Backstage

Backstage: Harry Bagdasian Seeks Scripts from New Playwrights' Theatre Shows

Tiffany Antone's grad school thesis,
Tiffany Antone's grad school thesis, "Ana and the Closet," will be performed next month at the Kennedy Center's new play festival. (Kennedy Center)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harry M. Bagdasian hopes memories are long and attics full among theater folk in Washington and beyond. He's on the hunt for scripts of plays that premiered in the 1970s and '80s at the long-defunct New Playwrights' Theatre in Washington, which, as a determined 23-year-old, he co-founded.

He remembers thinking, " 'Wow. No one's doing new plays in Washington, the capital of our country. Why don't we have a theater here working with American playwrights?' We only had about two cents, but we started anyway."

New Playwrights' presented new work on a shoestring from 1972 to 1988, for most of that time in what is now the Church Street Theater. Bagdasian left the company in 1984 "kind of burned out," he says. On his Web site (http://www.hbagdasian.com) he writes, "I left NPT in the incapable hands of a Board of Trustees that eventually let the place go bankrupt."

After the Helen Hayes Awards were launched in 1985, New Playwrights' garnered 17 nominations and five wins, including two for Outstanding New Play (Elizabeth Swados's "The Beautiful Lady" and Larry L. King's "The Night Hank Williams Died"). The company morphed briefly into American Playwrights Theatre in 1988, focusing less on new work, but went under for good in 1990.

When he left, Bagdasian says, "I took all my files with me and a bunch of the scripts. That included 40 boxes of slides, a couple dozen videos, audio recordings and of course newspaper clippings." He's donating his New Playwrights' memorabilia to the University of Maryland's Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, but he's short another 34 scripts of New Playwrights' shows performed during his tenure that he'd like to include. He says he'll also welcome scripts from plays performed after he left. (Bagdasian asks people to e-mail him for information before snail-mailing: hbagdasian@aol.com.

Some of the scripts he's seeking are: "And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson" by James Leonard Jr.; "Rats," a musical spoof of "Cats," by Tim Grundmann; "Canticle" by Michael Champagne and William Penn, based on Dante's "Inferno"; and a 45-minute musical "Hamlet!," which featured a very young J. Fred Shiffman, now a busy Washington actor.

Perusal of Bagdasian's Web site shows youthful shots of such soon-to-be Washington theater luminaries as Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, and Fred Strother, another busy actor. Stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden worked there, as did Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, and James C. Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop. (Lloyd Rose, who was chief drama critic at The Washington Post, was New Playwrights' dramaturge.) A play by Washington-based writer Ernest Joselovitz, "Hagar's Children," was picked up by the Public Theater's Joe Papp and produced off-Broadway in 1977.

Aside from nostalgia, Bagdasian has other reasons to create a formal archive of his New Playwrights' treasures. "Being the eternal optimist, I would like to see some of this material rediscovered and revisited by this new generation of producers and artistic directors, because there's a lot of fun material. There's a lot of engaging drama that did not get published and is worth rediscovery," he says.

Page-to-Stage Festival

Shawn Northrip's fringy rock musicals have developed a kind of cult following at the Kennedy Center's annual Page-to-Stage Festival, from "Titus! The Musical" (based on Shakespeare's gory "Titus Andronicus") to "McBeth's McTragic McMusical" (created with composer Christian Imboden). This year, he'll bring his latest effort -- "It Closed on Opening Night" -- to the Page-to-Stage fest, again with music by Imboden.

The idea, Northrip says, grew out of talks with "Bye Bye Birdie" lyricist Lee Adams and composer Charles Strouse. Northrip was interested in the team's 1978 flop, "A Broadway Musical." "I liked the idea of a show that closes on opening night and what makes that show bad and how do I write a show that's both simultaneously bad . . . and also good," he says.

This year's eighth annual Page-to-Stage fest will be a Labor Day Weekend marathon. Held in spaces throughout the Kennedy Center, it will run from Saturday, Sept. 5 through Monday, Sept. 7 and showcase works-in-progress presented by more than 40 area theater companies, playwrights' collectives and college theater departments.

Last year's Page-to-Stage attracted 4,500 new-play buffs, and the Kennedy Center's Gregg Henry believes the full roster this year is reason to celebrate the health of nonprofit theater, even in these straitened times. "It speaks to the indomitability of the theater companies in this area," he says.

An Iraq war widow who has remarried learns that her first husband wasn't killed and has returned in Tiffany Antone's "Ana and the Closet," presented by Forum Theatre. The Los Angeles-based Antone wrote the play as her grad school thesis at UCLA. She says it began as a "naturalistic, three-person play," then went all fantastical. She conjured up the closet of the title, a malodorous void into which Ana's just-returned first husband disappears, and into which she sends her new husband to find him. Ana and a department store clerk soon go in after them.

Audience members picked up on Antone's magic realism as poetic metaphors for grief, death and war at a UCLA workshop. "For me, that situation was always real," says Antone, but she adds, "hearing it worked as a metaphor was wonderful, too . . . it helped me resolve the ending." After all the surrealistic and symbolic portrayals of pain and loss in the second act, Antone says she wanted Ana to achieve a kind of healing by the end.

African Continuum Theatre Company will do a reading of four short plays about women by Washington dramatist and theater professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings. The umbrella title of "Uns" refers to "Undisclosed," "Unmilked," "Unlearned" and "Uncovered." "What I'm hoping to put onstage are things that we don't necessarily see a lot of," Jennings says.

"Unmilked" deals with women who sell their breast milk and also with what Jennings calls "intra-ethnic turmoil" and class conflict between African Americans and Africans. "Undisclosed" explores the issue of women in the military and rape. "Unlearned," Jennings says, is about "a very well-meaning tutor whose mentee has her head down on the desk," dozing. And "Uncovered" shows a family retrieving belongings after Hurricane Katrina has destroyed their home.

Says the Kennedy Center's Henry, "New play development is on the tips of everyone's tongues and it's an interesting time for that to be happening, because new plays are risky . . . and audiences have to be adventurous enough to go to a new play." Page-to-Stage, he says, is a microcosm of the kind of work being done nationally in what he calls the "new golden age of playwriting."

View the complete Page-to-Stage schedule at http://www.kennedy-center.org.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company