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If They Can Make It There . . .

As a proving ground for new plays, South Coast Rep's Pacific Playwrights Festival is on a hot streak.

June 11, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

It's draft week at South Coast Repertory, and like the coaches and scouts of a National Football League team, the two leaders of the Costa Mesa theater and their top advisors are gathered around a table to evaluate talent.

There are no times in the 40-yard dash to consider, no statistics of passes completed and points scored. Plays, not players, are being picked, and an intangible--taste--determines which ones make the roster of the third annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, which opens this weekend.

On the table this day in March are about 20 candidates for the festival, culled from the more than 700 new, unproduced scripts SCR reviews each year. Nine will make the final cut. The choice will fall to Martin Benson and David Emmes, who founded the theater in 1964 and continue to make all of its artistic decisions.

First, they want to hear what their six top creative aides think. Discussions around a long table in the repertory's sparsely furnished boardroom are frank, the differences over merits and weaknesses sometimes blunt. But the tone is strictly collegial, with no raised voices or disapproving looks.

In the session's liveliest exchange, festival director Jerry Patch leads the charge for "Modern Orthodox" by Daniel Goldfarb, a young playwright he thinks has an exceptionally sharp theatrical mind. He seems outnumbered, though.

"I find his work amusing, but I keep wanting it to deepen," says John Glore, the theater's veteran literary manager. Some problems in a play can be worked on and improved, Glore says. "But what you can't bring is deepening. If it's a little thin and shallow, I don't see how you can [guide] it to a deeper place."

Patch, who knows Goldfarb, is sure the playwright has the right stuff.

"He's 26 and really smart about plays. You've got to believe me about this."

Starting Thursday the chosen playwrights will be the stars of a two-weekend festival that is, in essence, a training camp for plays. Writers come to rehearsals, get feedback from directors and dramaturges, and make revisions based on what they have seen and heard. Then they observe how audiences react to readings or minimally staged versions of their works in progress. If the process clicks, the plays become sharper, more effective--better able to compete in a theatrical world that can be as bruising in its way as the NFL.

During the past few years, Benson and Emmes have compiled the sort of winning record in new play development that Vince Lombardi achieved on the football field.

From 1997 to 1999, four of the nine finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in drama were plays first produced at SCR. One play, Margaret Edson's "Wit," won the Pulitzer in 1999 and was a hit off-Broadway. Although this year's Pulitzer-winning play, "Dinner With Friends," by Donald Margulies, didn't originate at South Coast Repertory, it did receive its West Coast premiere there. And the theater played an important role in nurturing Margulies' career--including a reading of one of his more recent works, "God of Vengeance," at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival.

"New plays are what we've always been about," says artistic director Benson. He and Emmes have helped bring 74 new plays to the stage since launching SCR as a scuffling, itinerant troupe.

The Pacific Playwrights Festival, it would seem, is a way to certify SCR's achievements: Present new plays, throw a nice party, and invite leaders from theaters across the nation to admire--and perhaps line up to produce--its wares.

But that is not how the leadership sees it.

"It's not a vanity thing," Emmes says. "We're hopeful we can use our resources to allow playwrights to make connections with other theaters." The chief aim of the festival, he says, is not to gild SCR's laurels, but "to keep talented writers believing that writing for the theater is a viable career choice" when far better-paying jobs beckon in film and television.

"Yeah, there's some glory in having it there, sure," says Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre. "But it's an awfully generous way to enjoy glory."

Last year, Edelstein received some of that generosity. "God of Vengeance" was his theater's property, not South Coast Rep's. Benson, Emmes and Patch invited him and Margulies to work on it anyway. SCR paid their plane fare, room and board, as well as the salaries of the actors hired for the reading. The share-the-wealth principle continues this year: Two festival slots belong to plays being developed by theaters in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

"It's a responsibility, and if you're taking it as a promotional gimmick, your theater is doing the wrong thing," says famed stage director Lloyd Richards, hailed as a pioneer of the collaborative style of new play development widely practiced today.

To Richards, who ran the annual National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut for more than 30 years, the only criterion for a worthwhile new-play festival should be "the quality of effort put in in the support of writers."

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