THE DAWN of '82 calls for imaginative booking. According to Variety, only 20 productions are now touring, and several of these are duplicates -- three companies of "Annie" and two of "Evita," "A Chorus Line" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." (Eleven of these 15 different works -- 13 of them musicals -- have already played Washington.)
One reason productions are doing less touring is Equity's addition of per diem fees for traveling productions. (Other unions charge the same.) Considering the cost of hotels and restaurants, this is a wholly defensible add-on, but it pushes weekly checks up past budgetary limits. That's why, when chorus spots open up in touring musicals, they're not always filled.
The cutback of touring productions means scores of theaters across the land often are dark. Alert ones are doing their own bookings. Hope Quackenbush, who manages Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theater, worked out a deal with Florida theaters to refloat Eva Le Gallienne's admired performance in "To Grandmother's House We Go." After two New York seasons, "Mornings at 7" collapsed at the start of its national tour in Boston but now has revived for a couple of cities. Elizabeth Wilson, Teresa Wright and Maureen O'Sullivan resume their original roles along with newcomers Kate Reid and Russell Nype for the company bound for Washington's National Theatre.
Another scheme to ease the drought comes from producer Zev Bufman and his star of "The Little Foxes," Elizabeth Taylor. Since its Kennedy Center run, this has played New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, grossing more than $10 million with a six-month London run still to come. Now they plan to link up as co-producers for three annual offerings, using powerhouse names to run 10 weeks in Los Angeles and New York and four in Washington. It's a big dream, dreamed before.
The Kennedy Center has launched its new self-propelled series at the Eisenhower with "The Physicists," following Arena Stage into the area of LORT (League of Regional Theaters) contracts. The drawback of the plan thus far, a couple of players confide, is that no one has been signed for more than one play. "What it boils down to," one observes, "is that we're just getting less money. This is not a continuing company. Each play is being cast separately. At Arena and, say, the Guthrie, you're usually signed for a couple. This Eisenhower engagement means maybe two months of work and at lower wages." (CBS is co-sponsoring the Kennedy Center series, but it's indicative that the classiest play -- Zoe Caldwell and Judith Anderson in "Medea" -- lacks CBS sponsorship.)
Elsewhere, too, theaters are awash on a do-it-youself tide.
These holiday weeks, for instance, have seen 23 productions in 16 states of "A Christmas Carol," which is becoming for regional theater what "The Nutcracker" is to ballet companies. With Emlyn Williams and others continuing in one-man offerings, and with the amazing "Nicholas Nickleby" on Broadway, last year turned into something of a Charles Dickens phenomenon. It is worth noting, in these times of fiscal difficulty, that no royalties need be paid on Dickens.
There are, to be sure, "fresh creations," with degrees of royalties, on "A Christmas Carol." Ford's, recently seen on Channel 26, is credited to Rae Allen and Timothy Near, who introduced it in New England a few years back. Baltimore's Mechanic and Wilmington's Playhouse saw a new version by Sheldon Harnick to a score by Michel Legrand titled "Penny by Penny," starring Richard Kiley. The Mark Taper Forum, which usually goes for more intellectual fare, has its own Doris Baizley version and Boston's Charles Playhouse has one by Israel ("The Indian Wants the Bronx") Horovitz. In Norfolk the Virginia Stage company uses one created by Barbara Field for the Minneapolis Guthrie, where it's now in its seventh Christmas.
"A Christmas Carol" royalties, or lack of them, spotlight a current drive by producers to hold back playwrights' royalties (10 percent of the gross) until costs are paid. Some back up their cause by citing the gloomy financial picture of "Woman of the Year," which, tryouts included, has been playing for 10 months. This originally was budgeted at $2 million, but it's now more than $2 million in debt, despite occasional winning weeks with more than $300,000 grosses.
The catch is that the producers (it took six firms to create this muddle) made some staggeringly dumb deals. Royalties go not only to book writer Peter Stone, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, but also to three designers, the director, the choreographer and the producers themselves, totaling about 20 percent of the weekly gross. Add Lauren Bacall's percentage as star (10 percent of the gross plus limousine and chauffeur, or $2,300 per week) and that about eats up the take. The true irony: Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the film 40 years ago, don't get a cent.
The Dramatists' Guild, not unexpectedly, is fighting any change. Where would all these people be without the playwrights' imaginations and labors? Aside from small option fees, playwrights may work for years without any income at all until everyone else also gets theirs during opening week.
The playwrights' importance is underscored by anxious searches for new works, the raison d'e tre for Washington's New Playwrights' Theater and integral to every Arena season.
Kentucky's Actors Theater of Louisville, headed by Jon Jory, has a phenomenal record in this area. Its Festival of New American Plays over the past six years produced two Pulitzer winners, D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game" and Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," and such effective works as Marsha Norman's "Getting Out" and James McLure's "Lone Star." National agents and critics can be counted on to arrive for the Feb. 24-April 4 period when, on some weekends, it's possible to see 23 new works within three days. Rugged, but rewarding.
Texas has a like venture, the Dallas Theater Center's "Play Fest." The Paul Baker company, which uncovered Preston Jones, this year has joined Actors' Equity. Question: Will it now be possible for some future Jones to work in the box office during acting assignments? That's how he wrote "A Texas Trilogy." Equity rules diverge philosophically from the long-established Dallas pattern, where all have shared the varied jobs and crafts with acting assignments. Equity frowns on this.
Louisville also sponsors an annual playwriting contest, with a heady prize of $5,000 for a full-length play. Deadline for this is April 15.
Headiest of such national affairs is the National Repertory Theater Foundation's search for new scripts under the chairmanship of John Houseman and based in Los Angeles. More than 800 scripts have been submitted. The winner will get $8,000.
The American College Theater Festival will be held as usual this spring at the Kennedy Center, but with a new slant. In place of what originally were a dozen productions from all areas of the country, there will be only four or five. These will be chosen during the next two months from taped performances made during the regional festivals. This is expected to prove far less expensive than having touring judges all over the land. Part of the reason is said to be the Reagan administration budget cuts, but the fact is that private funding has been drying up.
For all the inanities, there's substantial theatrical activity around the land. The dawn of the '80s isn't entirely dark.