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The cutthroat competition associated with the motion picture industry is seldom seen among Southern California’s resident theaters, even when a hot property such as David Mamet’s ‘Speed-the-Plow’ (right) is on the market. : The Gentlemanly Strategy of Acquiring Plays

A year and a half after “Speed-the-Plow” closed on Broadway, David Mamet’s savage glimpse of the movie industry has yet to play Los Angeles. If L.A. theatergoers want to catch the Southern California premiere, they will have to take a 45-mile ride to South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa next month.

Given the subject, you would have thought the logical place to revive Mamet’s drama was the Mark Taper Forum, within a stone’s throw of Hollywood. Gordon Davidson, the Taper’s artistic director, certainly thought so. And so did Gregory Mosher, the director of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, who staged the original Broadway production.

What happened, though, is not only an illustration of the vagaries that desirable plays can encounter on their way to Southern California but an example of the odd competition for previously produced works, which make up more than half of the major offerings at the region’s five professional resident theaters: the Taper, South Coast Repertory, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, the La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

Securing the rights to a top stage property rarely if ever requires brilliant stratagems. For that matter, unlike the cutthroat rivalry associated with hot movie properties, competition among the resident theaters is a gentleman’s game, the recent court fight between the Gnu Theater and the Burbank Theatre Guild over Lee Blessing’s “Independence” notwithstanding.

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Persistence, enthusiasm and lucky timing--to say nothing of aesthetic taste--are more likely to count than naked greed or Machiavellian ploys.

The most important reason is the market itself. “You have to start from the perception that this is not a commercial arena,” said Bill Bushnell, artistic director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC).

All the resident theaters operate as nonprofit organizations, and none can offer big money to license a play or launch a new one. All pay a standard author’s royalty of roughly 5% of gross box office receipts on a new play, slightly more for a recently established hit. And all mount productions with limited runs, adhering to contractual terms set by the League of Resident Theatres.

“An agent is not going to cut a sweeter deal with us or La Jolla, because we essentially make the same deals,” said Jerry Patch, dramaturge at the 507-seat South Coast Rep, where the royalty for the six-week run of a new play averages $20,000. “The contracts are so standardized it’s like auto dealers working with the Blue Book. I’ve never seen a price war in 14 years.”

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At the 756-seat Taper, the author’s royalty for an eight-week run of a new play averages $30,000. That compares with $28,000 for six weeks at the 581-seat Old Globe, $15,000 for six weeks at La Jolla’s 492-seat Mandell Weiss Theatre and $13,000 for eight weeks at LATC’s 498-seat Tom Bradley Theatre.

The dollar differences--resulting from variations in attendance and ticket prices as well as house size and length of run--can hardly be ignored. But royalties, not being huge in any case, often take a back seat to other considerations among playwrights and agents. Production quality, for example, easily looms as large as royalties, whether a new script is being shopped by an agent or a licensed property is being sought by a theater.

“I don’t really think about who will pay the most money,” said Lois Berman, an independent New York agent who represents playwrights Sam Shepard and Blessing. “Quality, always the quality. Never the dollars. I go for the productions.”

In fact, Davidson wanted to transfer the Broadway production of “Speed-the-Plow” to the Taper with the original cast of Joe Mantegna, Madonna and Ron Silver. “We had a particular interest in the quality and strength of those people, and in keeping Gregory (the Lincoln Center Theater’s Gregory Mosher) involved,” Davidson recalled.

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“Gordon and I talked about it,” Mosher confirmed from his New York office. “We were sitting in this little Italian restaurant. At that point it was going to be Joe, Ron and maybe Madonna, because she was getting back to records and ‘Dick Tracy’ (Warren Beatty’s forthcoming movie) and all that stuff. The play was still on in New York when we had that conversation.”

Mosher no longer remembers precisely why the idea of a transfer was derailed. “I probably just didn’t want to commit because we didn’t know how long the play was going to run in New York,” he said. Davidson, for his part, needed a scheduling date because he had a subscription season to fill. When he couldn’t get a commitment, he turned his attention elsewhere.

Later, plans for a national tour took shape with a different cast. Mosher and Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, considered Los Angeles a prime stop and asked Davidson to participate. This time Davidson chose not to, he said, “because I didn’t want to present a road company.”

In the meantime, South Coast’s producing artistic director, David Emmes, had notified Mamet’s agent, Howard Rosenstone, of his interest in licensing the play, only to be told the rights were restricted because of the tour possibility.

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When “Speed-the-Plow” finally went out in May, 1989, with a cast of William L. Petersen, Bob Balaban and Felicity Huffman, it got no further than its first stop at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “That company just didn’t sell,” Gersten said. But the rights remained restricted because he and Mosher hadn’t given up the idea of sending out another road company.

“They talked about bringing a production to L.A. for the longest time,” said Emmes, who decided to make one more call, in July, 1989. “We always put our hat in the ring on a play we really like. It was the 11th hour for choosing our season, and this time I think we just happened to be at the right place on the right day.”

By then, the Taper season had already been locked in. Even if it weren’t and Davidson had made the same call, he would not have landed the play anyway. According to Mamet’s agent, who says he merely passed Emmes’ second inquiry along, South Coast got “a special dispensation” from Lincoln Center.

“I didn’t do the deal personally,” Mosher recalled. “But whoever it was probably came to me and said, ‘How do you feel about South Coast Rep doing the play?’ And I would have said, ‘How would it affect a commercial run in L.A.?’ And the answer would have been, ‘Not a big factor.’ And I would have said, ‘Fine.’ That would have been the extent of the discussion.”

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As for Mamet’s involvement, there was hardly any. “Rosenstone probably would have discussed it with him on a checklist of things,” Mosher noted. “Mamet would have said, ‘Well, what do Gersten and Mosher think?’ And I would have said, ‘What does Mamet think?’ And if you check far enough, Dan Quayle might have ended up making the decision.”

For new plays that have yet to be mounted anywhere, it is the agents--those “gatemasters of the system,” as Los Angeles playwright Mark Lee describes them--who act on perceived differences in taste among artistic directors and help to reinforce those differences with their script submissions.

“I will send a play where I think it will get the right reception,” said Helen Merrill, who represents playwrights Christopher Durang (“The Marriage of Bette and Boo”) and Bill Cain (“Stand-Up Tragedy”). “I know exactly what to send Gordon Davidson. And I can assure you a play that he wants is not necessarily right for South Coast. Social consciousness goes for Gordon, very original writers for South Coast.”

Merrill, an independent New York agent, also knows that such broad-brush characterizations can’t be wholly accurate. Yet they serve as a convenient shorthand helping to explain why the competition among the five Southern California resident theaters rarely gets overheated.

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Said Gilbert Parker, a William Morris agent who represents A.R. Gurney and Beth Henley: “It is unlikely that Jack O’Brien at the Old Globe and Des McAnuff at La Jolla are going to fight over the same play. Des (whom Parker also represents) tends to go for more gritty, experimental plays. He’ll take more unusual flyers than Jack. Jack is more likely to respond to a Gurney play.”

McAnuff, for his part, asserted that he has “gone after only two or three” licensed properties among the 35 productions that La Jolla has staged since 1983. The rest were generated through associated artists or co-producing theaters. “We don’t wait for agent submissions,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen is if we all became rubber-stamp institutions.”

Not that La Jolla hasn’t ever gone politely to the mat with the Taper for the same property. McAnuff and Davidson vied this season for Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” La Jolla got it (for a West Coast premiere in late August), once again proving that size, money, prestige, visibility and desire can be overmatched--this time by unwavering “enthusiasm and tenacity,” as Fugard’s agent Esther Sherman (also at the William Morris Agency) termed McAnuff’s effort.

Parenthetically, the Taper and South Coast contended for U.S. premieres of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good” earlier this season and George Walker’s “Nothing Sacred” last season. The Taper won both times. South Coast and the Old Globe competed for last season’s world premiere of “Abundance” by Henley. South Coast won.

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“There are very few secrets,” said artistic director Martin Benson, who heads South Coast with Emmes. “If a show creates a splash somewhere, the word travels fast. It doesn’t even have to be more than a workshop. The telephones are buzzing as soon as anything happens. It would be unusual if something were overlooked.”

Meanwhile, the unspoken joke in Southern California resident-theater circles is that whenever an agent submits a new script with the claim that nobody else has seen it, that means except Joe Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater. “If he hasn’t,” said LATC’s Bushnell, “it’s only because there are so many manuscripts piled on his desk that he couldn’t get to it.”

Once a property is being shopped in Southern California, the pecking order starts with the Taper. Because of this, Davidson is wary of throwing his weight around. Thus, he and Bushnell have an unwritten agreement not to interfere with each other’s projects. “I don’t play games with rights to plays,” Davidson said.

Davidson and Emmes also cooperate. Emmes recently told him he may want to do Tom Stoppard’s “Artist Descending a Staircase” next season. The Taper had scheduled the play this season but had to postpone it indefinitely when it was staged in New York. Davidson still has the rights. Given Emmes’ interest, Davidson said, he is considering stepping aside.

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LATC and South Coast have worked hard to get first crack at new works not only by growing in size but by commissioning dozens of writers and creating play workshops. Emmes has even taken his gentleman’s crusade to the one major area of contracts--subsidiary rights to stock productions and movie sales--where agents and theaters tend to bargain.

Typically a commercial producer of a first production gets as much as 40% of the playwright’s royalties from subsequent stock productions. In the nonprofit arena, a resident theater gets less--perhaps as much as 20% of the author’s royalty--generally because the amount originally invested by the resident theater tends to be less.

Emmes, instead of demanding as large a share as possible, as might be expected, does the opposite. “Writers are the most underpaid artists working in the American theater,” he explained. “We believe in taking as little as possible from their future earnings.”

This attitude is not lost on agents. They are well aware not only that the life of a play launched at a resident theater usually depends on the reception of its premiere production but that a well-launched play stands to earn more from subsequent stagings--particularly if it gains an open-ended Broadway or Off-Broadway run. Moreover, Hollywood’s renewed interest in plays, spurred by the movie successes of such stage properties as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Steel Magnolias,” can generate far greater future income.

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Emmes keeps South Coast’s royalty share in subsequent sales to 5% of the author’s net proceeds and often takes less. Thus, the theater will receive a tiny fraction--perhaps $25,000--of the reported $1 million or more recently paid by Twentieth Century Fox for Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss.” South Coast commissioned the play in 1986 for $12,000, its largest commission ever, and staged the world premiere in January, 1988.

Tom Hall, managing director of the Old Globe in San Diego, calls South Coast’s policy “saintly.” However, he is not inclined to match it. “We look for a fair share, but frankly we try to gain as much participation as we can,” he said.

Over the past few years the Old Globe has earned “in the neighborhood of $250,000" from subsidiary rights to such mainstream properties as A.R. Gurney’s “The Cocktail Hour,” Neil Simon’s “Rumors” and the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods.”

Has Emmes’ policy worked?

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“It’s one of the reasons we’ve been popular,” said South Coast’s Jerry Patch. “There are agents who won’t even send a play to some theaters because they want too much participation. We don’t get first crack at everything, but we see a whole lot more than we used to.”

Postscript: “Speed-the-Plow” may get to Los Angeles this year, after all. Two commercial producers from New York have signed Elliott Gould and George Segal for a national tour. Now if they can just find somebody to replace Brooke Shields, who dropped out.


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