Showtime and HBO Getting Into the One-Act

When F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that there were no second acts in American lives, perhaps he was foreseeing the current smaller-theater scene in Los Angeles.

Every week seems to bring yet another one-act festival. One indication of the glut is that two different, unrelated festivals used the umbrella title "Act One."

Probably the most prominent festival so far was the Showtime-financed "Act One," which presented works by 15 writers from May 20-July 10 at the Met Theatre. Not to be outdone, Showtime's primary rival, Home Box Office, has announced that the First Annual HBO Festival of New Writers will introduce 10 one-act comedies at a yet-to-be-announced theater in Los Angeles this fall. The 10 will be selected from 25 scripts now in workshops at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood (through next Sunday; those in turn were picked from more than 2,700 submissions.

The HBO festival is emphasizing the cultural diversity of its writers. Of the 25 represented in the workshops, 18 are "of color," said executive producer Steve Kaplan.

Many observers would assume that the main agenda of any one-act festival sponsored by a giant cable programmer would be to find material that could be converted to the small screen. This is more openly the case with the Showtime festival than with HBO's. One of the "Act One" plays, "Sticks and Stones," already has received a Showtime go-ahead for development into a full-length film.

The HBO festival, Kaplan said, is "more focused on the writers as opposed to potential product for the network." But even that interest isn't purely altruistic. "The bottom line is to find writers who (HBO) can develop," Kaplan said. "If even a few become involved with HBO, we're successful."

While this may spell success for the corporation, does it spell success for the L.A. audiences? Showtime's festival was a sellout on most of the nights following its first couple of weeks, report "Act One" officials. The recent Naked Angels one-act program, "More Naked at the Coast," was another hot ticket. Apparently there is an audience for one-acts.

"Some people like buffet more than a la carte," Kaplan said. "In a one-act festival, if you don't like what's on, just wait a second, and there will be another one. It's like vaudeville. And even if you don't like the plays, you can come out with an appreciation of the roaring talent that's in them."

Risa Bramon Garcia, a co-producer of Showtime's festival, said one-act fans like the variety of experiences available in one program. "People enjoy the changes. It's like appreciating different kinds of paintings in a museum." Or, to draw on a less lofty medium, it's like "TV channel-switching," she added. "People today have a harder time focusing for longer periods of time." So perhaps it's appropriate that TV powers are paying for these two festivals.

Most of the festivals don't have that kind of backing, but some of them do draw on the same creative wells. In addition to her duties on "Act One," Bramon Garcia is artistic co-director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's L.A. Project, which is currently presenting its own program of one-acts, "Summer Shorts," at the Fountain Theatre. Most of the "Summer Shorts" are plays that came in through the "Act One" application process, she said.

Several of the "Act One" applicants also wound up on the bill of fare at "More Naked at the Coast," Bramon Garcia added. "We're all kissing cousins."


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