South Coast invests in play time

Theater shores up Pacific offerings

COSTA MESA, Calif. — New-play development is de rigueur for all resident theaters. But few can match the 40-year commitment of South Coast Repertory to nurture new American playwrights, with 102 world-premiere productions to date.

And unlike theaters with similar mandates such as Playwrights Horizons in arts-centric New York, SCR is an odd pairing of adventurous creative spirit with a suburban, supposedly conservative setting: Orange County.

That commitment to new work was recognized in the 1988 Tony for outstanding regional theater, and reaffirmed last month with the announcement of the 2007 Pulitzer for drama to “Rabbit Hole.” Though the play had its official premiere on Broadway under the Manhattan Theater Club aegis, David Lindsay-Abaire’s drama about a family reeling from grief was an SCR commission that first saw life in a staged reading as part of the theater’s 2005 Pacific Playwrights Festival.

This was not SCR’s first brush with Pulitzer glory. On the strength of just a cover letter and writing sample, tyro Margaret Edson was brought in by the company to develop what became 1999 winner “Wit.” Eight other Pulitzer finalists have gone through some part of the SCR development process over the years, including works by perennial collaborators Richard Greenberg and Donald Margulies.

Both those heavy hitters contributed work to this year’s three-day Pacific Playwrights Fest, which wrapped May 6. The annual weekend of readings, workshops and productions is a shopping mall for almost 60 visiting resident theater reps. South Coast co-founder David Emmes said to them, “Here are some important writers we’ve commissioned who may be of value to you as well. Please meet them, and help keep them writing for the American theater.”

Since their start in the early ’60s, Emmes and Martin Benson have known that new work is risky. “It’s hard to sell,” Emmes says. Nevertheless, it has remained the company’s focus as it transitioned over the decades into progressively larger spaces, aided by a mid-’70s Rockefeller Foundation grant. “New work is our strength,” adds Benson.

Now settled into expansive digs adjacent to O.C.’s Performing Arts Center, SCR shepherds new plays along various routes beginning with the kind of straight commission that underwrote Margulies’ “Brooklyn Boy” and Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour.” The theater also offers four annual “New SCRipt Program” slots, one of which recently yielded Tanya Barfield’s “Blue Door.”

The Rep’s crown jewel, the PPF, is a response to the struggle for American playwrights to make a living and to the talent drain of Hollywood and television.

“Our goal was to keep talented writers believing that writing for the theater is a viable career option,” says Emmes.

SCR’s lit department reads scripts year-round, but PPF preparations gear up in January as co-directors John Glore and Megan Monaghan begin looking in earnest to see what’s out there. The goal is to find seven plays to be offered a staged reading, workshop staging or full production; staff picks the best available works, with no thought of a “balanced season” of genres.

Ordinarily, PPF seeks to highlight both established and emerging playwrights. Last year’s decision to focus almost exclusively on the latter led to two 2006 readings being bumped up to full productions this year. Julie Marie Myatt’s account of one man’s cross-country quest to find himself, “My Wandering Boy,” and David Wiener’s behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood creative community, “System Wonderland,” occupied SCR’s main stages during April. Five perfs of each were available to fest guests over the weekend.

But these fully formed works were less intriguing than the still-gestating plays given their first airing.

PPF’s youngest playwright, Kenneth Lin, unveiled “Po’ Boy Tango,” a sentimental comedy in which a Taiwanese man and an African-American woman pool their expertise to recreate a fabled Chinese banquet. Director Chay Yew was given 2½ weeks of rehearsal time for the complex piece in which all of the tools and kitchen furnishings were real but the food mimed, a la Arnold Wesker’s “The Kitchen.”

Glore and Monaghan are pleased that the three least known scribes got this year’s prime slots, while their biggest guns received one-shot staged readings. “It’s all about what a play needs at that time,” explains Glore.

Which isn’t to say that the fest slights its eminences grises. Vet TV actors like Gregory Itzin and Dan Butler assembled for those chair-and-music-stand readings alongside such stage vets as Jill Clayburgh, John Vickery and Charlayne Woodard, in tandem with helmers Pam McKinnon, Bart DeLorenzo, Stefan Novinski and Octavio Solis.

Some common themes emerged. In their sold-out readings, Greenberg and Margulies explored the nature of truth in storytelling, the former in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” through the deathbed confession of a Jewish mother (Clayburgh) concerning daytime trysts with a shady figure from the McCarthy era. Margulies’ “Shipwrecked!” featured a 19th century fabulist (Itzin) on the lecture circuit, detailing his South Seas adventures until the experts start asking questions.

Two other readings offered complementary perspectives on the obstacles within marriage. In “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” Jose Rivera contrasted a couple’s first flush of courtship in Puerto Rico with the melancholy outcome in Alabama four decades later, while librettist-lyricist John Strand and composer Dennis J. McCarthy musicalized Eugene Labiche’s farce of wedding-day chaos caused when a horse eats the eponymous article in “An Italian Straw Hat.”

Despite only 3½ days’ rehearsal per reading, there is a sense of commitment and polish.

Five-time PPF contributor Greenberg calls the fest “as exciting an environment for play development as you’ll find; totally professional and with a minimum of the alluvial anxiety you always have in New York.”

Though claiming a right of first refusal, SCR welcomes bidding wars on fest offerings. Amy Freed’s “The Bard of Avon” (PPF 2001) was snapped up by four theaters before its Gotham debut.

To date, 56 of the 65 plays presented at the first nine edition of PPF have gone on to full productions at SCR or elsewhere, with the theater helping to broker other companies’ involvement.

Benson says that track record points to the consistency of SCR’s mission, which he connects to a perceived drift in the priorities of theatrical institutions.

“We have to succeed here, because to a degree the American theater has lost its soul,” he says. “It distresses me to see theaters gearing up for Broadway. Enhancement money is already piped into New York. The regional theater movement was meant to decentralize, not to serve as a tryout house.”

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