Neil Simon, America's most successful playwright, Bernard Jacobs, the head of the nation's most important theater chain, and half a dozen other major theatrical figures gathered in a Senate hearing room yesterday to air their complaints and questions about "access" to the Kennedy Center
Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) presided over the closed, "informal" meeting, where he heard charges that Kennedy Center chairman Roger L. Stevens has tended to exclude black plays and plays produced by outside groups from the center's financially crucial subscription series.
When the two-hour meeting was over. Moynihan announced that he would act as a broker, relaying the criticisms he had heard to Stevens and to Sens. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), both members of the center's board of trustees. Kennedy Center officals were not asked to participate in yesterday's meeting.
Moynihan said he hoped to resolve the problem without formal hearings. "I do not want the United States Senate making judgments about choices of subject matter and point of view in terms of theater. I'd rather see the place [the Kennedy Center] closed down."
Emanuel Azenberg -- producer of Neil Simon's play, among others -- was instrumental in organizing yesterday's meeting. He said he had gone to the Senate because "there was nowhere else to go anymore, when you get turned down so often. We don't want government interference with the arts and we don't want any more committees. We want Roger Stevens to be more amenable."
Stevens, reached by telephone last night, vigorously disputed the charges, both in outline and in detail. But "to say we never make any mistakes would be outrageous," he said. "Of course we make mistakes."
Even as discribed by the center's critics, much of yesterday's testimony could be interpreted as "sour grapes." But Azenberg said he hoped the meeting had established these points:
"In eight seasons, only 11 independent productions [without the Kennedy Center or Stevens involved as producers] were presented on subscription in the Eisenhower, which demonstrates the difficulty an independent producer has in bringing a production into the Eisenhower Theater on subscription."
"During eight seasons, no black or minority productions were presented in the Eisenhower Theater on subscription . . . [while] it appears that the National theatre [under Kennedy Center management] was used as the 'black productions house.'"
"The choice of subscription offerings appears to have been overwhelmingly influenced by a conservative, pro-British taste."
The subscription series -- which Azenberg described as "four weeks out of town with no risk" -- has been used as a lever to bring plays, especially British ones, to Broadway with the Kennedy Center or Stevens as producers.
Stevens responded that the subscription series is no guarantee of profits, citing "Semmelweis" and other subscription shows that lost money. But in any case, he asked rhetorically, "Are we supposed to be guaranteeing commerical producers their profits? Is that it?" Selecting subscription plays is a delicate business, he said. When a show has an unusual amount of profanity in it, for example, "we really catch it."
Stevens denied that he had ever tried to prod a playwright or producer into accepting Kennedy Center partnership as a condition for being booked here. The main reason so many shows end up with Stevens or the Center as co-producer, he said, is that the original producers come to the Center needing more money.
The minority question has been raised before, and Center officials have responded with a list of "black" shows produced there, including the musicals "treemonisha," "The Wiz" and "Timbukto" (all on subscription at the Opera House), and such straight plays as "The Blacks," "Owen's Song" and "The Mighty Gents." But Stevens said that some of the shows he has been criticized for not presenting were never offered to him.
Finally, he said he had never promised inclusion in the subscription series to a playwright whose work he hoped to produce.
Azenberg told yesterday's meeting about three productions he said he had tried unsuccessfully to book into the Kennedy Center: "Chapter Two" and "California Suite," both by Simon, and "For Colored Girls . . ." by Ntozake Shange. Azenberg said he also would have liked to put two current Broadway shows, "They're Playing Our Song" and "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" into the center, but had abandoned his efforts because "I don't think [Stevens] will listen."
Stevens said he does not remember being offered either "Chapter Two" or "For Colored Girls . . ."
"Has he got anything in writing that says we turned him down?" Stevens asked. And referring to "For Colored Girls . . ." he added, "I would have thought we'd have grabbed it," if it had been offered. The Center wanted to produce Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," he said, out Azenberg preferred the National Theatre because of its larger box-office potential.
Bernard Jacos, president of the Shubert organization, refused to describe his role at yesterday's meeting. But others said that Jacobs, while emphasizing his respect for Stevens, had talked about the problems of a commercial producer bidding for the right to produce a play against the head of an institution that had been built with federal assistance and could offer a guaranteed audience.
Expanding on the same theme, Azenberg said that Stevens could go to an English playwright like Tom Stoppard and promise him a five-week engagement at the Kennedy Center with minimum box office take of $60,000 a week, which would mean $6,000 a week for the author. Most cities with cultural centers have similar subscription plans, according to Azenberg, but he said there is greater access for independent producers elsewhere.
Producer Ashton Springer, who is black, said it was easier to get a "white show" into the Kennedy Center than a "black show." His own production of "Whoopee," a musical whose characters and subject matter were white, played on subscription at the Opera House and turned a small profit, he said. In contrast, said Springer, "Daddy Goodness," a black musical, was rejected by the Kennedy Center and went to the National instead, where he said it lost $200,000 and closed.
Leonard Solloway, co-producer of "The Shadow Box," complained that the Kennedy Center had rejected the play because, he says he was told, Stevens "didn't like it." "Whatever you think of a play that has won the Tony Award and the Pultizer Prize," Solloway argued, "it should be seen in your city. It really doesn't matter whether you like it or not."
Producer Alexander Cohen listed eight shows he said he had tried to book into the Kennedy Centr, including "I Remember Mama" with Liv Ullman and "Ulysses in Nighttown" with Zero Mostel.
Others who attended the meeting included playwright Paddy Chayevsky, David Levine of the Dramatists' Guild, Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Alan K. Simpson (D-Wyo.).