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An Appreciation

A Quiet Generosity Put Words Into Play

June 21, 2002|DAVID RAMBO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My cell phone rings in Houston, where I'm wrapping up research for a new play, a play co-commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse and A.S.K. Theater Projects.

The call is from Los Angeles, informing me that Audrey Skirball-Kenis has died. Though I'm already wilting in Gulf Coast humidity on a bright afternoon, my shoulders droop even lower at the news; I experience a personal sense of loss, as if a favorite great-aunt has just passed away.

On reflection, the sensation surprises me, because though I was one of hundreds of beneficiaries of this woman's vision, intellectual vitality and generosity, I met her only once.

Playwrights are a distinct species in the arts world, especially in Los Angeles, where the notion of writing dialogue for any medium other than film or television is regarded as lunacy. Skirball-Kenis took a portion of her wealth, which she could have chosen to direct anywhere in the philanthropic world, and created A.S.K. Theater Projects, saying, in effect, "The theater matters, playwrights are important, talent needs encouragement."

That notion was enormously gratifying to those of who live here and write plays. Audrey Skirball-Kenis became our fairy godmother. We never saw her, but felt we knew her because she made so many good things happen for us, and, through A.S.K.'s programs, brought us together to learn from one another.

At the time that A.S.K. Theater Projects (first called Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater) was created, a playwright would finish a draft, maybe ask a few friends over to read it aloud, send the manuscript off to theaters and producers, and pray.

What A.S.K. recognized then--and today does in an even more far-reaching way--was that plays and playwrights benefit from development before being sent out into the larger world of regional and commercial theaters and new work programs.

Balancing the process at the other end of the line, A.S.K. became an important underwriter of major new play development programs across the country (most generously at the Taper in Los Angeles and the Public Theater in New York). Through its playwright-exchange program with London's Royal Court Theatre, A.S.K.'s reach became international.

Skirball-Kenis' wonderfully peculiar vision evolved into a lifeline for L.A. playwrights. A.S.K. is our nerve center, our clubhouse, our workshop. And though we never saw her (even some longtime staffers at A.S.K. never met her), we felt we knew her--after all, she was the A.S.K.

Two years ago, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, A.S.K. commissioned 10 authors whose work it had developed to write short plays inspired by Los Angeles and theater in the previous decade.

I was one of those commissioned authors and wanted my play to be both a personal and public way of saying thank you to Charles and Audrey (as we all referred to our elusive benefactress and her astute, devoted husband). At this point, though A.S.K. had developed nearly every play I'd written, I had not yet met Skirball-Kenis, nor had any other playwright I knew.

My 10th anniversary piece sprang from my experience selling real estate in the early 1990s while beginning to write plays. I wrote about Eugene O'Neill, a Coldwell Banker agent who writes thunderously dramatic property brochures by day, and equally dramatic plays by night. A wealthy couple, whom I named Charles and Audrey, come into his Sunday open house, read the brochures and, spotting true talent, offer to underwrite readings of his plays. The real estate agent with a secret passion suddenly becomes a playwright, albeit one with a day job.

Charles Kenis was in the audience when the plays were presented at the Getty Center, and loved my piece. I've heard that since then, he recognizes me with a grin as "the guy who put Audrey and me in his play." Unfortunately, she wasn't able to attend that celebration, but we finally did meet a little over a year later, at a fairly glamorous party: the opening night in February of the Geffen Playhouse production of my play "God's Man in Texas."

Movie stars, agents and producers crowded the reception room, but the hand I wanted to shake was the elegant, if frail, hand of Charles Kenis' sweetheart.

"God's Man in Texas" had been on a journey that started in the A.S.K. conference room with three actors and the A.S.K. literary staff, then went to the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, the Globe theaters in San Diego, and dozens of others. The play was named one of the 10 most-produced in the country for the 2001-02 season by American Theatre magazine. Its success brought me commissions for new work and future productions, and the freedom to do the one thing I love most: write plays. The coronet upon all this was the stunning production opening at the Geffen Playhouse that night, in the town I've called home for two decades.

Knowing how rarely Skirball-Kenis was seen and how grateful the playwrights I knew were for her philanthropy, I felt as if I had to use this meeting to speak for many. I held regal, vivacious Audrey Skirball-Kenis' hand and finally was able to say directly, "Thank you; you've made so much possible for so many of us." She smiled, nodded and waved off the compliment. We made small talk for a few minutes, and then our fairy godmother was whisked away to watch my play.

Now, she's been whisked away again, perhaps only to a better seat from which to smile, nod, wave and watch all our plays.

David Rambo is a Los Angeles-based playwright.

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