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The Play's the Thing

Aspiring director scores national prize for CalArts drama festival entry.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, so Wade Sheeler won an American College Theatre Festival award for best new one-act play. So he gets into the Dramatists Guild. So Samuel French is going to publish his play, "Vortex."

What Sheeler really wants to do is direct.

No tremendous surprise there. After all, Sheeler, 32, is a graduate student in his third-and-final year in CalArts' Directing for Theater, Video and Cinema program and just completed a short film. What may be the real surprise is that his breakthrough came as a playwright.

"Vortex," his 70-minute play, got its start about this time last year, when it was accepted for CalArts' New Plays Festival. A production at CalArts impressed American College judges, and "Vortex" went on to regional competition in Utah. Two weeks ago, after winning the national award, the company performed "Vortex" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (For the show, they had to send the set--300 pounds of Santa Clarita's finest rocks--to Washington.)

"Vortex" depicts an encounter between a man on the run for a crime of passion and a New Age shaman in the desert. The two men meet unexpectedly at a vortex, a place where the chemical makeup of the geology matches the human body in such a way that "we're like a tuning fork," said Sheeler. "In the play I describe it as a place where the fabric of reality is the thinnest."

It was Christmas 1995 when Sheeler came up with the idea. "My wife and I were in Sedona, [Ariz.], and we were sitting at this vortex site, and in 15 minutes the whole story came to me," Sheeler said. The suddenness and completeness was startling, he said. And when he told his wife, Karen, the plot, she said, "You have to write that."

It was equally enthusiastically received by the student committee that chose the plays for the CalArts festival last year. The festival, now in its eighth year, is entirely student produced, but there are some hard-and-fast rules. One is that playwrights can't direct their own work. So for that job, Sheeler picked his friend and classmate Chris Sebastian.

The play, Sebastian said, is fairly representative of Sheeler's personality. "There's some really hysterical moments," he said. "At the same time, the play is very serious. It's life and death." And even though he liked Sheeler and "Vortex," he had some reservations at first. "It can be scary, because what if you screw up your friend's play?"

Clearly, that was not a problem.

Sheeler stayed away from most of the rehearsals--he was directing another play himself--but sat in on one of the final dress rehearsal. "It turned out exactly the way I saw it in my head," Sheeler said. He has since turned the play into a short film as his master's thesis.

Sheeler was bitten early by the show-biz bug. Growing up in Woodland Hills, his father--an actor-turned-photographer--would take him to see classic films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Some Fridays, Sheeler would go to sleep right after school, then get up to see a midnight screening at the Sherman Theater, a now-closed revival house on Ventura Boulevard.

He got into drama while a student at Taft High School, and won his first playwriting award in the L.A. Valley One-Act Festival. He went on to study radio/TV/film at Cal State Northridge, where he joined an improv troupe called the Left Fielders, started by the woman who is now his wife, which performed around the Valley and at the Laugh Factory.

After several near-misses, both with comedy and screenwriting, Sheeler decided he needed something to jump-start his career and enrolled at CalArts. Each year, he's had a play in the festival, including two--"Double Tall Nonfat Latte" and "Marjan"--this year.

Anthony Byrnes is the producing director for the 1997 festival, which started Wednesday and runs through Sunday. He said the success of "Vortex" is a testament to the caliber of all the work in the festival.

"At its inception, the festival was about 'Can we produce 20 plays at the end of the semester?' " Byrnes said.

"And then, with someone like Wade who has had several plays in the festival, it's been a place of development for writers like him. Their work is really on a level that deserves recognition outside CalArts."


New Plays Festival--At CalArts continues today from 3-10:05 p.m.; Fri., 2-9:45 p.m.; Sat., noon-9:50 p.m.; and Sun., noon-9:30 p.m. For specific show information, call (805) 253-7832. CalArts is at 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia.

Film--Sheeler will screen the short film version of "Vortex" on Wednesday at CalArts' Bijou Theatre.

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