O.C. Theatre / Jan Herman : SCR Contest Ends, May Become Biennial Event

South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is quietly ringing down the curtain on annual operation of the California Playwrights Competition after its six-year run as one of the nation's most lucrative contests for unproduced scripts.

The statewide contest, which was designed to encourage emerging writers and to find new plays for possible production at SCR, could survive as a biennial event if funds are found to underwrite it.

"Our motivation is primarily economic," SCR literary manager John Glore said Wednesday. "But quite honestly it isn't just an economic decision. We feel that in six years the contest has achieved what it set out to do."

Glore, who headed the contest with SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch, said "we wanted to make the writers in the state aware of us. We wanted them to send us their work. We now have a list of 2,000 writers. By going biennial with the contest, which is our intention at this point, we feel we'll still be serving that community."

The decision to curtail the contest does not represent a retreat from new plays by unproduced writers, Glore said, maintaining that SCR will continue to read unsolicited manuscripts from California residents as part of "an open submissions policy."

Since 1988 the theater has awarded 15 playwrights a total of $55,000 in prize money from $150,000 in grants provided by the American Express Co. (the rest of the money went to administration of the program). The grants ended this year. The annual first prize was $5,000; lesser amounts went to runners-up.

SCR initially raised $174,000, including a $43,500 matching grant from the California Arts Council, to launch the contest in tandem with an annual play festival that presented some of the early prize-winners.

The festival ended in 1990, however, largely due to its high cost of operation and its drain on the theater's manpower resources. Both the literary department and the technical staff faced logistic problems each time the festival rolled around in spring because of the clash between short production deadlines and the lengthy process of script rewrites.

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The unpredictability of the schedule also contributed to the festival's demise because the sales department could not tell subscribers early enough in the season what plays they could expect to see, thus posing a threat to subscription income.

But the contest itself continued to operate, drawing almost 300 scripts a year from throughout the state. All first- and second-prize winners were given public readings. A few winners went on to full production as part of SCR's regular season.

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To date, SCR has produced seven scripts obtained through the contest--two on the Mainstage and five on the Second Stage. (Of the two that reached the Mainstage--"Once in Arden" in 1990 and "Pirates" in 1991--the former had to be withdrawn from the contest after being declared a finalist. It turned out to have been written by a part-time SCR staffer, Richard Hellesen, who had submitted it under a pseudonym.)

"Pirates," which won the 1989 contest, was the most recent first-prize winner to be produced. "Noah Johnson Had a Whore," the 1990 second-prize winner, was the last to be staged (it was a Second Stage production in 1992).

The lack of productions developed from winning scripts in recent seasons would seem to suggest that SCR has little to gain by keeping the contest as an annual event.

Nevertheless, the trend could be reversed by the latest first-prize script, "Green Icebergs," a comedy of manners that won the 1993 contest. It was given a reading Monday on the Mainstage, and the theater is expected to decide by the end of the month whether to produce it next season.

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Patch has said that SCR is "bullish" on the play. Glore also touts it highly. Moreover, SCR producing artistic director David Emmes chose to direct the reading himself, a sign that he may be leaning toward a production. It is Emmes who ultimately decides, with artistic director Martin Benson, what gets produced at SCR.

Days before the reading, "Green Icebergs" author Cecilia Fannon was snapped up by Artists and Writers, a major talent agency, on the strength of that script and others she has written, including her 1992 second-prize script "To Distraction."

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