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When the Actor Is Idle, the Playwright Kicks In

In addition to his Fox TV series, James Morrison has four full-length plays to his credit.

February 15, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where do you find a playwright? George S. Kaufman and Walter Kerr, not to mention George Bernard Shaw, were critics first. You might find a playwright lurking behind a novelist, such as Somerset Maugham.

These days you might look into the ranks of actors. Sam Shepard made his name as a playwright, as did Christopher Durang and Wallace Shawn.

On the local scene, an actor has a play opening this weekend at The Road Theatre at North Hollywood's Lankershim Arts Center. James Morrison has four full-length plays and about nine short plays to his credit. The current production is a revival of his first play, "Idle Wheels."

Morrison's current acting assignment is as Col. Ty McQueen on the Fox television series "Space: Above and Beyond." But Morrison's background has been in theater. He was raised in Alaska and, after a stint with a circus, began his theatrical career in earnest at Alaska Repertory Theatre.

He moved to Los Angeles and performed in "El Salvador" at the Gnu Theatre and with Kirstie Alley in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Mark Taper Forum. Intensive work in regional theaters followed and inadvertently led to the creation of "Idle Wheels."

"My interest in writing," Morrison said, "began after a couple of years as an actor at the Sundance Institute's Playwrights Conference.

"I worked closely with some pretty interesting writers and watched plays being developed through the process of dramaturgy, and shaping plays oftentimes just from an idea. 'Idle Wheels' was created from that. It was developed the summer of '85 at Sundance."

It was subsequently produced in Salt Lake City by the Salt Lake Acting Company.

Since then, Morrison said, he has devoted himself to writing whenever "the acting work" slows down. With the series, he doesn't have much time for that. Moreover, he said, a sort of theatrical writer's block occurs when he's acting.

"For some reason, I can't seem to use both of those parts of my brain at the same time. If I'm acting, I can't access the writer. I can't split my focus."

"Idle Wheels" takes place in Alaska, and the play in many ways is homage to the environment he was raised in, Morrison said. Some of the people and culture he knew growing up filtered into the play.

"Probably the play is about what I was going through as I grew up, but it's also about what I was going through when I wrote it," he said. "Searching, and that feeling of being lost, and uncomfortable in your own skin. You try to find your way out of it, and that's exactly what the protagonist in the course of the play tries to do."

The protagonist in "Idle Wheels" adopts the rituals of Alaskan Native Americans, a culture he really knows nothing about, in order to connect with his physical environment.

"He's really only able to relate to it in a mad, romantic way," he said. "So he dances. He dances around with masks on. When I was young, these traditions represented something very mysterious and intriguing.

"What the character in the play does is what the white man has done with every culture they didn't understand: They just sort of tailor it to suit their own needs. This boy doesn't understand his environment at all, so it's just his way of filling a spiritual void. It turns out to be a metaphor for the appropriation of another culture."


* WHAT: "Idle Wheels."

* WHERE: The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Ends March 24.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 761-8838.

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