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Memphis Flyer Dying and D.I.Y.ing

New playwrights take their shot

By Chris Davis

MAY 24, 1999: 

The Senate

I gripped the photocopied script tightly in both hands and it began to tear down the middle as the director proceeded to mock me openly, listing loudly and in painstaking detail why his theatre could not produce the play. "Do you know how much it costs just to air condition the theatre?" he inquired, then he rattled off a number of other expenses that could never be met should the theatre's seats be empty come showtime. "Maybe if it was turned into an Academy Award-winning film we could do a script like that here, but until then " He trailed off and my heart sank.

The script in question was Angels Fall by Lanford Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose drama Burn This was at the time New York's hottest ticket. "I'm sorry," he said at length, clasping my shoulder, "but nobody around here knows who the hell Lanford Wilson is." Those were hard words for me, an aspiring young playwright, to swallow. If Lanford Wilson couldn't draw a crowd, what hope could I possibly have of ever seeing my own work produced on a stage? "Nowadays," as Oscar Wilde once "people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Producing original plays is not just risky business; it is outright commercial suicide. New works by unknown scribblers seldom attract much of a crowd, and one can hardly blame our regional theatres for playing it safe. Yet, if the American theatre is to exist as anything other than a government-funded vending machine, new plays must be produced. It's the old "no risk, no gain" conundrum and it is the single most important issue in contemporary theatre, ignored by those with the most to lose, and championed by those with nothing.

The Forum

My introduction to Playwrights' Forum, Memphis' only theatre company dedicated entirely to producing original material, came in the early '90s in the form of a bitchy quip from a fellow thespian. "Oh, you mean the Howell Pearre Repertory Company?" my friend asked incredulously when I suggested a trip to TheatreWorks (South Main incarnation) to see what the then-new group had to offer. The recently deceased Pearre's scripts were indeed the foundation on which Playwrights' Forum was built, but nearly a decade later, their seasons are chosen from hundreds of scripts, which pour in from all over North America, and from as far away as England. In spite of the independent company's unprecedented longevity, audience attendance is still spotty. The core members, however, which include such stalwarts as Mary Bell, Gene Crain, and Laurie Cook, remain committed to the cause. "We invested all the money we made from Love Letters [the '93 fund-raiser starring Kathy Bates], so we aren't rich, but we don't have to scramble for money like other small companies," says Bell of the Forum's current situation. "We are now receiving a much higher caliber of plays and can focus our energies on giving them the best possible productions."

The Forum begins its ninth season with The Swan Queen and the Radical Faerie by Canadian dramatist Frank Canino. SQatRF is Angels in America without the angels. In Canino's world, art has replaced the heavenly creatures of Tony Kushner's ground-breaking epic, and it is the touchstone that brings the two main characters (both doomed by terminal illnesses) together. Taking on issues of politics, aesthetics, and sexuality, the playwright attempts to redefine the concept of family for the modern world. It is an ambitious piece, but in its current state it is deeply flawed. Rather than digging deeper and deeper into his subject matter as the play progresses, Canino tends to repeat himself. Though the primary characters (a cancer-stricken ballerina turned socialite and her stepson, an AIDS-stricken avant-gardist) are often compelling, they are surrounded by stock characters and forced into some very trite situations.

Structurally intriguing, but plagued by clunky dialogue and too many literary references for its own good, SQatRF benefits most from its abstracted realism and its powerful optimism. It has a good deal of potential (perhaps as a network movie) but still needs a great deal of editing.

In the Coliseum

At the Court House Deli, Memphis actor/playwright David Thornton performs a series of Eric Bogosian-inspired monologues collected under the title Crashing Buses. At its worst, his script becomes a preachy outpouring of youthful idealism and naive social commentary. At its best, however ("The Rape Monologues"), Thornton offers up violent love poems reminiscent of Sam Shepard's enigmatic collaborations with performance pioneer Joseph Chaiken.

Still fairly fresh from college, Thornton's worldview is still coming into focus, and he is the first to admit it. "I wanted to do a play that was completely political, but I realized I didn't know enough about politics," he confesses in a recent conversation.

"It's all about not being lazy," Thornton says matter-of-factly when questioned about the difficulties of producing indie theatre. "Not being lazy and accepting whatever you can get as far as space and lighting goes. I'm buying clip lights because I'm poor. You can bitch about what you don't have, or you can take a tiny little room that nobody knows where it is and give it your best shot. I want this to be a tool to get more activity going locally -- independently. There are ways to get it going here, and I'm finally to find that out."

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