Hatching New Plays
By Laurel Busby, Staff Reporter
The new play’s the thing for some Palisadians. In order to create and nurture original works, playwright Gene Franklin Smith and his pals started the Write Act Repertory Company. The troupe uses techniques that are particularly common in the New York theatre world where Smith worked for 11 years. Through a workshop process, plays are strengthened and polished by constantly rewriting using the input of the actors, directors and even audiences.
“I wanted to start a company with actors, writers, etc. working collaboratively on original plays,” said Smith, the company’s artistic director, who started Write Act three years ago. “Everyone knows you can make a lot of money doing revivals of Neil Simon or ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ It’s harder with riskier material, but I hope that makes us stand out from other theatres.”
Although the company at first struggled to find a venue and funding, Smith and about 40 company members now have a permanent home in Hollywood’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 6128 Yucca Street where they have workshopped, then produced four plays. Their newest project and first musical, ‘Angel’s Flight,’ opened April 27, and their board of advisors now includes celebrities Kelsey Grammar, Sir Ian McKellen, Debbie Reynolds and Cybill Shepard.
Their group process for developing a play begins with its submission either from a company writer or from an outside playwright. Smith, who has lived in the Palisades for two years, said he usually reads about six plays a month and of those, about one will get a reading by company actors. After the readings, about half of the plays go into the workshop process where the script is rehearsed and revised. Actors and directors impact the material, and the playwright also sees the script anew by watching it come alive on stage. Eventually, it will receive a one-time presentation before the board of directors, who choose each play that receives full scale-production.
“It’s very energizing creatively,” said Smith, who worked with New York’s Circle Rep theatre before moving to Los Angeles 11 years ago. “You really get inspired. Writing is such a lonely thing. When you get a play on its feet and actors say the lines, you see things you’ve never though of.”
Aside from Smith, three other Palisadians – actor Cameron “Chip” Mitchell Jr., director/actress Nancy Kandal and playwright Diane Grant – participate in the troupe’s plays, which cost about $10,000 each to produce. They fund the productions through ticket sales, donations and fundraising sketch shows. Each person has found the process of creating new works to be stimulating.
For Kandal, an accomplished actress who has appeared in various movies and television shows, the company recently gave her the opportunity to direct. When she read the script of Grant’s one-act play, “Sex and Violence,” she loved the piece and wanted the lead part. Unfortunately, it had already been cast. A director was also in place, so she couldn’t participate until the director happened to leave the project, and she thought, “If I can’t be in it, I’ll direct it.”
The move was fortuitous. The idea of directing instead of acting “had never occurred to me before,” said Kandal, the company’s vice-president, who is also directing another Grant one-act play, “Looking for Bernice.” “It’s a challenge and I love it … I think I have a natural affinity for it. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. I think it’s because I’ve been acting for 35 years. I know how to talk to actors.”
The entire process of developing the work, which now plays on Wednesday evenings in Hollywood, has been “so wonderful. It almost feels sinful.” Said Kandal, who has lived in the Palisades for 10 years.
Playwright Grant – a 20-year Palisadian – agreed. “Nancy [Kandal] is fabulous,” Grant said. “She understands my work and that is the first time that has happened to me, so that is great.”
Grant is not new to theater or the workshop process. She has been a member of Theatre palisades for 12 years, and at Pierson Playhouse, she occasionally workshopped her new plays. However, for these one-or two-night productions, she often not only wrote, but also directed the pieces herself. Working with Kandal has given her the luxury of letting go of the director’s role.
With a separate director, “you get so much more input and you have another eye and you’re not getting exhausted by wearing too many hats.” Grant said.
While Grant and Kandal enjoy the development process, founder Smith said some actors, directors and writers find it difficult, because of the constant rewriting and then relearning of lines. This process can be hard on people who are trained in Los Angeles where the emphasis is on television and film projects with finished scripts, because they are not used to developing plays like New York theater professionals are.
“It’s very difficult for a lot of them to throw themselves into working into a play where lines are changing during performance,” Smith said. “Some have enjoyed it and others have fought it tooth and nail … We’re only interested in people who want to develop new material.”
While some actors have left the company because of the inherent difficulties of developing new material, others have relished the opportunity to influence pieces and challenge themselves.
Actress Victoria Charters, who plays the lead in Grant’s play, “Sex and Violence,” said “I love developing new material. It’s stimulating. It’s completely different from [say] Tennesee Williams where you do what’s there.
Her co-star in the production, Bill Rutkoski, agreed: “It’s new and fresh instead of seen over and over and over again. It’s exciting to create a character that’s never been done before.”
Actor Chip Mitchell, who plays composer Erik Satie in the company’s current musical production “Angel’s Flight,” also enjoys development. For “Angel’s Flight,” Mitchell researched the history of Satie, a French composer who worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and shared his insights with the play’s writer and director.
“I could come and say Satie this or that and they would listen and if it made sense, they would incorporate some of the ideas,” said Mitchell, who grew up in the Palisades. “They were open to actors’ comments and ideas so we all felt like part of the process.”
Like Kandal, Mitchell has also enjoyed the chance to expand himself through the company. For example, in “Angel’s Flight,” he performed in his first musical. “I’ve absolutely loved it,” said Mitchell, the company’s co-president. ‘I’m always up to try new things. Sometimes a challenge makes the process more interesting.”