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Camelot's Driving Spark Plug

July 10, 1986|DON SHIRLEY

When Eric Leonard operated a cab company in Hawaii, he was devoted to the idea of keeping his cars on the road 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He applies the same principle to the two Los Angeles stages he now runs.

Take a typical Sunday at the Beverly Hills Playhouse or Hollywood's Skylight Theatre. If you're up to it, you just might be able to see a play at noon, at 3, at 6, 8 and 10:30 p.m.--and chances are that all would be productions of Leonard and his Camelot Artists.

Since it made its debut with "Vieux Carre" three years ago, Camelot Artists (then known as Beverly Hills Playhouse Productions) has become the most prolific theatrical shop in town--with some 77 shows mounted.

Quantity hasn't necessarily scuttled quality. Recent Camelot productions of "Confessions of a Nightingale," "Borderline" and "Scenes From American Life" have been among the most praised shows in all of Equity Waiverland.

Camelot's public profile hardly matches its production record. Perhaps it's because, until nine months ago, the full-time staff consisted of no one but Leonard. Perhaps it's because Camelot's two theaters are Waiver houses (99 seats or less).

Whatever the reason for past obscurity, Camelot is emerging into the public eye. It's assuming a leadership role in the campaign to save the Waiver (the union policy that permits actors to go unpaid in small theaters). And it's trying to expand its financial base beyond the funds supplied by its creative wellspring, director and acting teacher Milton Katselas.

Katselas launched the company, but it was Leonard who prodded him into doing it. They had known each other in New York decades ago, meeting in the production of "The Lark" that starred Julie Harris--and featured Katselas and Leonard as "animated scenery," according to Leonard.

Leonard was a dancer as well as an actor and coach. However, in 1960 he chucked it all and wound up in Hawaii, where he stayed for 20 years, keeping tabs on his cabs.

That experience, he now recalls, prepared him for Equity Waiver: "The margin of profit, the room for error, was so small. After that, I felt as if I could be mayor of Calcut ta--and Equity Waiver isn't far removed from that."

After he sold his taxis, he heard from Katselas about his desire to provide a production forum for his students. Leonard volunteered to run such a company for him, and he's been in charge of production decisions ever since--with only minimal interference from Katselas. Camelot's headquarters are in Leonard's modest Hollywood home.

The Camelot credo is derived from Katselas' charge to his students: "Create, don't wait." This means that "no one has to be perfect," said Leonard. "We've had some 9s and 10s, some 1s and 2s."

However, Camelot casting isn't limited to the Katselas student body. About half the actors in Camelot productions have no connection with Katselas.

"We have no closed-door policy," declared Leonard. He estimates that a third of Camelot's shows originate from outside the Katselas domain.

It may look as if Camelot sponsors anyone who says "Hey, let's put on a show," yet Leonard claims he now rejects more ideas than he approves. Or, he added, he might say something like "yes, you can have the 3 a.m. Monday slot," which is enough to deter most would-be producers.

Only one time slot so far has been developed and then abandoned--6 p.m. on Fridays. It couldn't overcome "the T.G.I.F. syndrome," said Leonard. He won't rule out the possibility of carving out more unusual time slots. "As long as a stage is empty, I will not close the book," he vowed, a slight twinkle in his eye. He and Katselas jocularly refer to their programming method as "sardine theater."

Camelot budgets are austere--$1,000 for the 8 p.m. shows and all of $150 for the other times (though individual producers may supplement Camelot funds by selling ads in the programs or otherwise raising their own money). Actors are seldom paid with anything other than tickets and psychological strokes (an exception was Ray Stricklyn in the one-man "Confessions of a Nightingale").

Scenery is bare-bones. Even so, logistical problems arise when so many shows (plus Katselas' classes and occasional rentals) share the same spaces and the same lighting equipment--and when "every production thinks it's the center of the universe," said Leonard.

An acclaimed "Trouble in Tahiti" closed prematurely after its staging was altered to fit the same seating configuration as the incoming "Scenes From American Life." The lighting was the problem, said director David Galligan: "You might as well have turned the record on and listened to it in the dark."

Camelot hopes to avoid such collisions in the future, but not by scaling down its activities. Indeed, with a new playwrights' wing under the direction of Joseph Scott Kierland and talk of video and film projects, it may well expand, supported by its recent entry into the grantsmanship battles. The only apparent roadblock is the possibility of change in the Waiver.

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