's been four years since South Coast Repertory commissioned Jim Leonard Jr. to write "Battle Hymn."

Four years, reams of rewrites, more than the usual mental cramps--and still no play.

Fortunately for Leonard and the many other young playwrights who have worked under SCR's wing, a regional theater that recently received a Tony award and has a reputation for staging challenging new plays can afford to be magnanimous. Much of SCR's success, from the good old days in the '60s to the present, can be traced to its commitment to writers.

Founders Martin Benson and David Emmes realize it can be risky priming the creative pump to ensure SCR is never without new quality plays. Sometimes that once-faithful muse shuts up, maybe temporarily, maybe for good. Sometimes Hollywood coaxes the writer away with big money and then enforces real deadlines that put other projects in limbo. Sometimes the lure of the stage loses heat. It's all a gamble, but one that has paid off for the theater.

Take Leonard, for example. Despite the plodding on "Battle Hymn," he's had two other plays produced at SCR. "The Diviners" was his entry into its sphere in 1983, and just last season, "V and V Only" was produced. The bicoastal writer says with undisguised loyalty that there are only two theaters he immediately trusts with his work--SCR and the prestigious Circle Repertory Company in New York.

"Besides the fact that they're doing some of the more adventurous productions anywhere, I always feel I can count on them for advice and a fair shake. SCR is, in many ways, really a writer's theater. They're generous in the way they approach you."

Leonard knows that four years is a long time for any work, and he feels guilty about it. By all accounts, the second act of "Battle Hymn," a complex Civil War drama, is outstanding (just ask the folks at SCR). The problem is the other two acts. They don't connect well with the middle, and nobody--not even SCR--can produce "Battle Hymn" as just a second act.

The 32-year-old New Yorker winces at the thought. "It's been tough. There are things that just don't work. . . . New ideas, new elements come up and confuse the issue. I still think it has a lot of potential, though, and I know SCR feels the same way. One thing I can say is that they've never pressured me. I think they know that a writer has dry spells."

What started as an ad hoc practice during the '60s and '70s of giving writers "a few dollars shaved from the budget's line items" has evolved into a more formalized program, Jerry Patch, SCR's dramaturge, says. SCR now seeks endowments and grants specifically for commissions, and cash allowances are provided.

In 1984 the commission process settled under the umbrella of the Collaboration Laboratory (Colab), and several facets emerged. In addition to offering grants of $6,000 to $12,000 (usually depending on the writer's reputation), Colab runs workshops such as NewScripts, which places inchoate play treatments before an audience in a casual reading. It also sponsors an annual project for Latino writers (a few plays, including Arthur Giron's "Charley Bacon and His Family" and Lisa Loomer's "Birds," have been staged in recent years) and recently initiated a yearly contest for California playwrights. Colab operates on a permanent $1-million endowment. The endowment interest and other funding sources have brought the program's budget this year to more than $200,000.

The case of Leonard and "Battle Hymn," when evaluated by John Glore, SCR's youthful-looking but firm-talking literary manager, and Patch, one of SCR's elder statesmen, is an indication of what is right with the Colab "vision."

Stretched out in one of the repertory's unassuming, somewhat cluttered offices with Patch nearby, Glore offers an appraisal of that vision: "We try to take chances here, in what we produce and in the playwrights we commission. Sometimes the money and time we put up (for a play) turns out to be a bad investment, but as an approach to getting good work and getting writers to write plays, we wouldn't have it any other way.

"Sometimes we get bad plays, and maybe we won't even get a play out of somebody, but the idea is that you have to support the writer. Eventually, you may get something good out of them, and the writer feels loyalty to us. We know Jim is an excellent writer and we feel loyalty to him and, I'm sure, he feels the same way. . . ."

Glore gestures to a nearby wall where stacks of scripts in multicolored jackets fill a small shelf. "That's an important relationship that (can provide) great results," he says. "Of course we'd prefer always getting something good every time, or at least something we can work with. . . . But we always have interesting material on hand."

That material often means world premieres. Since 1984, SCR has had 14, several of them cradled at Colab. They've included Keith Reddin's "Life and Limb" (1984), "Rum and Coke" (1985) and "Highest Standard of Living" (1986); Beth Henley's "The Debutante Ball" (1985); Craig Lucas' and Craig Carnelia's "Three Postcards" (1987), and Neal Bell's "Cold Sweat" (1987). Last season featured premieres of Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss," Leonard's "V and V Only" and Tom Strelich's "Dog Logic."

With many of those plays coming from commissions, it's understandable that Benson and Emmes, Patch and Glore have steadily increased their efforts to find both established and lesser-known playwrights and pay them to create something exclusively for SCR. Currently working on Colab dramas are, among others, David Henry Hwang, whose "M. Butterfly" won a Tony for best play of 1987, Thomas Babe, Eric Overmyer, Amlin Gray and Howard Korder.

What may be surprising is Patch's admission that "less than 50%" of all commissioned plays are actually produced on SCR's smaller, often more experimental Second Stage (seating 161) or its larger, somewhat more mainstream Mainstage (seating 507).

(Leonard isn't the only one with a play outstanding; another unidentified writer has failed to produce after three years. SCR has pretty much given up on him, although they remain optimistic that Leonard will deliver, according to Patch and Glore.)

Except in unusual circumstances, Colab generally ends up with a play, or at least a draft that is earmarked for workshops and readings. But sometimes the writer's vision is cloudy or the work is simply "unproducible."

Other times, SCR decides the play would be better at some other theater, in another space, and Patch and Glore may try to place it elsewhere. And it's not simply altruism without reward. Through the process, SCR creates further trust with the playwright, who may provide a better work later, and SCR develops a stronger tie to another playhouse that might be helpful in the future.

"That's part of our obligation" to the writer, SCR and the drama community, Patch explains. "If it doesn't click on our stages, it may click on a stage back East or wherever. The key is that you have to be open to the situation."

A striking illustration is David Berry's "The Whales of August," which SCR considered producing after it was submitted in 1982. The repertory had been impressed with Berry's 1979 Vietnam War-oriented "G.R. Point" and was eager to do something with "Whales," but after study decided it was inappropriate for the stage.

Patch says SCR was daunted by the piece's central characters, all feisty seniors, and the demands a lengthy run would place on an ensemble of older actors. Berry looked to Hollywood, and "Whales" became an acclaimed 1987 movie starring Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price.

"We were concerned about stamina," Patch said, "but more than that, we felt it wasn't right for us, that it would be better seen on film. We didn't feel bad about not doing it; we were happy to see it made into a film."

Patch and Glore also say they aren't unhappy about batting only .500 when it comes to the commissioned plays that eventually reach the stage. Both shrug at the suggestion that a higher dividend on its cash and time investment should be expected. Once again, they stress that the payoff is not always a production, but the relationship that develops between SCR and the writer during the Colab process.

The logic is direct: Even if a writer doesn't feel indebted to the repertory for the money, he or she may feel indebted because of the commitment; that's something of a guarantee that the latest works by hotshot playwrights will reach SCR first.

Reddin and Lucas are two of the more visible symbols of Colab's success. Both have had big winners--the West Coast premiere of Lucas' "Blue Window" in 1985 was a galvanic stage event that doesn't come often--and, with SCR's help, have become established and much sought after. But although Lucas and Reddin are the most obvious examples, other writers, like Allan Havis, a 36-year-old New Yorker, are also telling illustrations of how SCR cultivates literary talent.

The gentle-voiced, almost hesitant Havis is currently completing the final draft of the commissioned "Ladies of Fisher Cove," but his SCR involvement goes back about two years when his "Haut Gout" was taken through two workshops. The drama focusing on a doctor's darkly sexual and political misadventure in Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier's Haiti was given intensive exposure, culminating with a NewScripts reading before an audience of the repertory's regular patrons.

The NewScripts experience was as much ordeal as anything--many found "Haut Gout's" characters and situations to be oblique and unresolved--but subsequent rewrites satisfied SCR, and the play was staged last year to generally mixed reviews.

"That whole time was pretty remarkable, I mean the attention they gave me and my writing," Havis recalls. "Besides all the workshops, where (they conveyed) the sense that I could take some chances, they were generous with money. They flew me out and hired actors for the (NewScripts) reading. It was all helpful."

"Ladies of Fisher Cove"--described by Havis as "involving a community of women under a plague in New England and the man who enters their world"--has also undergone two workshops this year, and Havis says there has been talk of it being produced on Second Stage next season.

"I'm encouraged, but we'll see. Even if it isn't, I'm sure I'll do something else for them. I mean I wouldn't hesitate to take them any new projects; I hope there's a bond there."

Playwrights don't come up with many negatives when discussing SCR, but if there is a downside, it resides in the pressurized confines of the workshop. Rough plays face extensive scrutiny by the repertory's core actors and directors and people from Benson to Glore. The discussions can get brutal and exhausting; molding a producible work can be a bloody business.

"There's an inherent danger in dramaturgy that no workshop can avoid, and South Coast Rep can't avoid it either," Leonard concedes. "They do tell you what they think should be changed and, frankly, that isn't always easy to take. I mean, the writer has his own ideas and wants to hold onto them.

"But I think they are pretty good about avoiding problems. Jerry (Patch) says the more he learns about play-writing, the less he knows; I think that opens him up to experimentation. They give you plenty of ideas, but, in the end, I think you're free to ignore them."

Havis agrees that the workshops can chill the ego, but adds that they are generally valuable. "I like the process because I can always use the advice. You have to be prepared for it, though, for the other points of view. They gave out positive ideas, and I listened and there were changes along the way. But it was my vision that was eventually produced."

Glore smiles and says that SCR has learned to be flexible. "Hey, when we commissioned Lucas to write us his last play, we thought it was going to be about a serial killer. What we ended up with was (the romantic fantasy) 'Prelude to a Kiss.' I think that tells something about our willingness to give a little."

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