The Play’s The Thing (for audiences too)

Other than voting at the box office – or throwing popcorn at the movie screen – audiences don’t get much opportunity to respond, especially beforehand, to what is written for stage and screen. But this weekend and next at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, two new plays are receiving stage readings as part of the company’s “Plays In Progress” series, and the audience is an integral part of the process.

That’s especially so for playwright-turned-screenwriter Jonathan Feldman’s (“From the Earth to the Moon”) return to the legit world, “HiStory,” which deals with his recent employment in the historical epic genre via examining a filmmaker obsessing about the story of a man whose college roommate went on to become president. Current TV stars Robert Sean Leonard, Noah Wylie, James Pickens, Jr., Holland Taylor and Suzanne Cryer are featured in the play.

After an initial reading on July 15, audience members will be invited to share their opinions of the works before the revised piece is read again, on July 22.

The series also features July 17 and July 23 readings of the first fictional play from actor (and Montecito resident) Bradford Dillman, who counts a Golden Globe and three Emmy Awards among his accolades. “Entertaining Chazz,” set in Santa Cruz in 1938, tells a story of a family gathering in which secrets are revealed and lives are changed. RTC regulars Joseph Fuqua, Rudolph Willrich and others, are featured.

We spoke with Feldman via telephone from his Santa Monica office earlier this week.

Q. How did the project come about?

A. A long time ago, I used to be a playwright, before I turned my back on the whole thing to write for the movies sixteen years ago. But for the past five years, my friends have been beating up on me to write another play. I didn’t have an idea, and I thought that re-opening that door would be too painful. But they’re the kind who are hard to say “no” to. So I came up with something.

And that is?

Well, it’s about how history gets made and written, and then rewritten…. I think we all want to be part of some kind of history, whether it’s the global world-shaking event of our times, or just having a small impact while we’re here. I looked into how that human need manifests itself in life and how we approach the past. When you do research for historical epics you run up against people bringing their own personal viewpoint to the reporting rather than just the facts. We look to history to give us guidance about how to live our lives, but so often it’s just made up….That’s the joke of the play.

Sounds like it might be somewhat autobiographical.

It’s totally fictional, but I do wrestle with that in my work. Who do I believe and why am I the arbiter of that? Why should it be me? I say I’m just writing a movie. But films are very influential in the world. It hasn’t been a big problem because most of the movies haven’t gotten made yet. So I haven’t had much guilt.

Have you a history with the Rubicon?

None. One of the producers had worked with them and he suggested the Works-in-Progress series. They have a very impressive process, the only one in the country that I know of like it, including the Circle Rep in NYC, which is famous for developing plays, and where I got started. They have bent over backwards for me; all the rehearsals and performance have been scheduled for weekends so we could have cast I wanted, since they all work all week in TV.

How will the audience feedback shape the work?

We feel like the play is ready. But there is no way to know until you see it in front of an audience, to see if you’re right. So it will have a huge affect on what I do. I intend to use the process fully and make changes where needed to get it more in fighting shape. It’s an opportunity to experiment, which is a luxury in any art form these days, where judgment is final so quickly. We have nothing to lose.