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O.C. Stage

From the Page to the Stage

New Voices and Orange County Playwrights Alliance give would-be writers a chance to present their work, but the challenge lies in attracting audiences and raising money.

March 30, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A spirit of adventure enlivens the script these days for Orange County's two leading grass-roots playwrights' circles.

The Orange County Playwrights Alliance is presenting "The Writes of Spring," a sampling of members' work this weekend at the 199-seat Curtis Theatre in Brea--an unusually large venue in which to stage previously unseen plays by unknown authors.

OCPA's younger sibling, the New Voices Playwrights Workshop, is on the verge of something even more ambitious: not just writing for the theater, but running one.

The New Voices board of directors is expected to vote Thursday on whether to establish a new theater in the Artists Village district of downtown Santa Ana. Christopher Trela, the organization's president, says it appears likely that New Voices will go ahead with the $20,000-plus project and open a stage dedicated to its members' work as well as to new plays from outside the group. Like OCPA, New Voices is a tenant that must squeeze its activities into gaps in a host theater's schedule.

The two organizations serve as creative nurseries and proving grounds for budding playwrights. Members, numbering about 15 in each group, meet twice a month to discuss, critique and help refine each other's writing. The results emerge in public readings and occasional fully staged productions--such as OCPA's "Writes of Spring" and New Voices' current presentation, "The Bed Plays," an evening of 10-minute theatrical quickies playing this weekend at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse.

Both groups sprang from the same source--the Advanced Playwrights Workshop course taught annually at South Coast Repertory, Orange County's leading professional theater. The Playwrights Alliance celebrates its fifth anniversary on Saturday; New Voices is approaching its third birthday.

Playwrights' mutual-support organizations exist in most big cities, said John Glore, the SCR literary manager who ran the workshop that spawned the Orange County Playwrights Alliance.

"They allow members to feel they're not working in a vacuum and to get feedback from their peers," Glore said.

"The Writes of Spring" production grew out of the Playwrights Alliance's relationship with its host theater, the Vanguard in Fullerton.

The Vanguard Theatre Ensemble periodically expands beyond its 58-seat venue to produce plays at the Curtis Theatre. As part of this season's three-play series at the Curtis, Vanguard decided to try something adventurous--new works from its affiliated playwrights group.

It's an unprecedented move for the 9-year-old Vanguard, which has not performed new plays in its own theater, according to artistic director Wade Williamson. Likewise for the Curtis, a city-owned hall, where theater manager Christian Wolf could not recall any previous performances of untested plays.

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At Vanguard Theatre Ensemble's invitation, the Playwrights Alliance submitted about 15 one-act scripts, from which the Vanguard's selection committee chose five for "The Writes of Spring."

"Original plays are generally seen as a programming risk in Orange County, and doing them in a 199-seat house is a bold move," said Eric Eberwein, director of the Playwrights Alliance.

Last weekend's results--a combined attendance of 120 for three performances, according to Wolf--confirmed that attracting a crowd for unknown work isn't easy. An average draw of 40 playgoers per show would be a solid box office performance at a small theater such as the Vanguard, but at the mid-sized Curtis, Wolf said, the first weekend's turnout was "lower than my expectations, even though we knew it was a risk."

Williamson said that bringing new, Orange County-spawned drama and comedy to a big stage fits the Vanguard ensemble's mission and is worth at least a one-time experiment.

"We feel it's our responsibility to offer . . . an alternative to just the popular fare," he said. "We feel we're sort of the PBS of the local community theater."

Williamson said "The Writes of Spring" gives theatergoers a chance to see the earliest stage of a play's development and learn more about their production in question-and-answer sessions with cast, director and playwright that follow each performance.

One of the five short plays, "Ghosts," by Martin E. Williams, is a bittersweet valentine to the world of the stage. A janitor about to retire from his job at a theater gives his replacement a tour, educating the newcomer about the foibles of theater folk and introducing him to the specters of Shakespearean characters who haunt the place. "The Encounter," by Anna Winslow, is an unpredictable play of ideas in which Joan of Arc and Sigmund Freud meet on a train and have a surprising therapy session.

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