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Fall Preview : THEATER

Tested in Seattle : It's a sign of the strong stage scene up north that many of L.A.'s recent and upcoming plays began in that thriving arts community.


SEATTLE — Fourteen-hundred miles from L.A., this arts-devoted city has become the best place to glimpse what might lie ahead for L.A. theater.

Just as Seattle used to see many of the hottest rock bands first, before they signed recording contracts with Hollywood- or New York-based companies, a similar pattern now exists in the nonprofit theater world. Plays often are developed in Seattle productions before they arrive in Los Angeles.

"Pay attention to Seattle in terms of what might happen in Los Angeles," said Gordon Davidson, the Taper's artistic director. He was referring to more than just new plays. "Seattle's got a happy combination of leaders in the theaters who have an appetite for new plays, an audience that has been trained to enjoy being part of new adventures, and a location that's tucked away enough so that it doesn't feel the world is breathing down on it."

Davidson certainly has paid attention. Four of the six plays scheduled this season for the Mark Taper Forum have been previously produced in Seattle: the Flying Karamazov Brothers' version of "Room Service" (at A Contemporary Theatre), Charlayne Woodard in her own "Neat" (at Seattle Repertory Theatre), Anthony Clarvoe's Taper-commissioned "Ambition Facing West" (at the Intiman Theatre) and the two-part epic "The Cider House Rules" (at Seattle Rep).

Not all the developmental work on these plays was done in Seattle--"Ambition" was workshopped first at the Taper's New Work Festival, and it and "Neat" premiered in Providence and off-Broadway, respectively, before Seattle. Still, a full production in Seattle may be one of the best avenues toward a full production at the Taper.

One sign of the strength of the Seattle scene is that these plays were produced at three different theaters. "With a city the size of Los Angeles," Davidson asked, "why don't we have three or four [major] theater companies like they do? Seattle Repertory and the Intiman are right next to each other, yet they both seem to thrive." This is in stark contrast to the inability of downtown Los Angeles to support a second major theater company after the Taper--as made obvious by the 1991 collapse of Los Angeles Theatre Center's resident company.

In Seattle, the arts are supported by consistent giving from the community, according to Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic director Sharon Ott. "It resembles a Midwestern city in the best way. A lot of the city fathers have a feeling of tithing."

Christine Fiedler, who left a job raising money for the Taper to take a similar job at Seattle Repertory, calls Seattle "small, close-knit, highly supportive." The city "has high expectations of its arts organizations, and they're supported at the box office."

The Taper's Seattle-L.A. connections go beyond just the upcoming season. "Nine Armenians," which closed the Taper's 1996-97 season last week, was introduced at Seattle's Intiman in 1995. The Taper-commissioned "Tongue of a Bird" will be staged by Taper resident director Lisa Peterson at the Intiman, opening Sept. 17 with Jennifer Van Dyck in the leading role, and at the Taper a year later with Tony winner Cherry Jones.

Coincidentally, this season L.A.'s two other largest resident theaters also will present plays via Seattle. The West Coast premiere of "Old Wicked Songs" is scheduled for next week at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. A separate production of the play opens next month at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

The only new play on the Pasadena Playhouse's winter/spring season, "The Old Settler," will have been seen earlier (also in a separate production) at the Intiman. Pasadena's new artistic director Sheldon Epps said he wants to explore co-productions with Seattle Repertory Theatre.

L.A.'s primary classics-only company, A Noise Within, can't discover classics in Seattle, but it does recruit talent: This season's opener, "Richard II," will be staged by Seattle-based Michael Winters.

The Seattle-L.A. link has long-standing roots. The Taper recruited Robert Egan, its producing director, from Seattle in 1984, where he had been associate artistic director at the Seattle Repertory (he's directing the first Taper show of the season, "Skylight," one of the two without a Seattle precedent; previews begin Sunday). Earlier in this decade, "The Kentucky Cycle" played the Intiman before it moved on to L.A. and a Pulitzer Prize; its writer Robert Schenkkan then moved from Van Nuys to Seattle.

Both Sharon Ott and Warner Shook, the artistic directors at Seattle Repertory and the Intiman, respectively, began their professional directing careers in L.A.'s sub-100-seat theater scene. Shook maintained a home in Los Angeles from 1980 to 1993 and directed frequently in L.A.'s mid-sized theaters. Peggy Shannon, the most recent artistic director of A Contemporary Theatre, came from L.A. and last spring returned to L.A.

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