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SUNSHINE MUSE Creating the California Playwright William Kleb Not long ago, a rumor electrified the California theatre community. Oddly, since I live in San Francisco and the rumor concerned that city, I heard it first, by chance, sitting in a theatre in Los Angeles. The man next to me, a young director I know only by sight, told it to an actress in the row ahead of us as we waited for the play to begin: Francis Ford Coppola, whose film empire is based in San Francisco, was buying up twenty theatres in the North Beach area and planned to convert them all to "legitimate" uses; thinking big, as always, Coppola intended to transform San Francisco into a theatre capitol second only to New York. The director was extremely excited as he had been chosen, apparently, to direct one of the first Coppola-sponsored productions; the actress was ready to get on the next 707 north. Then "Coppola's scheme" was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. Everything was to be on the highest professional level, we were told. His various companies would be composed of "the best actors that can be obtained," many from the huge, often unemployed pool attracted to the Coast by film and television. Local successes would be moved directly into New York to a Coppola-owned Broadway house. "It has the potential," an associate was quoted as saying, "of revolutionizing the American theatre scene." Californians feed on fantasy, of course; it's our last, and seemingly endless, frontier. But the vision of a theatrical gold rush anywhere on the mediafixated Coast, even San Francisco, would have seemed, five years ago, a totally uninflatable fancy. Now here it was, validated in newsprint and happily 60 aloft in the minds of many. In fact, whatever the outcome, Coppola's scheme seems merely a particularly vivid example of the boom psychology operating currently throughout California theatre circles. Naturally, there are cynics and they can point out many reasons for skepticism, but generally the ground for live theatre on the Coast has never seemed so fertile, the future never so bright. Many sunny statistics are available. Perhaps the most illustrative have to do simply with the amount of activity going on. For instance, in its weekly "Datebook," the San Francisco Chronicle recently listed 53 productions above the "community center" level (from full equity operations to "alternative" groups), over three times the number listed ten years ago; that same week, the Los Angeles Times listed 64, nearly a 400 per cent increase over 1969. An important aspect of this development has been a steadily growing interest in new plays and playwrights, especially on the part of the "noncommercial " theatres which are responsible for so much of this phenomenal expansion. Julius Novick points out [PAJ 11] that during the sixties regional theatres concentrated for the most part on providing revivals of classics orjn productions of proven contemporary works from New York or abroad. These still account for much of what is offered here, but gradually, over the past decade, another role has emerged- that of, in Novick's words, "incubator of new plays." There are several, obviously interrelated, reasons for this. Some are financial, pragmatic; others seem to be psychological, a matter of taste. On the financial side while live theatre will probably never be called a "secure investment," here or anywhere, many California theatres now seem to have a more stable fiscal foothold than ever before. A number have been able, at last, to build up reasonably faithful subscription audiences, and thus they seem more willing to take programming risks with new work. Further, this willingness can itself be an important source of financial support; many noncommercial theatres depend heavily on grants from foundations and government agencies and these groups often specifically encourage the development and production of new plays. Also, a loose, informal, nationwide network of such theatres has formed so that now there is a kind of "circuit" for new plays outside the commercial mainstream; prestige and visibility gained on this circuit lead to further agency and foundation support. In addition, several regional theatres (certain important Califormia organizations among them) seem on the verge of transforming themselves into...


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