KOCE-TV working on live play series

Times Staff Writer

In a throwback to "Playhouse 90," a classic drama program from the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," Orange County public television station KOCE aims to launch a regular series of live stage plays to be performed and simultaneously broadcast from its studios in Huntington Beach -- a gambit apparently unique on the current broadcast television landscape.

Lacking the budget for well-known actors or name playwrights, the series, tentatively called "First Stage Saturday," will offer new, unknown plays that spring from Orange County's small-theater scene, with its casts of predominantly nonunion actors.

Plans call for presenting a new play each month on a Saturday at 11 p.m., beginning April 2 with the Chance Theater's adaptation of "The Rover," a 17th century comedy by Aphra Behn. Writer-director Josh Costello reframes the play so four contemporary teenage girls having a slumber party act out its take on romance and sexual attraction. KOCE education director Hall Davidson said the idea sprang from the station's push to become more community-oriented after an ownership change last November.

"Small theater is a vital part of any community. Most of the community may not know about it, and we're going to share it with Orange County."

With less than a month to go before the premiere, contractual and logistical details remain to be firmed up before the series can go forward. KOCE will front $5,000 to $6,000 in equipment costs and technicians' salaries for each episode, Davidson said, and the stage companies are expected to kick in $1,620. Davidson expects the broadcasts to reach 40,000 to 80,000 viewers, the numbers pulled by "Sound Affects," a local rock band showcase that aired for two years in the Saturday late-night slot.

KOCE's attempt appears to stand alone. At The Times' request, Public Broadcasting Service spokeswoman Kim Tavares sent e-mailed queries to all 349 PBS-affiliated stations, and responses turned up nothing comparable.

To pick shows, the station has recruited four volunteer artistic directors from the Orange County-Long Beach small-theater scene: Dave Barton, artistic director of Santa Ana's Rude Guerrilla Theater Company; Laguna Beach writer-director-performer Aimee Greenberg; Oanh Nguyen, artistic director of the Chance in Anaheim; and Long Beach teacher-director Caprice Spencer Rothe. All are aware of the pitfalls in translating live theater to the tube, where a TV director and three camera operators will have ultimate control over what viewers see.

"I'm not majorly concerned. That's the price you pay" for TV exposure, Barton said. "But there's always the question of what happens if the TV director doesn't get the piece and starts missing" important shots.

Despite its backers' enthusiasm, some caution-inducing bumps already have been encountered. The series originally was to have been launched this month with "The Female Terrorist Project," a Rude Guerrilla production that closed on Feb. 26. But Barton said that an attorney for playwright Ken Urban raised many questions for which KOCE didn't have answers, such as who would own the broadcast and how many rebroadcasts would be allowed.

"None of us thought through these things. It was, 'Let's put on a show, yeah, great,' " Barton said. "There was a great deal of enthusiasm, but there are still [logistical and contractual] things that need to be handled."

The issues are being addressed, KOCE's Davidson said, including a decision that any financial gains from tapes of the broadcasts would belong to the playwrights, directors and actors and not the station. "Let's hope someone gets rich off of it, but it won't be us," he said.

Also still in doubt is whether the series, which can't afford union wages, can win clearance to use actors who belong to the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. And Barton raised concerns about finding enough good material. "If you get a couple of [miserable] shows, it makes the series look bad and makes us all in the theater scene look bad."

Orange County playwrights such as Joel Beers, Mary Fengar Gail, Kristina Leach and Stephen Ludwig have had critically well-received productions in Southern California. But sustaining the series, most of its artistic directors agree, probably will require reaching out eventually to emerging L.A. playwrights as well.

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