Feel free to bomb, you're safe here

Special to The Times

It's not often that a 90-minute staged performance includes a Renaissance-era swordfight to the death, a present-day shouting match between a devout suburban mother and her stoner son, and the sexual assault of a 17-year-old female Bosnian sniper.

But at Safehouse that's just another Monday night.

A weekly workshop for writers to see their work performed by local actors, Safehouse is the creation of screenwriters Aleks Horvat ("Sweethearts") and Jim Uhls ("Fight Club"). Horvat is an entrepreneur. Among his businesses is theOffice, a paid workspace in Brentwood with a literary Zen-like vibe, Wi-Fi, and Aeron chairs that serves as a haven for writers to work away from home or the office (J.J. Abrams, Gigi Levangie and Paul Haggis have been regulars). And the 22 writers, both newer and well-established, and 44 actors who make up the current Safehouse membership meet there to showcase the writers' work and provide feedback.

"It is a safe space for writers to workshop their work without any judgment," Horvat says. "It's a place where you can feel free to fall flat on your face and no one's going to laugh at you or think less of you. We're going to give you constructive criticism, and whatever you do with that criticism is your business."

Safehouse's format and core membership were born of a similar collective called WAL, or the Writers and Actors Lab, which Uhls founded in the mid-'90s. After Horvat launched theOffice in early 2004, and a handful of WAL dropouts such as Uhls, Blake Herron ("The Bourne Identity") and Philip Eisner ("Event Horizon") started working there, Horvat conceived Safehouse for those living on the Westside. (WAL still exists and meets around Hollywood).

In a first-come-first-serve fashion, three writers sign up to present material on any given night and cast their actors a week beforehand. The night of the performance, those groups meet at 7, with the actors seeing the scripts for the first time, and rehearse for 1 1/2 hours. The rest of Safehouse shows up at 8:30, and each prepared writer then presents his 15 minutes of material, with the actors on book but staged, with blocking, action and, often, props. Each performance is then followed by 15 minutes of input from the gallery (the actors are generally not critiqued).

Ready to read

On a recent Monday night, Herron, Horvat, and a new member, Chloe Ballatore, were the highlighted scribes. Seventeen writers and 23 actors were in attendance, all dressed casually. The desks on one side of theOffice had been removed to create a makeshift proscenium, while the "audience" perched on tables and chairs in the other half of the room.

That night's rehearsed actors milled about poring over script pages, each with his dialogue red-lined, a few off by themselves whispering line readings. A writer plastic-forked some takeout penne into his mouth. Cokes, coffee cups and expectant energy were everywhere.

Then Herron, in a Strand Bookstore T-shirt, rocked on his heels at the front while he set the scene and characters for an original drama he's writing based on a famous duel that happened in Renaissance Europe. When he was done, eight actors launched into a public fight scene, an intense dialogue between two friends, and some palace intrigue that amounted to about two thirds of the screenplay's first act.

When the noncontiguous series of scenes was over, the crowd applauded and Herron sat at the front with Horvat, who moderated the feedback from the crowd.

"Who am I rooting for?" asked Uhls.

Eisner praised the effective use of period language by saying "you're in 'Lion in Winter' territory."

Other comments came flying, as Herron scribbled in his notebook: Clarify the relationship between the two protagonists. The dialogue is too plot-oriented. Is the use of profanity true to the time period?

One guy wanted Herron to ramp up the debauchery and suggested a specific sex act. The next person claimed to have had the same exact note. Everyone laughed.

Ballatore then showcased a series of comedic scenes, including some extremely well-mimed pot-smoking. It got lots of laughs. When it was over, Ballatore asks if the details about the specific world of her characters came through.

Horvat's piece entailed the first 16 pages of a screenplay for an independent feature that he has reworked since he first showcased them at Safehouse a year and a half ago. Against the backdrop of war-torn 1995 Sarajevo, the prologue sequence is dark and eccentric, with violent sex, tattoos, gunshots and explosions (much read expositionally by Horvat).

Getting feedback

This time, Uhls moderated while Horvat fielded the comments: Maybe lose the flashback device. Hold the female lead's secret reveal longer. Herron commended it as "like a cool European graphic novel." Two writers contradicted each other about whether one character was unbearable or fascinating.

Criticisms are delivered respectfully and straightforwardly, and the highlighted writers typically stay mum while they take notes, taking care not to let on whether a comment is considered helpful or moronic.

"That's why we call it Safehouse," Uhls says and laughs. "What's wholesome about the group is that we all know that [the writer's looking for input] and we're all helping with that. Everybody's got something to work out in the material they're bringing."

While the actors' attendance is free, the writers each pay $45 monthly dues (mostly to cover Horvat's loss of business on that night). Membership is at Horvat's discretion, with the main requirement being that a writer or actor is working -- i.e. being paid -- though the writers aren't required to have produced credits. A writer can also acquire an invitation by having a great piece of material that Horvat or Uhls has read and likes, plus a strong referral.

"We want to keep the bar at a certain level," says Horvat of a roster that includes Roger Soffer ("Slow Burn"), Meredith Stiehm ("NYPD Blue," "ER") and a bundle of writers who have sold pilots and specs or written low-budget independent films.

Any format is welcome for presentation -- feature scripts, TV pilots, plays, short films, free-standing scenes or exercises, even potential animated material. Writers have brought in both spec work and studio assignments, and both Uhls and Herron attest to the necessity of working out certain dramatic muscles in this workshop environment that keep them from slipping into formula with their rewrite gigs.

But maybe the greatest, most satisfying payoff of joining a group like Safehouse is that it offers the writer something creative and kinetic while waiting for the notoriously sluggish studio system to bless a screenplay with a greenlight, a process that can often last longer than the Renaissance.

"Art needs to be manifested," Horvat says. "At least your words are coming alive, and maybe it eases some of the frustration."

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com

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