Blank Theatre Company helps launch younger playwrights

Ten years later, company produces eclectic mix

HOLLYWOOD — Daniel Henning went blank after being exposed to the Los Angeles theater scene a decade ago. And the result has been critical acclaim and a unique opportunity for aspiring playwrights.

A cross-country move from New York landed Henning in Hollywood, where he was so unimpressed with local legit shows that the artistic director/producer founded the Blank Theatre Company (BTC) in 1990.

Some ground rules were established from the company’s inception. “I wanted to create good theater and not be tied down to a particular theatrical form,” he says.

Now heading toward its 10th anniversary, the BTC has produced a slate of award-winning works including 1994’s “The Fantasticks,” honored with an Ovation Award for best musical, smaller theater; 1997’s “Breaking the Code,” winner of the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for best production; and innovative original shows such as this year’s Clinton-Lewinsky-themed “Starr Struck: A Musical Investigation.”

Though the BTC stays alive solely through ticket sales, private donations and occasional grants, a host of famous players have been attracted to the company. A short list of participating actors includes Noah Wyle, Susan Egan, Ed Asner, Debra Messing and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

“We get a lot of New York expatriots who are out here making money, but want to continue working in the theater because they love it. They perform with the BTC due to the choice of material and the reputation of the company,” Henning says.

Wyle’s initial participation as an actor spawned a broader interest in the BTC. Now serving as their artistic producer, he helps with general management and fund-raising.

“What distinguishes the BTC from other companies is that we have the only national Young Playwrights Festival outside of New York,” Wyle remarks.

The BTC’s annual fest, now celebrating its seventh year, has provided teens with a unique way to explore their writing talents.

Scribes aged 19 or younger can submit plays of any length and subject matter to the BTC by April. Chosen winners are assigned a mentor during a two-week intensive workshop, and can choose to edit their script.

And, in what makes this fest truly extraordinary, the works are professionally cast, directed and performed in June.

“I was nervous if everything would sound right, if things would look right,” 18-year-old Beth Bigler remembers. “But it was very amazing and intense because you’re seeing life breathed into your work.”

Bigler, two-time winner this year for “Boy” and “Girl With a Gift,” has an agent and a Hollywood career thanks to the fest. She is now working on TV pilots and a screenplay — while attending college full time.

“The door has opened for a new experience and I want to go for it. I want to continue to write theater as well,” she said.

Five-time fest winner Austin Winsberg is also pursuing a screenwriting career. “The festival taught me that you have to distance yourself from the material at some point and that cutting and changing is important,” he says.

As a member of this year’s selection committee, Winsberg says that identity issues, relationships and homosexuality were common themes among the submissions.

“These are very impressive kids,” Wyle said. “Their level of writing is very sophisticated.”

In addition to getting a venue for tough issues, the playwrights receive valuable advice. Henning remarked, “A lot of times they tend to break playwriting rules, and I suspect that some of them don’t even know they are breaking the rules. It’s exciting to teach them and give them a solid base.”

He added, “The real success stories are when a young playwright writes a play, maybe as a class assignment, and it becomes a winner, and next year they submit another play.”

BTC performances take place at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. For information call (323) 662-7734 or visit http://www.theblank.com.