Mogul in Search of Good Scripts Promoter Roger Stevens Keeps Stream of New American Plays Coming

By Louise Sweeney, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 1990 | Go to article overview

Mogul in Search of Good Scripts Promoter Roger Stevens Keeps Stream of New American Plays Coming


Louise Sweeney, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 premiering 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. …

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