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New Plays, Now Ideas--and No Waiting

The New Theatre for Now program--begun in 1967, last seen in 1986--returns to the Taper this week with two one-acts.

May 04, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

'The theater exploded," declared Edward Parone.

Parone, a New York director who had been brought west to launch the Mark Taper Forum's New Theatre for Now program in 1967, was recalling "The Scene," the evening that climaxed the program's first season. Nine short plays by cutting-edge writers (among them Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and Jules Feiffer) occupied the first half of the evening, followed by a somewhat longer new play, John Guare's "Muzeeka."

"The theater was brand-new, the plays were new, L.A. was on the upswing," Parone said. "It happens only once in a lifetime."

Nonetheless, the Taper is trying to bring back some of that same excitement by reviving New Theatre for Now--dormant for the past 11 years--in this, the Taper's 30th anniversary season.

Four new plays are slated in three separate programs over the next two months, opening Wednesday with a double bill of Kelly Stuart's "Demonology" and Quincy Long's "The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite." Jose Rivera's "The Street of the Sun" opens May 27, followed by Winsome Pinnock's "Mules" on June 17.

The productions are not full-fledged, and all four plays together cost the Taper about as much as one regular production, said artistic director Gordon Davidson. David Schweizer, who's directing this week's double bill, said he got three weeks of rehearsal time before tech rehearsals, as opposed to the five weeks he had for his 1994 regular-season production of "The Waiting Room." The design of the plays is kept simple.

New Theatre for Now arose in 1967 as a way to circumvent the usual method of introducing a play--which was to get a Broadway producer to option it. "Agents would say that new plays had to be done on Broadway first," which could mean long delays while the right theater or star was sought, Davidson said. "Then, maybe after the official tour, other theaters could have them."

Davidson said he wanted "to figure out a way to cut down on the time before a new play is actually seen. Most of the other nonprofits and off-Broadway producers were doing classics or other standard fare. But we were committed to new plays, to letting playwrights see their work in front of an audience. The irony is that now there isn't an agent alive who wouldn't welcome a chance for a play to be done elsewhere [before or besides New York], because New York is so precarious."

New Theatre for Now was started with a $14,550 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, intended for a bare-bones production of one new play. But Davidson extended the money to cover four Monday evening performances--each one different--that wound up including a total of 14 new plays (counting among them the nine brief works in the first half of "The Scene").

Parone, now retired in New Mexico, claimed that "no one ever liked" the moniker New Theatre for Now. He called it "ghastly" and "redundant." Davidson begged to differ, calling the name "a very apt description of what we were doing." "New" meant "new forms as well as new plays." And "now" conveyed "immediacy [of production], as opposed to the more traditional ways plays came into being."

After the first experiment, the Rockefeller Foundation made a second grant of $200,000, covering 1968-70, which was supplemented by funds raised by the Taper board. Davidson recalled that Center Theatre Group board President Lew Wasserman informed board members of the need to raise more money by immediately announcing that he was pledging $100,000.

"Bam!" Davidson said. With Wasserman taking the lead, "you've never seen a board respond like that."

The program quickly expanded; the number of performances of each play grew from one to two to five to two weeks' worth. In 1969, New Theatre for Now included 18 titles--although, again, 13 of them were short enough to squeeze into one long evening. That evening had originally been scheduled for a foreign tour sponsored by the State Department. But it was canceled by the then-new Nixon Administration, ostensibly because the scheduled destinations weren't considered politically stable enough, although Davidson suspects that the plays themselves also were too unstable for State Department sponsorship.

Some of the early productions graduated to larger productions in the regular seasons, among them such famous titles as "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" and "Zoot Suit."

As the schedule grew, the Taper mainstage no longer could accommodate all of the New Theatre for Now productions as well as the regular Taper season, so other venues were found, including a 20th Century Fox sound stage and a coffeehouse at USC. Schweizer came to L.A. for the first time to stage two New Theatre for Now plays in 1978-79, at Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood. The 1981-82 season was at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood.

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