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A boon for the boards

Times Staff Writer

If you think it’s a drag being fed a bunch of reruns and reality shows because Hollywood’s writers are on strike, consider what it means for George Wendt.

With prospects iffy for fresh film and television roles, the former “Cheers” star just re-upped for six more months in drag on Broadway.

“There’s nothing like steady work,” Wendt said the other day from his dressing room at the Neil Simon Theatre, where he was getting ready to go on as Edna Turnblad, the good-hearted but extremely burly mother in “Hairspray.”

Stage acting -- even on Broadway -- doesn’t pay like film and television, and there are no residuals. Which is why Wendt and most other actors interested in being in a TV series typically keep this time of year unencumbered by anything as demanding and time-consuming as a part in a play. It’s “pilot season,” television’s annual mating ritual in which fledgling shows shoot sample episodes and then court networks and cable channels.

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But the walkout by the Writers Guild of America, now 3 months old, makes this showbiz moment anything but typical. Wendt, who’s enjoying himself as Edna while most of his peers sit idle, can attest to that: “Better to have the job in hand than be looking around for something during a pilot season that may or may not happen.”

From anecdotal evidence, many big-screen and television actors who have the chops for live theater are clamoring for stage parts they’d normally shun at this time of year. Meanwhile, some striking screenwriters with plays in their heads report that the words are coming harder, or not at all, because of anxiety over their day jobs’ future.

Tom Viertel, a Broadway producer, said there are no signs yet of a bounty of new plays spilling from film and television writers with time on their hands and theater in their blood.

“I’m not having agents call and say, ‘So-and-so is going back to writing plays, and I’d like you to look at it,’ ” Viertel said. But maybe, he speculated, a brood of Broadway-worthy strike babies is gestating and on its way. “If true, it’ll be a great boon for us.”

The payoff may come sooner for playgoers. With pilot season postponed, the sidewalks of New York evidently are crammed with actors looking for theater work: Bernie Telsey, a New York-based casting director for Broadway and off-Broadway, said double the usual number of actors have been turning up for auditions.

TV and film actors also are coming out in force for play auditions in Southern California, producers report. But there are complications: Phyllis Schuringa, casting director for the Geffen Playhouse, notes that some desirable performers won’t commit to plays for fear that the strike may end.

“It traps people,” she said. “They have to think about where their next job is coming from, and the need to make money.”

That includes writers too, such as David Rambo. A playwright (“God’s Man in Texas”) who gravitated to television several years ago as a writer-producer for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” he decided he would write a play that had been simmering in his head. Except, he discovered, the theater muse wouldn’t take his calls -- not while he was burdened with anxiety from walking a picket line, uncertain what the future holds.

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“I thought, ‘Boy, am I going to write that play,’ ” Rambo said. But “I can’t. I’ve tried, and I just can’t. I don’t know anybody who has.”

Writing a play, he said, means having to “suggest a world with all the right details, the right words, the nuances. You have to get to a place of deep thought where those things can be discovered. I can’t get to it with the stress of a strike.”

Jane Anderson, a “media-hyphenate” who -- like many in L.A.'s creative set -- tries to carve out time for the theater work she loves amid the screenwriting and directing that earns most of her living, had an idea for a play germinate while she was picketing in the strike’s early days. But it took nearly two months, she said, before she could find a “writing rhythm” to do something with it.

“Every writer I talked to who wanted to work on something said, ‘I’m having the same problem too,’ ” she said.

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A month ago, said Anderson, who had been commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse, “I took myself by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘Sit at your desk and write and don’t use the picket line as an excuse.’ ” The pages began to flow. Now she thinks that even for her fellow strikers who remain blocked, downtime may prove creatively nurturing.

“If a writer is banging away at scripts nonstop for years on end, they go dry, and writing becomes repetitive and stale. The forced break allows you to get juicy again.”

Among the strike benefits for theater audiences is the chance to see some typically televised faces in person and at close quarters. Tony Award winner John Glover, who otherwise would have been occupied as villain Lionel Luthor on the TV series “Smallville,” will play a Broadway impresario in “Secrets of the Trade” by Jonathan Tolins, a new play opening March 12 at L.A.'s tiny Black Dahlia Theater. The cast also includes Amy Aquino, a television and regional theater actress playing in a small space for the first time in nearly 10 years, and “NYPD Blue” regular Bill Brochtrup.

In normal times, Aquino said, her management “would have been much more skittish” about her taking a part that pays almost nothing. But with Hollywood in eclipse, she was free to seize the chance to appear with Glover.

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As for attendance, L.A.'s three largest stage companies report no box-office bonanzas during television’s doldrums. It’s possible more couch potatoes are finding their way to plays, said Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, but that could be offset by theater aficionados who work in film and television being forced to economize on nights out.

Nicking an idea from area restaurants, Epps said the playhouse has begun offering half-price strike discounts to playgoers who show an entertainment industry union card. The Geffen Playhouse, meanwhile, has launched an “Industry Insider” discount program through its website, and Center Theatre Group will offer Writers Guild members discounts for its upcoming shows, “No Child . . .” and “Sweeney Todd.”

mike.boehm@latimes.com


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