If They Can Make It There . . .

Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

It's draft week at South Coast Repertory, and like the coaches and scouts of a National Football League team, the two leaders of the Costa Mesa theater and their top advisors are gathered around a table to evaluate talent.

There are no times in the 40-yard dash to consider, no statistics of passes completed and points scored. Plays, not players, are being picked, and an intangible--taste--determines which ones make the roster of the third annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, which opens this weekend.

On the table this day in March are about 20 candidates for the festival, culled from the more than 700 new, unproduced scripts SCR reviews each year. Nine will make the final cut. The choice will fall to Martin Benson and David Emmes, who founded the theater in 1964 and continue to make all of its artistic decisions.

First, they want to hear what their six top creative aides think. Discussions around a long table in the repertory's sparsely furnished boardroom are frank, the differences over merits and weaknesses sometimes blunt. But the tone is strictly collegial, with no raised voices or disapproving looks.

In the session's liveliest exchange, festival director Jerry Patch leads the charge for "Modern Orthodox" by Daniel Goldfarb, a young playwright he thinks has an exceptionally sharp theatrical mind. He seems outnumbered, though.

"I find his work amusing, but I keep wanting it to deepen," says John Glore, the theater's veteran literary manager. Some problems in a play can be worked on and improved, Glore says. "But what you can't bring is deepening. If it's a little thin and shallow, I don't see how you can [guide] it to a deeper place."

Patch, who knows Goldfarb, is sure the playwright has the right stuff.

"He's 26 and really smart about plays. You've got to believe me about this."

Starting Thursday the chosen playwrights will be the stars of a two-weekend festival that is, in essence, a training camp for plays. Writers come to rehearsals, get feedback from directors and dramaturges, and make revisions based on what they have seen and heard. Then they observe how audiences react to readings or minimally staged versions of their works in progress. If the process clicks, the plays become sharper, more effective--better able to compete in a theatrical world that can be as bruising in its way as the NFL.

During the past few years, Benson and Emmes have compiled the sort of winning record in new play development that Vince Lombardi achieved on the football field.

From 1997 to 1999, four of the nine finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in drama were plays first produced at SCR. One play, Margaret Edson's "Wit," won the Pulitzer in 1999 and was a hit off-Broadway. Although this year's Pulitzer-winning play, "Dinner With Friends," by Donald Margulies, didn't originate at South Coast Repertory, it did receive its West Coast premiere there. And the theater played an important role in nurturing Margulies' career--including a reading of one of his more recent works, "God of Vengeance," at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival.

"New plays are what we've always been about," says artistic director Benson. He and Emmes have helped bring 74 new plays to the stage since launching SCR as a scuffling, itinerant troupe.

The Pacific Playwrights Festival, it would seem, is a way to certify SCR's achievements: Present new plays, throw a nice party, and invite leaders from theaters across the nation to admire--and perhaps line up to produce--its wares.

But that is not how the leadership sees it.

"It's not a vanity thing," Emmes says. "We're hopeful we can use our resources to allow playwrights to make connections with other theaters." The chief aim of the festival, he says, is not to gild SCR's laurels, but "to keep talented writers believing that writing for the theater is a viable career choice" when far better-paying jobs beckon in film and television.

"Yeah, there's some glory in having it there, sure," says Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre. "But it's an awfully generous way to enjoy glory."

Last year, Edelstein received some of that generosity. "God of Vengeance" was his theater's property, not South Coast Rep's. Benson, Emmes and Patch invited him and Margulies to work on it anyway. SCR paid their plane fare, room and board, as well as the salaries of the actors hired for the reading. The share-the-wealth principle continues this year: Two festival slots belong to plays being developed by theaters in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

"It's a responsibility, and if you're taking it as a promotional gimmick, your theater is doing the wrong thing," says famed stage director Lloyd Richards, hailed as a pioneer of the collaborative style of new play development widely practiced today.

To Richards, who ran the annual National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut for more than 30 years, the only criterion for a worthwhile new-play festival should be "the quality of effort put in in the support of writers."

South Coast Repertory, he says, "is a responsible theater, and I'm glad they're involved."

The Pacific Playwrights Festival is seeking a prominent spot on a play development landscape that includes such long-established, widely recognized annual gatherings as the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah and the Mark Taper Forum's New Work Festival.

According to Patch, SCR decided to launch its own festival at a time when it seemed such events were flagging on the West Coast. A $100,000 annual grant from the Mellon Foundation covers about half the budget. Overall, SCR officials say, the theater spends about $600,000 annually on developing new plays, not counting staging expenses for the two to four world premieres produced each year in recent seasons. About $150,000 goes directly to playwrights in the form of the 10 to 12 commissions SCR makes each year.

"They really believe in the spirit of supporting artists," says Philip Himberg, artistic director of the theater program at Sundance. "I think those guys just have a heart-centered dedication to the written word as it's presented on stage."

"They have fostered a remarkable environment for artists," says Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for American regional theaters. "There's a real sense of occasion when that kind of talent congregates at one time."

Given South Coast Repertory's reputation and track record, it's likely the choices made in the March play-drafting session will be widely noted in the theater world.

Three plays are consensus picks that require little more than an around-the-table thumbs-up.

One-word comments--"absolutely" and "delightful"--suffice on "The Beard of Avon," a comedy grown out of the literary debate over who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Its author, Amy Freed, is one of SCR's past Pulitzer finalists.

"Kimberly Akimbo," an unorthodox comedy about a low-income New Jersey family by young playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and John Strand's colonial American tale "Tom Walker" are, like Freed's play, not only chosen to be read at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, but also to be staged next season as full South Coast Repertory productions.

The rest is up for debate. One contender, "Vieques," by Jorge Gonzalez--eventually chosen--has rich comic possibilities, but its political dimension leaves some of the brain trust cold. Most are baffled by another play, "Brain People," submitted by established Los Angeles playwright Jose Rivera. An SCR favorite with an ongoing commission to write plays for the theater, Rivera has peopled his play about madness with chameleonic characters who change ages and genders during its course.

"I have no idea what it's about," Patch confesses. "Brain People," it's decided, will get its chance in a private, in-house reading rather than a slot in the festival.

Benson and Emmes side with Patch on "Modern Orthodox" and choose it not only for the festival, but also for next season. But the play about religious differences among American Jews slips away in the end, claimed by a commercial producer in New York who could cut a better deal. Another Goldfarb play, "Dulce de Leche," will be read at the festival instead.

Juliette Carrillo, director of South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project, trumpets Nilo Cruz's "Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams." "This is a passion play for me," she says--and makes the case for several other emerging Latino playwrights whose scripts might need work, but whose distinctive voices she thinks are worth cultivating. Started in 1985 as a stand-alone mini-festival, the Hispanic festival has been folded into the Pacific Playwrights Festival, where it dominates the first of the two weekends.

In the end, most of the nine picks Benson and Emmes make are plays they think have potential but are not sure bets to turn into significant, fully realized plays. Yes, Benson says later, they could have cherry-picked crowd-pleasers and mature works and put on a festival of shows likely to make their way into widespread production. But they want the festival to be mainly about wrestling with promising plays in need of help.

Richards, the patriarch of play development who is best known for shepherding most of August Wilson's output to the stage, says the danger in the process implemented at the festival and other new-play workshops is that a playwright can be worn down. "You begin to sense there are plays by committee. Workshop a play to death, and the playwright begins to lose his sense of responsibility for his work."

Sunil Kuruvilla, a young Canadian playwright, says he had grown a bit confused and detached as his boxing play, "Fighting Words," went through reading after reading--eight in all--at different theaters seeking to develop it. South Coast Repertory was tipped off to the play last December; Kuruvilla says the theater's enthusiasm rekindled his own.

"Fighting Words" is based on an actual title bout in which the knockout punch proved fatal to the challenger. After so many script readings, the Pacific Playwrights Festival staging will give the never-produced Kuruvilla his first chance to see how his work, which attempts a highly unorthodox approach to storytelling, actually plays.

"It's quite obvious that they really respect the writer," the 35-year-old playwright, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama, said from his home in Waterloo, Ontario. "When they're giving me criticism or comments, it's never prescriptive. It's descriptive, telling me when they're confused, where it's unclear. But they leave it to me to find my way through the confusion, to find my own path."

In advising playwrights, says Patch, it's vital not to show off one's own smarts and sensibility at the cost of an intrusion upon the writer.

"Even if you think you know the answer, you never give the answer. Then it's not the playwright's. The artist has to own it."

*

Rivera arrived at last year's festival thinking his sexy, sometimes dreamlike scenes-from-a-marriage drama "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot" might need a touch-up at most.

"I thought it was perfect. But I kept hearing the same thing over and over" from director Carrillo and others working on the play, who questioned whether one character was needed at all, and whether the military wife in the piece needed more spark to hold the stage against her charismatic husband.

"I had to go through the workshop and see it for myself," Rivera says. He revised the play, which received a striking production at South Coast Repertory this year and, he says, has been picked for next season by theaters in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Seeing audiences react to the play's surrealistic parts gave Rivera a boost as he went back to his writing desk.

"You could easily lose the audience immediately because of that device," he said. "But I felt people enjoying it and laughing and getting into what that world was."

The festival aims to generate good feelings, not just good plays. Social gatherings for the more than 100 actors, playwrights, directors and dramaturges are built into the working schedule.

"We want them to meet one another and become supporters of each other instead of competitors," Patch says.

Rivera, whose work has been featured at the Humana Festival and the Taper New Work Festival as well as the Pacific Playwrights Festival, says that is not automatic, given the nature of things, but that SCR last year created an affable atmosphere in which it did happen.

"The sense of competition is inescapable in the theater. All of us writers want our work done everywhere, and we compete against each other over slots." When a festival brings playwrights together, he says, "We check each other out, like dogs sniffing around. We want to make sure our work stands up to the scrutiny of our peers.

"But once we're at the festival, we bond," he says. "There's a gentlemanly sense of 'We've all been through it, we're still in the theater--against the odds.' "

*

PACIFIC PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Program: Seven play readings and two workshop productions. Dates: Thursday to June 25. Prices: $8 to $18. Phone: (714) 708-5555.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°