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WRITE ON! : SCR Can Trace Much of Its Success to the Words, Because It Treasures Those Who Use Can Them Well

October 14, 1988|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a theater writer for The Times

It's been four years since South Coast Repertory commissioned Jim Leonard Jr. to write "Battle Hymn."

Four years, reams of rewrites, more than the usual mental cramps--and still no play.

Fortunately for Leonard and the many other young playwrights who have worked under SCR's wing, a regional theater that recently received a Tony award and has a reputation for staging challenging new plays can afford to be magnanimous. Much of SCR's success, from the good old days in the '60s to the present, can be traced to its commitment to writers.

Founders Martin Benson and David Emmes realize it can be risky priming the creative pump to ensure SCR is never without new quality plays. Sometimes that once-faithful muse shuts up, maybe temporarily, maybe for good. Sometimes Hollywood coaxes the writer away with big money and then enforces real deadlines that put other projects in limbo. Sometimes the lure of the stage loses heat. It's all a gamble, but one that has paid off for the theater.

Take Leonard, for example. Despite the plodding on "Battle Hymn," he's had two other plays produced at SCR. "The Diviners" was his entry into its sphere in 1983, and just last season, "V and V Only" was produced. The bicoastal writer says with undisguised loyalty that there are only two theaters he immediately trusts with his work--SCR and the prestigious Circle Repertory Company in New York.

"Besides the fact that they're doing some of the more adventurous productions anywhere, I always feel I can count on them for advice and a fair shake. SCR is, in many ways, really a writer's theater. They're generous in the way they approach you."

Leonard knows that four years is a long time for any work, and he feels guilty about it. By all accounts, the second act of "Battle Hymn," a complex Civil War drama, is outstanding (just ask the folks at SCR). The problem is the other two acts. They don't connect well with the middle, and nobody--not even SCR--can produce "Battle Hymn" as just a second act.

The 32-year-old New Yorker winces at the thought. "It's been tough. There are things that just don't work. . . . New ideas, new elements come up and confuse the issue. I still think it has a lot of potential, though, and I know SCR feels the same way. One thing I can say is that they've never pressured me. I think they know that a writer has dry spells."

What started as an ad hoc practice during the '60s and '70s of giving writers "a few dollars shaved from the budget's line items" has evolved into a more formalized program, Jerry Patch, SCR's dramaturge, says. SCR now seeks endowments and grants specifically for commissions, and cash allowances are provided.

In 1984 the commission process settled under the umbrella of the Collaboration Laboratory (Colab), and several facets emerged. In addition to offering grants of $6,000 to $12,000 (usually depending on the writer's reputation), Colab runs workshops such as NewScripts, which places inchoate play treatments before an audience in a casual reading. It also sponsors an annual project for Latino writers (a few plays, including Arthur Giron's "Charley Bacon and His Family" and Lisa Loomer's "Birds," have been staged in recent years) and recently initiated a yearly contest for California playwrights. Colab operates on a permanent $1-million endowment. The endowment interest and other funding sources have brought the program's budget this year to more than $200,000.

The case of Leonard and "Battle Hymn," when evaluated by John Glore, SCR's youthful-looking but firm-talking literary manager, and Patch, one of SCR's elder statesmen, is an indication of what is right with the Colab "vision."

Stretched out in one of the repertory's unassuming, somewhat cluttered offices with Patch nearby, Glore offers an appraisal of that vision: "We try to take chances here, in what we produce and in the playwrights we commission. Sometimes the money and time we put up (for a play) turns out to be a bad investment, but as an approach to getting good work and getting writers to write plays, we wouldn't have it any other way.

"Sometimes we get bad plays, and maybe we won't even get a play out of somebody, but the idea is that you have to support the writer. Eventually, you may get something good out of them, and the writer feels loyalty to us. We know Jim is an excellent writer and we feel loyalty to him and, I'm sure, he feels the same way. . . ."

Glore gestures to a nearby wall where stacks of scripts in multicolored jackets fill a small shelf. "That's an important relationship that (can provide) great results," he says. "Of course we'd prefer always getting something good every time, or at least something we can work with. . . . But we always have interesting material on hand."

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