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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

The Taper Puts It All Together

April 12, 1998|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Gordon Davidson believes that more actors may be on full-time contracts at the Mark Taper Forum this week than ever before.

"Dealer's Choice" is about to open. Rehearsals are beginning for the two-part summer epic "The Cider House Rules." And a monthlong workshop of Anna Deavere Smith's "House Arrest," which isn't slated to open for more than a year, gets underway.

This was the week when "House Arrest" was to have opened, according to the season schedule announced a year ago. But earlier this year, Smith decided she had to continue her research into the presidency and the media, which are the topics of her docudrama, in the wake of developments in Washington and the mixed-to-negative reaction to the first production of "House Arrest" there.

Not that the project has now become a play about Monica Lewinsky, cautioned Taper artistic director Davidson, as he discussed his most recent season announcement. Smith simply needed time to absorb the latest chapters in the White House saga. One of the most criticized elements of last fall's "House Arrest" in Washington, a fictional framework in which a theater company was putting on a play, is gone, he said. It has been replaced by "a very different frame. The seeds of it were already there, having to do with incarceration." He declined to say more.

The director of "House Arrest" has changed. Mark Rucker's schedule prevented him from continuing, Davidson said, but Davidson connected Smith with Mark Wing-Davey. Davidson felt that Wing-Davey's work with the New York production of Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest" demonstrated his ability to deal with ensembles and political work. He also felt that Wing-Davey, who is British, would "bring some distance and a perspective that's very helpful" to the very American subject matter.

A few of Davidson's other thoughts about the 1998-99 season:

* Regarding the first show, the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together," the second act will be almost totally changed from the New York version, Davidson said. Director Eric D. Schaeffer is best known here for the recent touring company of another revised show, "big," which Davidson saw at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Schaeffer "was able to tell that story in a simple, theatrical enough way so that it was a perfectly fine piece of entertainment," Davidson said.

* "Tongue of a Bird," about a pilot searching for a lost girl, will be co-produced with the New York Shakespeare Festival and will move there after the L.A. run. "Tongue," which has already been seen in Seattle and London, was originally scheduled for the current season, but it was replaced by Anthony Clarvoe's "Ambition Facing West," which was in turn replaced by the recent "Gross Indecency." Clarvoe's play seemed a sure bet for next season as well as "Tongue," but Davidson said that Clarvoe is "very busy with movie scripts" and hasn't done planned rewrites.

* The Ain and David Gordon/Jeanine Tesori musical, "The First Picture Show," is still in the process of being created and will go through two Taper workshops before its premiere in 1999. With its glance at silent movies, "it's perfect for this town," Davidson said.

Another Taper/movies connection was announced last week: a Showtime/Taper deal to develop as many as 10 films. Showtime is giving the Taper a sum that a source said was in the low-to-mid six figures to run the program, as well as co-production credit on the films. Taper-associated playwrights may get the opportunity to make more money in films--which, theoretically, might then underwrite more plays.

"It's important to nurture artists who can express themselves in both film and theater," Davidson said. "As each generation is more influenced by film, you can't divorce the two."

But will theater play second fiddle? The new program is just "a small segment of our overall play development program," Davidson said. And in addition to cultivating brand-new scripts, the program will use existing plays that the Taper has already produced.

"If the play is really good, the writer won't want to give it to TV until it has run its course in the theater," Davidson said.

If it does then go to TV, Davidson wants the Taper to benefit. For example, he said, "Miss Evers' Boys" was seen at the Taper by a producer who later turned it into an award-winning TV movie, but the Taper wasn't a co-producer.

Producer Hillard Elkins, who brokered the Showtime/Taper package and will co-produce the resulting movies, noted that the Showtime money will pay for a new addition to the Taper staff--creative director Amy Handelsman--"so it won't utilize the time of the people on the theatrical side. Although if they have an idea, they can contribute it."

He believes the Taper will treat writers better than many of the movie studios. "In the theater, we grew up with the Dramatists Guild contract, where the writer owns the word. We'll be able to get younger writers who'll know that Gordon won't put them through the process a studio would."

For new writers "who may not not know how to break into the [film] scene, we'll provide an inside track," Davidson said.

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