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September 07, 1986|BARBARA ISENBERG


For five weeks this summer, playwright Clifton Campbell left his wife and job in Chicago, packed up his new play and headed West.

Campbell's play, "Emerald Tree Boa," was one of three selected from nearly 200 submitted to the first UCLA/Mark Taper Forum new-play workshop. Mark Medoff, a Tony-award winning New Mexico-based playwright, directed the workshop generally and Campbell's play specifically.

Through July and into August, Campbell endured a kind of theater-by-committee. Day after day, he listened as everyone from actors to audiences got to play critic. Night after night, he went back to his typewriter, trudged through his notes and rewrote.

By the time Campbell headed home, "Emerald Tree Boa" was a very different play.


A restaurant, a printing shop and a luxury apartment house, each represented by a table and a couple of chairs in a large classroom-cum-performance space at UCLA.


The present.


First day of workshop. Student actors fill a theater at UCLA's Macgowan Hall, then scatter to audition. So do recent graduates and others recruited to play some of the more mature parts. Nearly all of the "Emerald Tree Boa" actors selected by nightfall have some professional acting experience. The only paid actor, guest artist Susie Duff, 32 and pregnant, remarks to Campbell that if the lead character she's playing is supposed to be 23, "you'll have to blind the audience."


First reading. Prepare to be violated, director Medoff warns author Campbell. Medoff says whenever he as playwright first comes together with a group of actors, he feels violated. But he feels only two of his 12 plays have been ruined by overwriting and overlistening, he adds.

Medoff's warning to actors: "We're here to serve the writer, not to make you stars. If you're wonderful, we're not going to forget you."

Medoff's warning to the writer: "A play is like a great big tapestry. If you pull a thread, you have to reweave the whole sucker."

Seated in a circle on the floor, the six actors read Campbell's play aloud. A year in the writing, the play explores what happens when a successful restaurateur and a printer both become dangerously infatuated with the same young, upper-middle-class woman.

Reading completed, and everyone throws out an opinion. Unanimous complaint about the woman, Tommie. Several people say that not enough happens during the play.

Campbell goes off to take Bayer Extra-Strength Aspirin. The process has begun.


Leading lady Duff has car trouble and is stuck on the freeway. Agreeing to read Duff's lines, reporter takes to the stage for the first time since playing Queen Esther in a Sunday-school play.

Duff finally arrives and reporter goes back to reporting. Actors are already questioning Campbell's lines and improvising their own. Scenes are moved around, lines cut and motivations challenged. Campbell alternates pacing and taking notes. "Boa" has 26 scenes, but will have 40 by the time it is performed in August.


Time to build up team spirit. The cast forms a line and faces Medoff. Dressed in running clothes, Medoff throws a volleyball, then a tennis ball, to each actor. After a few rounds, everyone rotates and the next person is the prime tosser. Some throw fast and hard; others barely keep the ball in play. The playwright walks in with the day's new pages, says: "Excuse me, I must be in the wrong room," then takes his turn.

Later the three actresses playing waitresses are talking tips. They improvise a few minutes, then get stuck because they aren't sure how much money waitresses make during lunch. As the three women huddle over computations, Campbell turns to the reporter: "They're doing all the stuff out loud that I do in my head."

More readings, more improvs, more volleyball. Group breaks at 6 p.m. and goes off in search of fireworks.


Playwrighting by committee has begun to affect Campbell. He's making jokes about how there's never a hand grenade around when you need one. He's talking about life back home in Chicago.

Here's Campbell's life back home: He works all day as art director at an ad agency. He takes the train, alone, ("It's the Chicago version of the mantra") to his house where he rapidly consumes the dinner his wife Claire left for him before she went to work. Then he goes into his home office and writes. His wife goes straight from work to aerobics class because she got tired of "my not eating with her because if I ate with her, she'd want me to talk to her."

(All true, Claire says later. A marketing specialist at Inland Steel Co., she says: "It's so frustrating to eat dinner with him because he won't talk. He's already writing in his head. So I just gave up.")

Back to Campbell: "Writing has always been real private with me. I have to be in a shell to do it. Believe me, I appreciate what's happening here (at UCLA) . . . I'm just having a little trouble."


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