IN THE summer of 1977, when Deborah Dixon was 23, she breezed into the O'Neill Conference in Connecticut, right before the curtain of a new play, walked up to the gray-suited producer, and said, "Hello. Would you believe I'm Roger Stevens?"
The producer -- who had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of some power from the theater world -- took one look and shot back, "Like hell you are."
But Dixon's joke was not far from the truth. At 26, she serves as the eyes and ears of Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center and one of the most successful producers in America.
That doesn't mean that Dixon decides for Stevens, 70, what plays he should produce or bring to the Kennedy Center. "I don't trust anyone's opinion buy my own," says Stevens bluntly. But it does mean that Dixon sees them all first.
She is a professional play scout. In the three years that she has had the job, she has seen perhaps 250 plays around the contry and read at least that many more. She spends three-fourths of her working time in theaters -- much of that out of town. In the summer, she travels cnstantly, from the Northeast to West Virginia and beyond, sampling the "straw hat" or summer-stock offerings. In the fall, she sees the season's new plays. She hits New York, California, Chicago, Dallas, Louisville. Her job and hours are not defined. "There have been times when I've gone into Mr. Stevens' office and two hours later I was on a plane to Chicago," Dixon says. She has become, she says ruefully, quite good at the airport goodbye to friends.
And everywhere she is sought out by current and would-be playwrights, hoping that she can breathe life into their careers by reading their scripts. "I'm convinced every Joe Schmo has a finished script in the closet and three operettas in the works," she says. She has been accosted by a saleswoman at Macy's in New York who said "I have a script in the back room. Wait a minute." Others find her at lunch in Kennedy Center restaurants. "It's getting dangerous," she says, laughing.
But she says she reads them all. "Sometimes I think, 'God, why me?', but I read them all. Cover to cover."
When she goes into some theaters, the managers watch her nervously for her reaction. She prefers to go unannounced. And if seen, she remains stone-faced, never giving them a hint.
Those who know her are the ones whose plays she has found, the ones who consider her -- of course -- a true judge of good taste. "Well, I am biased," said playwright John Pielmeier. Dixon got to know Pielmeier at the O'Neill Conference last summer. He handed her a script for "Mortal Coils," she read it and later produced it during the short-lived playreading series which she produced at the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab last fall. (A dispute between Actors Equity and the Kennedy Center "indefinitely postponed" the series a couple of months ago. Equity wanted only union actors hired, but Dixon refused to go along with that restriction.)
Those whose plays she doesn't like never know that she might have influenced Stevens' opinion. "Many of those people are Mr. Stevens' own friends. I don't go up to a producer and say, 'No, sir, I'm not going to give your play a favorable review.' You change a person's life in a minute." That, she says, is the responsibility of Stevens, "the ultimate screen." Dixon considers her intermediary role a luxury. "I don't have to be an assassin," she said.
She keeps a low profile, and many in Washington's theater community have never met her or talked extensively with her. But they know she exists. Other theaters have scouts, and Stevens in the past has had others who actively saw plays for him. But Dixon appears to be unique in the Kennedy Center shop -- especially in her access to Stevens.
Getting the ear of the Kennedy Center head is not easy. And if there is some resentment of Dixon in the Center's hierarchy, it is easy to understand why. She talks with Stevens every day, and she answers only to him. When she tires of her cozy office on the roof floor of the Center, she goes downstairs to Stevens' office, retires to a chair and reads scripts -- while he continues with the business of the day.
"I see him as a mentor," she says. (Once, when he saw her chewing gum at a backers audition, "He said, 'Deborah, don't you ever chew gum when you're with me,'")"He's someone to emulate. I hope to be as good as Mr stevens. He's the best."
Sometimes, she says, Stevens will hand her a script he's already decided on -- "that he even has money in. And I'll say, 'I don't think it will work.' And he'll say, 'You're wrong.'
"That's a real education -- to go in and see that it did work."
One example: When Stevens handed Dixon the draft script of Tennesse Williams's "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," she read it and didn't think it would work. "But I thought to myself, my God -- who am I to comment on this man, who's written classics?" She told Stevens so. "It was very successful at the Kennedy Center," says Dixon. "I went back several times to see the audience reaction. They laughed at lines I had read and didn't think were funny. I went back to Mr. Stevens, and said, 'For my education, do you know why this is doing so well?' He said, 'No, I don't have an answer.'"
She looks older than her 26 years, a little tired. "The first summer I did this, older people would look at me and say, 'You're going to judge my play?'" she remembers. "They don't do that to me anymore. And if they do, I just look them straight in the eye." She smiles ever so slightly and cocks her head a bit, keeping her glance straight nd piercing. "You have to understand," she says, growing serious, "I was born 50 years old."
She grew up on a farm in Valrico, Florida, spending much of her teens training prize-winning horses. She once wanted to be a movie star. "I became a very good beginner, mediocre actress -- I decided I didn't want to be a mediocre anything."
She attended three college -- Unversity of South Florida, Penn State, American University -- and has difficulty remembering which years were spent where. She ran in academic gamut (from foreign languages to speech therapy) managing t do some acting and set designing in there as well. She worked at the American Folklife Festival in the summer of 1976, and fell "madly in love" with Washington. She later interned at Wolfe Trap and worked at Arena Stage for brief stints while still in school.
She had met Stevens once, when she was in college (perhaps it was the second one). She was a student delegate to a scene-design competition in Prague, Czechloslovakia. A British theater company had won. Later, when Dixon was in Washington for a theater convention, she walked into the Kennedy Center to recommend that the Center show the exhibition. Stevens, with whom she talked briefly, agreed. (The set design, packed improperly, was ruined en route here from Europe).
A year later, while a student at American University, she ran into Stevens at a cocktail party for the American College Theater Festival. She reintroduced herself, and thanked him for his interest in the exhibit. They began talking about the problems of being a producer. "He asked me if I was interested in a job."
The next week he gave her a stack of scripts. "He said, 'Tell me if they're produceable.'" It was a test. She passed. The day of American University's Graduation -- where she was to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree -- she skipped graduation, Stevens rented her a car, and she drove off to scout summer stock.
Some in the theater world feel that Dixon is too young, too inexperienced, for her job. Stevens dismisses such criticism: "If she was 15 years old, it wouldn't matter," he says. "I don't see what difference age or experience makes. I think her opinions are pretty good. That's why I've been using her."
And she knows it. "When I took this job," said Dixon, "I thought if he doesn't want my gut reaction, then I'm not good to him or me. I figured he had enough 'yes' people around him who quake in their shoes when they walk into his office."
So Dixon gives it to him straight -- in person or in hndwritten multiple page memos. Both Dixon and Stevens point out that he gets information from a lot of sources on the feasibility of plays. But she may be too modest when she says "I hope I'm a contributing factor."
On a 10-day play "blitz" of New York City, Dixon saw about 20 plays and came back glowing about Tina Howe's "Museum." "I told him it was a charmer," Dixon says. Stevens flew up to New York to see the play. When he returned, he asked Dixon to find the playwright and set up a meeting. Howe's "Art of Dining" was later performed at the Kennedy Center. And Stevens says he still would like to do "Museum."
At other times she is sent to check out plays which are in rehearsal or which just opened at the Center theaters. Sometimes her reports back read "This play is in serious trouble." A few times she has suggested that Stevens close a run altogether. "If I'm really upset about a play he'll usually go and see what's upsetting me," she says. He has been known to close shows which she told him were losers, but Dixon quickly adds, "A play speaks for itself. If it only gets 50 people a night, it's pretty obvious something is wrong."
She adores Stevens, and frequently says as much. The two of them appear mutually amused by each other. When she yells at him -- as she says she occasionally does -- he pulls back in mock horror, as though witnessing a monster he himself has created.
After Stevens' heart attack in San Franscisco last year, she was one of few people from the Kennedy Center allowed to visit him. She spent three days there. "I was part of the theater, which he loves," said Dixon. "There was concern that people would go out there and bring him bad news that might finish him off or something. I brought him good news of the theater and scripts to read."
She's had other offers to work for other producers, but she waves them off. Right now, she wants to work with no one else. "Mr. Stevens is the first major genius that I've known."
She wants to be a producer, something she admits in a lowered voice, with a little smile -- a secret ambition she perhaps would rather savor only in her mind for a while.
Meanwhile, her salary is not high -- somewhere between $11,000 and $14,000, she says. "My parents think I'm nuts. But I'm working to learn. I'm not concerned about making money this year or the next. If my instincts and feelings about the theater -- my artistic taste -- are good, I will eventually make the money I think I should make. I'm banking on me."