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6 distinct voices with an L.A. link

For these playwrights, preparing a work for the stage is a process both intensely personal yet shared.

January 23, 2005|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

The six women gathered around the table share an addiction, a need to expose the most private thoughts in the most public ways. Much of their time is spent alone, creating works of art that can exist only with the help of others. They are destined to keep moving from place to place, job to job, pursuing what many dismiss as quixotic (OK, crazy) dreams.

"I love writing plays," says Jessica Goldberg. "I love those moments when all of a sudden there are people talking and I need to say it on paper. Those are the times when I feel the most alive."

No one understands the sweet afflictions of a playwright better than another playwright. As Goldberg speaks, her colleagues -- Bridget Carpenter, Naomi Iizuka, Sarah Ruhl, Alice Tuan and Annie Weisman -- smile. This group is especially close. The playwrights became acquainted in classes and writers' programs, on productions or, as several like to say, "We met through your work, when I read -- or saw -- your play." Over the years they have been writing buddies, poker partners, protegees and mentors, friends. All have ended up in L.A., where -- some with ease, some with difficulty -- they have found a home in the area's growing community of artists. All have emerged as distinctive, exciting voices in the American theater.

On a recent rain-drenched afternoon they got together in a rehearsal room at the Mark Taper Forum to discuss how and why they write, their influences and mentors and the peculiarities of a playwright's life.

"As a writer, I've had my different eras," says Tuan, a feisty freethinker onstage and off. "At one point there was rage: yellow in a white system; girl in a man's world. All that angst came out. The Asian American, period. The cultural schizophrenia. Then it was 'Get out of the negative quadrant and get into the world.' I had this hypertext phase in which narration was randomly chosen by the audience so there was no authorial control. Then there was my little porno era. The history era. Now I'm into pop."

Whoa, everybody says. Porno?

"That was really about dealing with the purity culture," Tuan explains. "About being bored by the American theater. I had this play, 'Ajax,' about four people getting together to have sex. It was done as a reading but never produced. We can talk about how hard it is to get new work done. This was an example of what's impossible to produce."

"You mean what's illegal to produce," Weisman says.

Tuan's wild, self-guided tour prompts a round of True Confessions.

"I'm always so impressed by how Alice can be so articulate about documenting her plays," says Ruhl, who seems to be as serene as Tuan is blunt. "Maybe it's because I started in poetry, where there's a certain amount of inner quiet you need to write."

Her own history may best be defined not by eras but by two major works, a mini-trilogy of passion plays -- running from 16th century England to Reagan-era South Dakota -- and "The Clean House," a quirky, emotionally resonant comedy that has made her one of this season's hottest playwrights.

Weisman says she embraces an idea she was taught early: Write What You Know -- albeit with a twist. In her breakthrough play, "Be Aggressive," darkness invades the sunny world of high school cheerleading as Weisman explores "adolescence, both in people and in my hometown, San Diego," and inspired by an incident involving family friends, "what happens when an unexplainable, violent act occurs in a place where there's no real outlet to deal with it."

"I got excited about bringing grief and cheer together onstage," she says. "I write comedy. I hope that the ironic pairing of ideas and events is something that people haven't experienced before. Laughing is a different way to communicate."

Goldberg, on the other hand, draws from deep, almost subconscious sources -- "angst and naked emotion" -- to create provocative dramas about restless souls adrift in a brutal world. "Maybe that makes me more of a Write What You Feel playwright," she says. She calls "Refuge" "my first play I really love," because the story of a young woman trying to care for her disabled brother and Ecstasy-popping sister was written shortly after her own brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It "was one of those things you write that you are not conscious of writing later."

"When I first started out, my work was all sort of, um, what's the word? Vomit-y?" She looks around and sees the others nod. "Yeah, so, vomit-y. Sometimes I am more controlled about it. I like it now when I have less control, when I'm not as conscious of what I'm working on." Goldberg says she's now more aware of "politics, agenda and craft in my writing -- but I still like a good story."

"You mean when you started out you were more indulgent?" Tuan asks.

"It's the experience of getting judged or criticized," Weisman says. "I went through a period of feeling self-conscious. I read about what other people said about my work. It froze me. You get over that."

Who needs reviews?

Ruhl asks if anyone reads reviews.

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