Mogul in Search of Good Scripts

Promoter Roger Stevens keeps stream of new American plays coming

ROGER STEVENS, perched on a tall gray stool in his office, looks down on his audience of one like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's beloved play ``Our Town.'' This founding chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is allegedly retired, but he's producing several plays with partner Robert Whitehead on Broadway within the next six months. And as chairman of the Fund for New American Plays, he's also the Daddy Warbucks of fresh new scripts and productions for regional theaters in the United States.

Today, in that role, he picks up his latest glittering prize: the Drama Desk Award for the Fund for New American Plays at a luncheon in his honor. The award, to be given at the New York Public Library's Fifth Avenue branch, is for ``continuing support of American playwrights and theaters.''

Mr. Stevens has always had an office at Kennedy Center in which tall piles of scripts on tables swayed like the Empire State Building, which he once owned. Hundreds of scripts spill out of brown cardboard boxes which march from his desk across the teal-blue rug and advance toward the door. Altogether, 660 have been submitted as the heart of the Fund for New American Playwrights - a joint project of Kennedy Center and the American Express Company in cooperation with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The fund is a theatrical treasure chest for dozens of new productions across the US. A stipend of $10,000 goes to each winning playwright. Now in its fourth season, the fund has awarded $1,213,050 to produce 29 plays in 26 regional theaters, from Playwrights Horizons in New York City to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Today, grants will be announced totalling $492,500 for nine plays premi`ering in eight regional theaters during the 1990-91 season. [See box at right].

The fund's most famous graduate is Wendy Wasserstein, whose play ``The Heidi Chronicles'' won the 1988-89 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

It all started in 1985 when Stevens, a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, was chatting with its chairman, Andrew Heiskell.

``I told him [new American plays] have no place, apparently, among you people, and he said, `Roger, you're right. We've been very neglectful. ... Why don't you draw up a plan?' So there I was.'' He laughs. ``And I put together a plan, and it's worked out very well.''

He explains the fund in his own concise style: ``We're trying to help productions by making funds available to authors, to playwrights, to directors, and last but not least, to actors. ...

``What you don't want to do is have a lot of money spent on sets and costumes, which of course, wiseacres think, that's what they [theaters] want. They can build sets and costumes for a lot less money, for at least a quarter of the cost. Why should we give them money for that?''

The subject of ``Shogun, The Musical,'' now playing at Kennedy Center with its lavish costumes, sets, special effects, and $8 million to $10 million price tag comes up. Stevens says he has not seen it yet.

```Shogun'? That's not what we're looking for [with the fund]. We're looking for talent, and good stories, which is the same thing, really.''

He gestures toward all the scripts around him. ``I read all the plays.'' He admits he doesn't do it Hollywood-mogul style, skimming a one-page script treatment prepared for him.

``No. I don't believe in that. I believe in reading plays. It takes about two months. It doesn't bother me any, because I like to read plays, and most people don't. There will soon come a time when I have no room here,'' he says, looking around the room decorated with posters from some of the more than 250 shows he's produced or co-produced, including ``Annie,'' ``A Man for All Seasons,'' ``Bus Stop,'' ``West Side Story,'' and Harold Pinter's ``The Homecoming.''

Stevens has always been out there like a gold prospector, panning for good scripts for good plays. He's encouraged struggling young writers for years, subsidizing the early Pinter with a grant and helping then Harvard undergraduate Arthur Kopit, until he and they hit pay dirt. He knows that scripts are the mother's milk of the American theater.

Silver-haired, elegant, and soft-spoken, Stevens has used the Fund for New American Plays to continue what he has been doing most of his life. Among the critically applauded plays that have emerged from the fund are: ``New Music,'' part of a trilogy by Reynolds Price that includes ``August Snow'' and ``Better Days''; Dennis McIntyre's ``Established Price,'' and ``Incommunicado,'' Tom Dulack's play about Ezra Pound.

Stevens, modest to a fault, says, ``We have a jury ... that reads 22 or 23 plays and votes on them. I've found that nobody agrees with me on any of these plays, so I just keep quiet and let them make the choices.''

Stevens has a pretty good track record for choosing winners. ``I don't see anything wrong with winners,'' he says, chuckling. ``I don't do plays to lose.'' Then he ticks off several others he and his partner Mr. Whitehead are producing on Broadway: ``Whispers in the Mind,'' by Norman Cousins, and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (who wrote ``Inherit the Wind''); ``Nightingales,'' by Elizabeth Diggs; ``Shadowlands'' coming in from London, starring Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne; and Israel Horovitz's ``Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.''

The day we talked, Stevens had just come from lunch at the White House (artichokes, veal, etc.) for this year's presentation of the National Medal of the Arts. (He had picked up his own medal there three years ago for his contribution.)

When asked about the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its restrictive pledges for grantees, Stevens said, ``Here at the center, we took the position that we were not interested in controversy. We did good plays on stage and let the chips fall where they might. And all the time I was here, we never had any trouble.

``That's not to say some people haven't brow-beaten us and all that kind of stuff. We just stayed away from it all. I've done all kinds of crazy things [in the theater], and nobody seems to [object]. It's just gotten too hot [for the NEA], and [Sen. Jesse Helms] got into it.''

Of the controversy in this election year, Stevens says, ``That'll die away....''

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