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THEATER

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Echo Theater and cable network strike deal to nurture new writers, dramas.

March 05, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An oft-heard complaint around Los Angeles theaters is that Hollywood doesn't do anything for them but steal their actors.

Artistic director Chris Fields found a way to make someone in the biz pick up the tab for stage-bound drama. In an unusual deal, his Echo Theater Company made a "first-look" deal with Showtime. The cable network gave the company a $25,000 grant. In return, Fields and company will show them plays.

That's right. Not staged movie scripts. Not pitches. Plays.

The first production since the new deal is the world premiere of Rick Cleveland's "Home Grown," which opens Saturday at the Ventura Court Theatre in Studio City.

"If there's a mission for this company, it has to do with plays, new dramas," said Fields, who founded Echo in 1996. "We're at the service of the writer to develop their work, and not because it has commercial potential, but because that's the way theater is developed."

Mike Rauch, senior vice president of motion picture production for Showtime, said he was impressed by Echo's first production, "Bedfellows."

"I think [Hollywood] people always look to see if they can do something with theater groups, but it's not a place that a lot of development departments look toward," he said. "We do because I think it's a great area to go for new talent."

Showtime makes 40 original movies a year, he said, and the scripts have to come from somewhere. Since Echo is not only a company of actors but has a group of writers and producers as well, Showtime thought it might have discovered a fount of new material. In addition, the company members have contact with playwrights all over the country--people who aren't already hawking their wares in Hollywood.

The Showtime deal is not unprecedented: The network is also negotiating with the Mark Taper Forum. But it is an investment of confidence in the fledgling Echo, which has only the critically acclaimed "Bedfellows" and another co-production under its belt.

Of course, the members have lengthier personal resumes. Fields had an acting company in New York and taught at the State University of New York at Purchase. Cleveland--who is a co-founder of Echo--got an MFA from the University of Iowa's Playwright's Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation and Kennedy Center. He also wrote the indie film "Jerry and Tom," which was bought by Miramax at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The two men, along with "Home Grown" director Paul McCrane and other members, met at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. Each summer, some of the best writers converge on Long Island, along with actors, directors and designers who give their words life.

In 1991, Cleveland was there to work on "Home Grown," a dark comedy about a poverty-stricken Ohio farm family about to lose the last of its agricultural equipment. Then, down the driveway walks Don, a cousin from California with an idea of how to make the fields profitable: Grow marijuana.

"It was the most fun I ever had in front of an audience," Cleveland remembered. "I thought I had written the funniest play in the world."

But years passed, and while the play got "read to death," it was never staged. Some companies loved it--but feared their predominantly older audience wouldn't. One artistic director even suggested that Cleveland change the type of drug the farmers grow.

"So what--they're going to be making bootleg Advil?" Cleveland said.

Meanwhile, a core of future Echo-ians landed in Los Angeles to seek its fortune. But like other drama transplants, they didn't find the kind of theater they were used to in the East. And, like others before them--from Theatre West in the 1940s to Interact in the 1990s--they started a company to replace what they missed. The focus would be new work.

Still, when Fields said he would produce "Home Grown," Cleveland was skeptical.

But the rehearsals going on in Ventura Court Theatre are proof that Fields kept his word. The 28-member company's commitment to new plays shows in other ways. Cleveland runs a monthly meeting of Echo's writer's division. They're also planning a playwriting conference--a sort of mini-O'Neill conference--in Ojai this summer.

"It's sort of fashionable to say that you work with new writers, but you have to pull the trigger," Fields said. "You have to produce new plays."

Producing plays in L.A., though, creates a unique set of challenges. Among them: scheduling actors who are always getting called away for auditions or TV spots.

McCrane, who himself plays Dr. Rocket Romano on NBC's "E.R.," double cast the play to cover for any Hollywood-induced losses. Scheduling rehearsals has been like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, but McCrane said he has to respect the right of his cast to make a living.

All the same, Echo is about serving writers, not actors.

"If you need this company to get on stage," Fields said, "then this company's not for you."

BE THERE

"Home Grown," from the Echo Theater Company, at the Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. Previews tonight and Friday. Opens Saturday. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 5. $15. (213) 660-8587.

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