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Helping Plays Get on Their Feet--Before Ovations

Theater: Local writers ally and, with directors and actors, present staged readings of their near-production works. After, audiences can give feedback.

September 21, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwrights once had the luxury of pre-Broadway tryouts. Such tryouts no longer are economically feasible, yet producers consider it economically unsound to back new playwrights and new plays, and audience reaction remains crucial to the development process.

What's a new playwright to do?

The Orange County Playwright's Alliance is a few steps removed from Broadway, but the fledgling group may have an answer: Its new reading series, hosted by the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, begins today in Fullerton. The plays are short. Admission is free. Afterward, you can throw verbal tomatoes--or roses.

"These are not first-draft readings," says Eleanor Brook, a founding member of the alliance and co-chair of the series. "These plays are close to production level. They may be at production level.

"These will be staged readings directed by professional directors and acted by [mostly] professional actors. We want to test the waters. We want audience input. We're hopeful that the experience actually will lead to productions."

Today's program includes six plays ranging from seven to 25 minutes:

* "Dark Night," by Bob Bevacqua, is a romantic drama involving a cowboy type. It takes place during an electrical blackout in New York City.

* "Mr. Fabulous," by Colleen Bevacqua, is a comedy in which the fantasy man from a housewife's romance novel comes to life.

* In Richard Freedman's comic monologue "Same Old Thing," an insomniac ends up literally beside himself.

* In Sean Clark's "Food Court," a discussion in a mall devolves into a racist argument.

* Shawn Quirk's "Geese" finds a rural family trying to cope with mental illness.

* "Workers Carp," by Eric Eberwein, is a glimpse into the absurd complaints and desires shared by office workers over lunch. They get their just desserts.

More readings are scheduled for Oct. 26 and Nov. 16.

"The series grew out of a basic need," Brook says. "Playwright development groups are sprouting up all over the country, but there has been no such program in Orange County. I believe we are the first."

The alliance first met in April 1995. It serves "greater" Orange County, says Brook; some members live in Los Angeles.

Most of the members came through South Coast Repertory's Advanced Playwrights' Workshop under the tutelage of SCR literary manager John Glore. Glore--whose workshop focuses on first drafts and does not see them through to staged readings--serves as the alliance's advisor. SCR's NewSCRipts series, which accepts completed full-length scripts from playwrights all over the country and also encourages audience feedback, was an inspiration for the alliance.

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Membership is limited to 20 so that workshops don't become chaotic; when one playwright moves on to greener theatrical pastures such as New York City, a new member is accepted.

Modest dues ($15 a quarter, which is $5 a month) go toward printing programs and production expenses. "Theater is not a moneymaking venture," Brook notes. "Dues barely cover what we do. If expenses outspend dues, we may have to see an increase."

Plays that have already been "workshopped" and revised are selected for public hearing by democratic process. Actors come from area companies including the Vanguard, Changing Masks in Laguna Beach and the South Orange County Community Theater in San Juan Capistrano. Student actors from university drama programs also are welcomed.

"There is a difference between reading a play, hearing a play and seeing a play on its feet," Brook points out. "We don't know yet whether we'll have full blocking, where you really get an idea of what works and doesn't work. We've had minimal rehearsal time. Our goal is script-in-hand with action. We may have script-in-hand, minimal action."

Minimal action?

"There will be exits and entrances," she assures.

The Orange County Playwright's Alliance and Vanguard Theatre Ensemble present six short plays by local writers today at 699A S. State College Blvd, Fullerton. 2 p.m. Free. (714) 538-4927.

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