WASHINGTON'S PLAYWRIGHTS live out of the public glare-and also, by and large, out of each other's.
Ask one to name a colleague and he could easily faint under the pressure. But they are here nevertheless, and several of them sound almost proud of it.
"New York's not the only place to go anymore," says Ernest Joselovitz, author of "Hagar's Children" and Proud Rebels," both successfully produced by Washington's New Playwright's Theatre. ("Hagar's Children" was later done at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York.)
Arena Stage receives manuscripts from a nucleus of two or three dozen Washington area playrwrights, according to literary manager Douglas Wager (the vast majority of Arena submissions come from elsewhere). Bob Schulte of New Playwrights' puts his group's equivalent number in the low hundreds. But an exact count is impossible when dealing with admitted playwrights, closet playwrights, full-time, part-time, lifelong, one-shot and a host of other such definition-defying categories.
What's it like to be a playwright in a city known for more sober endeavors like government service, law and real estate? In the accompanying profiles, six reasonably representative members of the profession have their say. TIM GRUNDMANN
On Mount Parnassus live four muses: Calliope, muse of music; Terpischore, muse of dance; Simka, muse of sport; and Bette, muse of everything else. You remember Bette. A love child.Her father was Zeus. Her mother was a Rockette.
This may be a revelation to any Greeks out there, but to Tim Grundmann, Washington's nonstop fountain of musical-comedy madness, it's just business as usual. Those muses, a composer who can't write music, and a show-within-a-show called "Only a Mermaid" figure prominently in "Eddie's Catchy Tunes," the fifth and latest piece of Grundmania set to open April 25 at the New Playwrights' Theatre on Church Street NW.
The author is a spectacled, clean-cut fellow of 28 who insists he has occasionally been struck by the impulse to get serious. "Yes, many times," says Grundmann. But in between the impulse and the execution, someting happens-something beyond his control. "The audiences seem to enjoy the crazy things more," he says. "I guess I'm just feeding off the laughter."
There was a moment in one of his shows, he adds hastily, that moved some audience members at least into the general vicinity of tears. It was when a laundress, forced to pawn the tools of her trade, sang a wretching ballad called "Arrivederci, Little Iron."
Grundmann was raised to be a Catholic and a concert pianist, but these plans, too, went awry. Not that he has excommunicated either the faith or the instrument from his life-he just approaches them differently.
Grundmann's "Bride of Sirocco," for instance, included a papal election scene closely modeled on the Miss America pageant. ("Some people thought it was irreverent, I guess," he acknowledges.) And more than one blind nun has crept into his writings, but he predicts that this will turn out to have been "just a phase."
As for the classical piano, "What was the point of me becoming a pianist?" he asks. "There was such a glut of them. Look at the newspapers. . .every day there's a review of another pianist with sensational technique."
A self-described "Army brat," Grundmann abandoned the West Virginia University and his piano study in 1975, lured to Washington to work with a group called Poor Richard's Players. The group folded. Then he and several cohorts met up with Harry Bagdasian of New Playwrights', who commissioned "Sirocco," which spawned "Bride of Sirocco," "Nightmare!!" ("That's two exclamation points after "Nightmare," he cautions), "Out to Lunch" and "Eddie's Catchy Tunes."
As a New Playwright's resident playwright, Grundmann is currently sustained by a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, matched by another $5,000 from New Playwrights'. Otherwise, he feels no inviolable sense of commitment to Washington as a base of operations.
"Where the money is, I think, is where I'll be," he says. "I'm not too picky about where I live. . .I have an idea I'd like to be able to live very comfortably."
Washington, he allows, has its drawbacks. "You certainly aren't going to get a lot of [show business] people after you," says Grundmann, who hasn't yet procured an agent.
And New Playwright's versions of Sardi's, the Trio Restaurant at 17th and R Streets NW, closes promptly at midnight, he points out, when actors and theater folk have barely begun to work upan appetite. Kenneth Ludwig
"I wish I were one of those people who knew just what they were after in life and have gone for it," says Kenneth D. Ludwig of the firm of Steptoe and Johnson.
At first glance it is hard to see how this 29-year-old lawyer could have "gone for it" in much more hell-bent fashion than he has. The gray suit, the wide tie, the framed degrees from Haverford and Harvard Law School, the short, neat, entirely jurisprudent haircut-none of these things exactly suggest a beach-bum life style.
Indeed, as Ludwig toils away in his immaculate Connecticut Avenue office, striving to persuade the federal government to make life easier for one of his corporate clients, he looks like a Central Casting vision of the young Washington attorney.
But the cuffs-real cuffs, the kind you could lose a coin in-ought to be the tipoff. Something is amiss with this young attorney. He writes plays.
"Scratch many lawyers," says David Chambers, acting producing director at Arena Stage, ". . . and you find a frustrated theater worker."
Ludwig would be living proof of that proposition if he did not so vehemently deny the "frustrated" part. His mother, a former chorus girl who appeared in the huge prewar Broadway hit "Hellzapoppin," filled him early in life with a love for the theater. But the law, he swears, is "intellectually challenging, satisfying work." (Are you listening, Steptoe and Johnson?)
Others might not find it easy to follow Ludwig's formula for reconciling his loves. At 4 a.m., when most Washington lawyers are resting their minds and tongues, Ludwig is generally at his typewriter in the Foggy Bottom apartment he shares with his wife (an editorial assistant at Time-Life Books).
And he has high hopes that one result of this nocturnal avocation, entitled "Sullivan and Gilbert; or, The Show Might Go On," will soon be performed either here or in New York (although the Manhattan Theater Club, which got one favorable reader's report on the play, has since concluded that it is "probably not right for us," according to a spokesman).
Another Ludwig play, "The Prodigal," about the tragic medieval love affair of Abelard and Heloise, received a reading at the New Playwrights' Theatre, on Church Street NW, in November 1977. "I was just out of law school when I wrote it," he apologizes.
Ludwig regrets that he got "really hostile vibes" from New Playwrights after the Prodigal" reading. "I think it's handled me as a playwright really badly," he says. "I think I'm a good playwright-I could be a really good playwright."
He feels no urge, though to abandon Washington or the law, "I don't think i'd thrive in a city where I felt I was competing on a daily basis with other playwrights, other full-time theater people," he says. "Plus, I'm a really strong believer in regional theater."
Henry James, Archibald Mcleish and W.S. Gilbert were lawyers who wrote plays, he points out. "They give me hope." Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg
In a week moment, Charlotte Anker admits that just possibly Victoria Woodhull may never have had that affair with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
But as an act of dramatic license, adds Anker, she and collbarator Irene Rosenberg "chose to take the position that she did have the affair with Beecher." And these two small, friendly and energetic women-residents of Chevy Chase and Betesday, respectively-are clearly entitled to an act of dramatic license. For they are the co-authors of "Onward Victoria," a musical play that took its first crude shape five years ago and is now, in numerable bumps and bruises later, getting squared away for Broadway.
"Onward Victoria" had its first production in Greenwich Village last month. "We turned away people every night," says Rosenberg.
"People would say extravagant things to us, really," says Ankere."The laughter was wonderful."
The trade paper "Show Business" said this: "With a few cuts and polishes the show should be ready for more and larger audiences to enjoy it as much as this audience obviously did." The director and co-producer of the musical "Eubie" came to the same conclusion, and hope to put "Onward Victoria" into pre-Broadway rehearsal at the end of July.
It all began, as Cinderalla stories must less glamorously. Rosenberg was a graduate student in American studies at the Unviersity of Maryland, and Anker was teaching a sociology course at George Washington University when the two women through their labor-lawyer husbands.
"We both had been intense watchers of the drama and we had a naive faith in our ability to write a play, unencumbered by a knowledge of the difficulties," says Rosenberg. So they began combing history books for "undiscovered American women," and alighted on Woodhull, 19th-century spiritualist, feminist, presidential candidate (she lost) and one of the country's first two women stockbrokers (her sister Tennessee was the other).
Besides Victoria, her sister and Beecher (the controversial minister and orator whom she was to accuse of committing adultery with his best friend's wife), the play's characters include Cornelius Vanderblit (who set both sisters up as stockbrokers and made Tennessee his mistress while he was at it) and Anthony Comstock (the vice-ridding postal inspector known for the laws of the same name). Comstock has a song called "Every Day I Do a Little Something for the Lord," in which he boasts of the suicides he has caused as well as such feats as closing down a production of "Oedipus Rex."
"Onward Victoria" was a straight play before it was a musical, and in both phases it has undergone many grueling transformations. But the five-year struggle has been a consistently delightful experience, the collaborators insist. "We've just enjoyed the process so much," says Rosenberg.
After their New York high, Rosenberg and Anker found the routine of life back in Washington a little dispiriting-despite a barrage of long-distance phone calls from "Onward Victoria's" friends and sponsors. "It's lonely here because you don't have other playwrights to talk to," says Rosenberg. No one is interested, she explains, "in the same dogged way."
But their second play, "Stroke Three," to be done in a reading April 21 as part of the New Playwrights' Theatre "Dramathon," has a Washington setting-it's about a congressman and his wife. And the authors say they are hoping it will be produced here first. Richard Nelson
Richard Nelson would not meet any strictly rational definition of a Washington playwright, but Washington is far too hard up for playwrights to count them rationally.
Nelson's latest work. "The Vienna Notes," already has been produced twice this season-at the Guthrie Ii Theatre in Minnesota and the Playwrights' Horizon in New York-and it will be done next month at the Mart Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
So he is unequivocally a playwright. The problem is that he lives in Brooklyn, and even a few weeks' stay in Washington-worse yet, from a culture-shock standpoint, in Southwest Washington leaves him decidedly homesick.
"I'm away from my typewritter, my books, my routine," says the 28-year-old Nelson, who has recently been shuttling between an apartment at 2nd and I Streets SW and the Arena State at 6th and M. where his translation of Moliere's "Don Juan " opened last week.
In Washington, he misses to itemize it, his wife, the "network of playwrights," the view of lower Manhattan across the East River and New York City's innumerable bookstores. "That's how I recreate," he says. "I go to Barnes and Nobles or Strands (a vast ued-book store at 12th Street and Broadway)."
Nevertheless,he has just committed himself to spending at least another six weeks here during the coming year under a $,9,000-playwriting grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. What lured him-and what has become an increasingly seductive lure for playwrights all over the country-is Arena Stage itself.
Nelson could have chosen the Mark Taper or New York's American Place Theatre, he says, but Arena "has tremendous facilities." He compares it, for grandeur, o a "feudal estate."
"It's an organization," he says. Whatever an organization is: It's a bureaucracy on the one hand and things get done on the other."
He also likes the "wide range of people" in the Arena audience. "It's and what you'd call a blue-haired audience," he says. "And it's fairly young which is nice."
(Arena recently conducted a survey of its patrons and determined, it says, that 94 percent have college degrees and 76 percent some postgraduate training. About a third are proffessional-level civil servants and another third are privately servants and another third are privately employed professionals, including a hefty number of doctors, teacher and lawyers-"one or two of whom have threatened to sue us," according to Arena's executive director Thomas C. Fichandler.)
But Nelson, like his friend Michael Weller, authors of "Moonchildren" and "Loose Ends," arrives at the ultimate conclustion that he could not afford to live-here-for good-even if he were inclined to.
"It's the attitude of New York," he explains. "All the theaters in New York," he explains. "All the theaters in New York, they're not accustomed to paying transportation and housing or putting people up. . . They assume it's your responsibility to be in New York."
"Being in New York doesn't prevent me coming to Washington at all," he says. "Being in Washington might make going to New York more difficult." Ajamu
Few playwrights have their first full length works performed under the roof of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But that's what happened to Ajamu, or, as he used to call himself, Robert Crawford.
Ajamu was an undergraduate film major at Howard University when he wrote "The Brass Medallion," a play about the achievement of manhood in a prison not unlike Lorton Reformatory.
(For research, he interviewed Lorton alumni.)
The play was such a success on the Howard campus that the school decided to enter it in the 1976 American College Theater Festival; and although the festival judges awarded the top prize for an original play that year to an entry from Kansas, they though highly enough of "The Brass Medallion" to include it among seven plays (out of 325 nationwide candidates) staged at the Kennedy Center.
"It was a snowball effects and I was rolling with the snowball," says Ajamu. "It was a very pleasing feeling. It really was."
The snowball rolled him along to two years of graduate study at UCLA, where he wrote several more plays, and then back to Washington-and Howard-last fall.
He is now supporting himself as a teacher of playwriting, and working on his own plays-obsessively-in his spare time. He expects a musical he has written, called "Two Way Street," based on the Big Brothers of America Concept, to be done at Howard in the fall. (And if that sounds like oddly civic-minded subject matter, condiser that Ajamu has written another play aboout the international food crisis.
If it weren't for his D.C. government subsidized job at Howard, says Ajamu, he would probably be earning about $2.60 an hour as a security guard. He has done guard duty both here and in California, telling prospective employers: "I'll make my rounds. I'll be on the job, but I just want to be somewhere where I can sit down at a desk and read."
"It's advantageous to have you reading, because guards are prone to fall asleep." He explains.
"I have friends who've said, hey, it isn't happening, and packed up their bags and gone to New York," says Ajamu. "Black theater [in Washington] has a long way to go, other than what's on Broadway traveling through here charging $15 a ticket and moving on out. . ."
Still, he says, "I fell that Washington is right and ripe for some people. . . I feel like my work will be done here. I feel like I have a black and white audience here." Maybe a production of one of his plays will "attract some people from New York to come down and check it out."
He recently submitted his musical to the Musical Theater Lab at the Kennedy Center, which promptly rejected it. "So, you know," says Ajamu nonchalantly, "you put the ego back in your pocket and go home."
A shortage of role models partly-explains why there are so few black playrights, he says. "We don't really perceive black playwrights as being sought after. . .Somebody has to get out there and do well."
His own playwriting students include some very talented people, he adds, but it is not easy to convince them that drama is "about structure-it's about more than the theatercalizing of works."
Ajamu practices what he preaches every play is elaborately charted beforehand with tiny boxes cataloguing hundreds and hundreds of numbered notes from looseleaf notebooks.
When he gets around to the actual writing, he says, it becomes absolutely all-consuming. "I can't even enjoy the pure pleasure of a lady fried because in the middle of a conversation I'll think of something and say, hey, excuse me, baby, I got to make a note." CAPTION: Pictures 1 Through 6, Kenneth Ludwig, Ajamu, Irene Rosenberg, Charolette Anker, Tim Grundmann, Richard Nelson, Photo of Tim Grundmann and Ajamu by Harry Naltchayan, Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg by Larry Morris, Kenneth Ludwig by the Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post; Richard Nelson by George de Vincent.