STAGE : Writers and producers are staging works around town with the express purpose of catching a film or TV deal. The practice raises questions about the future of small theaters and leads to at least one conclusion: : The Play's Not the Thing

Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

When "A Piece of My Heart" opened as a rental production at the Odyssey Theatre Oct. 23, it may have looked like just another opening, another show in one of the many 99-seat houses that dot L.A. But with Scott Valentine ("Family Ties") in the lead and nearly $50,000 of playwright-producer Matt Cooper's own money footing the bill, there's a whole other agenda at work.

"I want two things," says Cooper, seated in the lobby of the West L.A. theater, as his collaborators and crew members troop by, working fast during the last week of rehearsals. "I want to see something that I have written up already. The other reason is I'd like to get a film made. There are a lot of people who'll go to a lot of lengths to get a film made, and this is one possible way."

Welcome to the latest in pitch meetings, the newest way to hawk your script to the guys who can give it the "go." Only this time the young, hopeful writer isn't toting a script under his arm, schmoozing the development exec over lunch on the lot. He's put his wares up onstage.

The hope is that the industry buyers who troll the small-theater scene will come and see visions of a movie or a TV show just waiting to be made. And risky a way as this may sound to get your script read (or seen), it's becoming common practice in the small and mid-size theater houses.

"Certainly most original productions hope there's going to be a further life," says Actors' Equity's Michael Van Duzer, administrator of the union's 99-seat small-theater plan. "As far as the industry goes, this is where they get their product."

'At the (99-seat) level, everybody has a different agenda," says Cooper, who spent twice as much on his production as he'd originally planned. "I just don't believe that that many people do it for the love of theater.

"All the middle-echelon development people comb, looking for things they can buy. That's what theater is about here. It's not about putting on a great show."

And while stage purists may shudder at--or at least beg to differ with--Cooper's sweeping rubric, there are, at the moment, several productions that bear out his analysis.

Besides "A Piece of My Heart," playwright-screenwriter Bill C. Davis, best known for his play and movie "Mass Appeal," has had several works go from the stage to the industry bargaining table. He's currently represented by "Spine" at the Cast Theatre.

At the Burbage Theatre, actor Mitch Stein is launching a play series, and one factor in picking the scripts is that they are potentially translatable properties. His series was scheduled to kick off Friday with the opening of screenwriter-novelist Morton Reed's suspense drama "Lullabies."

Although actors have traditionally used small theater as a means toward being seen and cast, the showcasing of scripts is a new twist on this old idea. In many cases, it's a strategy for people who have already got a foot in the industry door but can't seem to break out to the next level.

Often, as in Cooper's case, they have no prior experience with the stage. Less often, as with Davis, they maintain a continuing commitment to both mediums.

The greatest problem with this high-power script showcasing, though, is that it threatens to change the complexion of local theater, making it yet another corner dominated aesthetically and financially by the entertainment industry.

In New York, Off Off Broadway is considered an artistic and professional end in itself. But here, theater is what Van Duzer calls "the bastard stepchild."

Lacking the legitimate stage's Eastern history and esteem, L.A. theater has been a troubled institution since it took hold here during the '60s. During the '70s, smaller theaters began to spring up, although it wasn't until the '80s that they really proliferated.

Yet if theater can't garner the resources or the respect to stay afloat as an end in itself, the industry seems ready to make use of the talent and facilities. If this trend continues, however, there will be fewer productions that deviate from TV-wanna-be realism, less room for playwrights who want to make artistically or socially-challenging work.

This will set L.A. back yet again in its on-again, off-again efforts to become identified as a theater town. It may also, in turn, make the Hollywood product even more homogenous than it already is.

The economics of small theater will change too. As rental rates increase to match the budgets of the industry players who can afford to pay them, there will be fewer venues available for low-budget or experimental work and nowhere for young, unbacked writers to cut their literary teeth.

The current crop of plays hoping for a celluloid afterlife is by no means the first to try this angle. In the past couple of years--and especially lately--there's a good deal of this kind of activity on the boards.

Although not in a 99-seat house like "A Piece of My Heart," "Spine" and "Lullabies," the most-hyped example of a potential transfer in recent memory was last May's paparazzi -laden James L. Brooks-directed "Brooklyn Laundry."

With a cast that featured Glenn Close, Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern in the first full-length work by 32-year-old Lisa-Maria Radano, the production played to packed houses and attracted ticket scalpers to the 272-seat Coronet Theatre.

Although the actors reportedly worked for Equity scale, the production costs were estimated to be about $165,000. The project was bankrolled by Columbia Pictures Entertainment in association with Brooks' Gracie Films.

Largely because of the high-profile names involved and the nature of the script, it has been predicted that the play will re-emerge elsewhere or in another medium. As The Times' Sylvie Drake noted, " 'Brooklyn Laundry' . . . is fundamentally a movie."

In 1990, Patchett-Kaufman Entertainment spent $100,000 to produce four plays at the behest of actor Dan Lauria of ABC-TV's "The Wonder Years."

Lauria--who had tried unsuccessfully to get the industry to subsidize Equity Waiver theater years earlier, before he was a series star--had luck with small theater even before the Patchett-Kaufman series. In 1989, he spent $15,000 out of his own pocket to put up "A Bronx Tale" and "What Every Woman Knows," the former of which had its film rights optioned by Universal.

These productions--all within the past few years--have come about under Equity's 99-seat plan, the system of regulation that supplanted the Equity Waiver system in October, 1988. Under waiver, there had been essentially no rules governing productions in small houses.

The new plan, however, limits rehearsals and the number of performances per run and stipulates that a reimbursement be paid to actors during performances, although not during rehearsal. These guidelines, though, are still much less stringent than those in New York (example: 80 performances are allowed per run here, compared to only 16 under New York's equivalent showcase category).

While Equity's Van Duzer says the number of small productions has held steady since it hit a peak about 1981, the kind of producing companies has been changing. "Fewer theaters do in-house productions anymore," he says. "Even the Cast and the Odyssey rent out their spaces."

Economic realities--made worse by the continuing recession--tilt the balance precisely toward industry-oriented rental productions. Similarly, the need to rent out space to make ends meet mitigates against ongoing company collaborations and theater for theater's sake.

The Cast has long been a home for emerging playwrights. Yet Bill C. Davis, whose "Spine" finishes a run there today with Meredith Baxter in the lead, is hardly a novice.

His "Mass Appeal" hit Broadway in 1982 and appeared as a movie three years later. His "Wrestlers" and "Dancing in the End Zone," which was produced by Scott Allyn (who also produces "Spine"), are both currently in the works as potential screen products.

"I have respect for the event in and of itself, but I also want it to go East as well," Davis says of possible futures for "Spine." The Times' Don Shirley said the play has "the unmistakable look of a TV workshop. Meredith Baxter plays the kind of role she is famous for on TV. The play is just about the perfect length for a two-hour movie, allowing for commercials."

Davis concedes that he "could see this as a low-budget independent movie." But, he says, "I see it in a progression: play first, life in New York, life on the screen."

The Cast, however, is not the most common venue for Hollywood-bound productions. Typically, these kinds of shows are drawn to the more expensive venues such as the Tiffany, the Matrix or the Odyssey.

The Cast's advantages include its artistic director, Diana Gibson, who through Lorimar's Nina Taffler got Davis' "Spine" to Baxter. The tiny space at the Cast also has certain artistic advantages, Davis says. "You want to start something in a simple way and see what you have," he says. "The intimate setting demonstrates how it might work on a film."

Similarly, Mitch Stein says theater gives one freedom to develop the text. "It's an excellent vehicle to play with it on the smaller stage, to see where we can take it from there," he says. "We're looking at this as a way to stage something we can do more with. Maybe ("Lullabies") could work as a cable movie."

Mainly, Stein sees the stage as a cheaper place in which to make one's mistakes. "It certainly is economical compared to putting it up on the big screen and seeing it flop there," he says. "You don't have the budgetary problems, and you can change things."

"A Piece of My Heart" didn't start out as a play. Originally, Cooper--who went to UCLA Film School and Hofstra Law School--wrote it as a screenplay in 1987.

"It was talky," he recalls. "My agent said, 'Turn it into a play.' Now, I've turned it into a play and people go, 'It's a screenplay.' It has 44 scenes. It's theater that may look like a film--kind of in between."

The challenge now is for Cooper to make a few concessions to the different constraints of the stage. "I can't hide behind camera direction, editing, set and so on," he says. "This has been driven home to me. It has to be more interesting than film in a way. You have to rethink the way you write a scene."

Not entirely, though. Cooper isn't about to totally refashion his work or turn in his celluloid credentials for a life on the boards. "It'll be the best it can be as a play, but there already is a screenplay," he says, sounding ready to pass out the soft-bound manuscripts at the drop of a hat. "The dialogue is basically the same."

Frequently in recent years, seasoned TV and film writers, producers and directors have turned to the stage out of love for the medium or a desire to write--and keep creative control over--works that aren't commercial enough for the screen.

Besides first-time stage director Brooks, Jay Tarses, Tom Patchett, Matt Williams and a number of others have joined the likes of veteran stage and screen writer Larry Gelbart.

Whether for artistic fulfillment alone, or in hopes of developing future screen works, these veterans are able to pursue the stage with the freedom that comes from an industry paycheck and clout.

For younger writers like Cooper, however, the stage work is a calculated ploy to break through into a higher echelon of the industry. "First you have to get optioned," he says. "Then you've got to get something in development. I'm past that. Then you've got to get produced. And I'm not there. If nothing else, this is still a production."

Cooper, however, wants more. And so, it seems, do many. "I've had these conversations already with a bunch of people: 'If it works out, I'd love to do the film,' " he says.

That attitude, Cooper believes, is predominant in 99-seat theater. "Everybody right down the line to the graphic artist (is out for that crossover)," he says. "That's what motivates."

It is not for the love of the stage. "Theater is definitely frowned upon," Cooper says.

Actor Valentine, who came to L.A. from New York in 1984, concurs. "It is different in New York," he says. "I was appalled when I came out here."

"People go to New York and Chicago to work; they come to L.A. to get money and they don't want to work," says Valentine, who expresses resentment at the various cast members of "A Piece of My Heart" who left the production before it opened because--as is frequently the case in local theater--they got more lucrative offers.

Although he stands out as one of a rare breed now--having turned down two films and half a dozen TV projects to keep his prior commitment to Cooper's play--Valentine too came to L.A. in pursuit of the dollar.

With several years of New York theater to his credit, Valentine was run over by a truck in 1981 and laid up for more than three years. After his convalescence--and with an artificial hip, pelvis and partial femur in place--he found himself unable to get work, he says, because New York producers were hesitant to insure him.

"I came out here in hopes that nobody knew about (the accident), and it worked," he says. Only 10 months into his stay here, Valentine landed "Family Ties," the specter that now haunts every audition.

"It's quite a problem after having played a monosyllabic idiot in a sitcom," he says. "I wanted to do something where you rehearse more than two or three times on the set--and to play a character who conjugates verbs.

"TV makes you soft and mushy. You lose your awareness. You get sloppy and lazy."

This kind of slipshod craft may rankle Valentine, but what bothers him more is his peers' attitudes. "In New York, there's an atmosphere in which a constructive dialogue about the work can exist," he says. "A lot of actors out here don't have the training and the ability to talk about the work in a logical manner. They come out here to be a movie star, a celebrity."

It is possible, albeit difficult, to do good work on both stage and screen. In "A Piece of My Heart," for instance, Valentine shares the stage with Williamstown Theatre Festival veteran Maury Efrems, who came to L.A. from New York to be in the film "He Said, She Said" and was seen recently as the lead in the late Los Angeles Theatre Center's production of "Life Is a Dream."

While Cooper and producer Laura Morton are upfront about their hopes for a film future for "A Piece of My Heart," they maintain that their stage and entertainment industry goals aren't mutually exclusive.

"Matt and I are both from the East Coast," Morton notes. "We come from supporting theater, and so we're trying to get that support here as well, trying to get that high profile."

"I would never put my own money into producing something I didn't think would be a good play," Cooper says. "Sure, I want to make a film. But I'm able to separate the two."

If only the play becomes high profile, though that may not be enough. Not for a $50,000 investment, anyway.

"It's a very big gamble," Cooper says of his hopes and outlay. "But I will have taken my shot. We will be seen by a lot of people.

"Would I have done this if I had known what it was going to end up costing me? I don't know. I just have always been a gambler."

Valentine isn't quite as sanguine. "If something comes out of it, that's great," he says. "But it was more the chance to get back to theater and remember why I got in this Godforsaken business in the first place."

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