Playwrights to lose their guiding light Retiring: Since 1968, Lloyd Richards has been the director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. He'll step down after next year

Theater

July 20, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., the drama is usually confined to the staged readings of 12 new plays presented each July.

But this year, those in attendance reportedly were gasping -- and some even moved to tears -- before the first play premiered. This emotion was generated when Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the O'Neill's prestigious National Playwrights Conference, announced that he will step down at the end of next summer's conference.

Richards, who rose to national prominence when he directed the Broadway premiere of "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959, has shaped and guided the Playwrights Conference since 1968. In the ensuing decades, the monthlong program has produced readings of plays by such writers as David Henry Hwang, Arthur Kopit, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson (five of whose plays Richards went on to direct on Broadway).

Reading a letter addressed to O'Neill chairman and founder George C. White at the conference's opening meeting, Richards said: "I do not use the term retire because it is my belief that Theatre is a way of life and that one cannot retire from a way of life. But that does not mean that there is not an appropriate or strategic time when one alters one's activities and withdraws from some positions." The turn of the millennium, he continued, seems like an appropriate time.

Later in the week, Richards -- who was dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991 -- addressed the O'Neill's National Critics Institute, on whose faculty I have served for nine summers. Describing his decision as "very hard, very hard," he said, "I don't even consider it stepping down. I don't know where I'm stepping...I don't know what else I'll do with July." He said there is a good chance that he will continue to be affiliated with the O'Neill in some capacity, and he will also have a voice -- "a strong voice," as he put it -- in choosing his successor.

This year, the National Playwrights Conference received 1,600 scripts -- each of which is read cover-to-cover.

Generally, Richards explained, out of any 1,000 submissions, 10 percent are worth reading; of those, 10 percent are worth staging; and of those staged, another 10 percent -- or one in 1,000 -- is exceptional. The goal, he explained, is to find "a way of taking the truly exceptional and pushing them toward genius."

Over the years, Richards said he has noted two changes in submissions. More of the plays are by minority playwrights -- particularly African-Americans and women.

Return of the silents

Arthur Laupus' comedy "Sounds of Silents" has a cute title and a cute premise. A group of former silent movie stars, down on their luck, is asked to be the subject of a documentary. To convince the filmmakers that they still lead active lives, they decide to pretend to be remaking one of their classic films.

OK -- maybe that's a smidge preposterous, but it's not nearly as far-fetched as some of the other shenanigans Laupus works into this Baltimore Playwrights Festival production, at the Spotlighters under Mike Moran's direction.

For starters, the filmmakers, who are supposedly funded by the reputable PBS and BBC networks, pay their subjects $50,000 for participating in the documentary. In case that isn't enough of a breach of journalistic ethics, they proceed to make up details of the movie stars' modern-day lives, assuring them that "in our business there's such a thing as dramatic license."

No, Mr. Laupus. In documentary filmmaking there is definitely NOT such a thing as dramatic license; that is reserved for the stage.

The play does offer some nice roles for older actors, and Kitty Shaw is especially fetching as a silent film vamp. Charley Ward is also amusing as her former leading man, now descending into senility and apt to launch into his favorite movie roles whenever anyone inadvertently says something he recognizes as a cue.

"Let's get back to reality," one of the characters says early on. "Only if there's a part in it for me," Shaw's character replies. Laupus may have intended his play to be free-wheeling farce, but even comedy requires some basis in logic, and "Sounds of Silents" connects with reality at precious few points.

"Sounds of Silents" continues at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., through Aug. 1. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

'Whistle' in London

"Whistle Down the Wind" -- the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that played an abortive Broadway tryout at Washington's National Theatre two seasons ago -- has resurfaced in London, where it opened to wildly disparate reviews.

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