It was a hot, dry, breeze-less summer day at Cal State Northridge, and everybody's mind was on . . . playwriting.
"What's the point of my writing plays?" said a serious-faced Murray Mednick, as he launched the six-week writing workshop of the 12th annual Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshop/Festival at the university's Art and Design Center. "I don't mean it as a tease. Is there a point? Do we really need more plays in the world?"
The 25 workshop participants--chosen from nationwide entries--were momentarily silent. "It could be we're trying to communicate a human experience," said one.
"A shared thought, a shared experience," offered another.
"Be specific," Mednick said briskly. "What do we mean when we say: We write to communicate?"
Padua Hills was founded in 1978, when Mednick and five other playwrights gathered with nine writing students in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Claremont and established a pattern of exercises, rehearsals and informal presentations. Since then, the company has expanded. But it also has drifted from such diverse sites as the Pacific Design Center and the Wallenboyd since 1984, lacking a permanent home.
Mednick took a year off last year, but this year he is back--and hoping that the new relationship with Cal State Northridge will be healthy and ongoing.
"The problem of writing for the stage is that it isn't seen or sensed," Mednick told his students. "I think it's important we start making an effort toward getting to clarity. The word audience means listeners ; one of the qualities that raises the level of communication is attention. The other side is having an ear for the rhythms and music of language. It's also important to hang around rehearsals, to subconsciously get a feel for the subject. That's how a playwright develops his craft."
Time for the exercises to begin.
"Sit up straight," Mednick said. "Everything (in you) should be prepared to be a writer. It will take a willingness on your part to go along. Work is about using parts of your body as if they were listening stations--because the body has been through every experience in life . . . Let's see if I can't quiet the noise. The sky is resting on my head, the earth is at my feet. My right hand can record anything I have to say--my living, electric right hand. The idea is to write fast and continuously, till I say (stop). Begin now."
Workshop student Susan Hayden--who makes hats, acts, writes and gives poetry readings around town--is here for the second year.
"Every two days you get a different angle, a different playwright's perspective on how the process works for them," she said of the rotation. "We write, we experiment, read our material back and forth to each other. Last year, I did exercises with David Henry Hwang and John O'Keefe. A one-act came out of that. I came back to write the second one-act, so I can have a whole show."
In addition to Mednick, this year's playwright/instructors include: Hwang, Alan Bolt, Maria Irene Fornes, Jon Robin Baitz, John Steppling, Martin Epstein, Julie Hebert, Lin Hixson, Eduardo Machado, Leon Martell, Susan Mosakowski and Roxanne Rogers.
"It's an opportunity to come work on a play in an environment totally supportive and totally geared towards the writing and producing of plays," said the New York-based Mosakowski, who will stage her "Cities Out of Print" during the festival portion of Padua Hills' program. As a workshop instructor, "I'm very interested in the nonverbal aspect of the text, what's behind the text. I'll be creating in a way silent plays, which we will then take into narrative."
Over in a dorm gathering area, Alan Bolt, a former chairman of the National Theatre Department of the Ministry of Culture in Nicaragua, was sweating through an energetic dance workshop for his performers. The result will be a staging of his "Beloved Love" (about violence toward women).
"We use dance as a systematic way of training actors in Nicaragua," said Bolt. "Doing the dance, they train the memory of their body. We store all sorts of memories in the body: grief, sorrow, joy. In dance, that comes out more easily. Then we can develop a certain process to develop awareness. I ask them, 'Where did you put your tension in the dance when you were joyful?' or 'When I told you to straighten your back, what did you feel?' "
Another first-timer is local playwright John Pappas, who will stage his "Increments of Three." "I don't know what's going to happen," said Pappas, who is enjoying the idea of mounting his outdoors-set play outdoors. "When they asked me to come, I said, 'What do you want me to do?' They said, 'Whatever you want.' " The play itself, he said, "is pretty well done--half done. I mean, I know where it's going. But I'm not there yet."
Eight-year veteran Leon Martell, whose "Kindling" will be staged in the festival, puts great emphasis on what he has able to learn from other playwrights: "The first time I saw pieces of John Steppling's 'Neck,' I hated it. I hated him--personally. Then I said, 'Wait a minute. This is part of something. I should see the whole play.' Once I did, it began to grow on me, and I became addicted to it. I started seeing new stuff in it. It changed the way I thought of playwriting."
"People aren't working in a vacuum," said Mosakowski, "even though we're all busy with separate things. In a regular (production) setting, you usually don't go beyond the circle that you're working with till the play opens--so you don't really get the dialogue till it's done. But while you're doing it is when you need it most. Having another playwright around at rehearsals, just talking about it with you, is terrific. Even if we're not talking about plays or writing or art, it's hovering in the air."
The festival--which will also include stagings of Epstein's "The Ordeal of Nancy Fergusson," Fornes' "Oscar and Martha" Julie Hebert's "Almost Asleep" and a new Steppling work--will run July 20 through Aug. 6. A benefit featuring previous Padua Hills plays--some with their original casts--is scheduled for Sunday. In the lineup: Mednick's "Coyote 1," Leon Martell and Elizabeth Ruscio's "Hoss Drawin' " and O'Keefe's "The Magician"--plus excerpts from Steppling's "Neck" and Fornes' "Fefu and Her Friends."
Information: (213) 281-6799.