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Keeping the Play on the Page--and the Stage : The Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre is a well-funded but relatively unknown group that performs dramatic readings and admits audiences for free

The Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre is probably the most financially secure new theater group in town and also one of the most prolific. From now until the end of the year it will put on no less than seven plays. All will be done for audiences admitted free.

But it’s also likely that you have never heard of the group. It has no big opening nights, no seats reserved for critics, and on most occasions, no sets or costumes. Indeed, it does not even produce full-fledged plays.

The Skirball-Kenis Theatre exclusively sponsors play readings.

“What every play needs is the opportunity to meet its audience,” Jerome Lawrence said. Lawrence, along with his longtime partner Robert E. Lee, and Norman Cousins, wrote “Whisper in the Mind,” the first play reading sponsored by Skirball-Kenis. It was done in June, 1989.

“You have to have the chance to discover what works and what does not, where it’s working and where you have some work to do,” Lawrence said from his Malibu home. “The only way to do that, finally, is to get a play up before people.”

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The Skirball-Kenis company began its fall season last week with “Clever Dick,” written and directed by Charles Marowitz. Today, the series continues with an afternoon reading of “February, the Present,” written and directed by Martin Zurla and featuring actor Dan Lauria of ABC-TV’s “The Wonder Years.”

Upcoming are plays by emerging playwrights Dan Duling, Silas Jones, Lisa Aimee Sturz and Dennis Clontz.

The venture was sparked by a lunch conversation between veteran film producer Paul Heller and Charles Kenis, an importer of French cognacs and wines. “Paul started to talk about having a theater where playwrights could try out their plays,” Kenis said. “I told him that we might be interested in that.”

The “we” is Kenis and his wife, Audrey Skirball-Kenis, for whom the theater group is named.

“I was interested in the idea because of the state of the theater in this country,” said Skirball-Kenis, sitting in the opulently decorated living room of their Century City condominium. “The theater has been just going down the tubes. There is no place for playwrights to develop.”

Her first husband was Jack Skirball, a onetime rabbi who went Hollywood and produced films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Saboteur,” “Payment on Demand” starring Bette Davis and “The Howards of Virginia” starring Cary Grant. In the early 1960s, he invested his earnings in real estate projects such as the 43-acre Vacation Village in San Diego, which he sold in 1983 for a reported $51 million. Skirball died in 1985.

Charles Kenis, the owner of Bel-Air Imports, is known in food circles as the importer of the rare Cognac Frapin. He and Audrey Skirball were married in 1987.

Together, they are involved in a number of philanthropic ventures, including Hebrew Union College’s Audrey Skirball-Kenis Cultural Center, a multiuse building under construction near UCLA. They are the sole backers of the theater group, to the tune of $1 million for its first five years of operation.

“We don’t get involved in the artistic side,” Kenis said. “But when we are in the country, we go to all the readings. Some of them we have really enjoyed.”

Heller, who was executive producer of the highly acclaimed film “My Left Foot,” had a longstanding relationship with Lawrence and Lee that included his producing their play “The First Monday in October.” Lawrence and Lee also wrote “Inherit the Wind” and “Auntie Mame.”

The new play, “Whisper in the Mind,” is about Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician who is considered the father of modern hypnosis. The Skirball-Kenis reading was done at UCLA and had a stellar cast that included E.G. Marshall, David Dukes and John Randolph.

As directed by Marshall Mason, it was far more than the actors just sitting on stage and reading from scripts. There was some movement and even the suggestion of sets and costumes, although the actors did carry their scripts around with them.

“I’m not crazy about readings where they just sit there and read and nothing else,” Lawrence said. “I just don’t think that tells you much. But this one was beautiful.”

The actors, director and playwrights were paid only a stipend, but the cost of rehearsal time, props and a reception did mount up. Readings of “Whisper in the Mind” and three other plays done in a similar fashion that first season ended up costing $16,000 to $25,000 per reading, Kenis said.

Even at those rates, it would take a while to go through $1 million. But Lisa Sanman, who had produced several plays at local Equity-waiver theaters and joined the Skirball-Kenis group as managing director this year, said that a more streamlined format was needed. “It wasn’t the money so much,” Sanman said, “it was the fact that in going for better production values, the play was getting lost.

“We had to downsize a bit, make it a more informal atmosphere so that there would be more freedom for risks to be taken. We didn’t want to be locked into sets or complicated staging at this point. The focus had to be on the writing--the play itself.”

The company shifted gears, eliminating the sets, cutting back on movement and rehearsal time. The cost dipped too, to about $4,000 to $5,000 per reading, but more readings were added. During the current season, which ends Dec. 5, the Skirball-Kenis group will do about a reading a week.

And once per season, a play will be chosen for a more complex staging with some movement and a suggestion of sets. This season’s chosen play is Dan Duling’s “Hard Road Home” about the goings on in a seedy Modesto motel. It will be presented next Sunday at UCLA’s Little Theatre in MacGowan Hall.

The company has been using small theaters at UCLA, which the Kenises can obtain at no or little cost. For several years, they have contributed money to that school’s theater department.

The company has had occasional use of non-campus theaters, but most of the readings now take place in an auditorium at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. When the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Cultural Center at Hebrew Union College is finished, the company will use its auditorium for readings.

Next year, the company plans to present a play by pop novelist and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon in which Nancy Marchand is expected to appear. Also in the works is a series of panel discussions on topics of interest to playwrights.

“We asked playwrights what they wanted to talk about, and they told us it should be the transition from play to screenplay,” Sanman said. “Everyone would like to have the next ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ”

The Skirball-Kenis Theatre company’s next reading, of “February, the Present,” written and directed by Martin Zurla, will be held today at 2 p.m. at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. This season’s readings, which are mostly presented on Wednesday evenings, continue through Dec. 5. Admittance to all readings is free but reservations are sometimes needed. For reservations and schedule information, call (213) 284-8965.


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