Eric Overmyer’s relationship with Baltimore’s Center Stage began with just the kind of trouble playwrights dream about: “After they’d done a reading of my play Native Speech down there,” he explains with a laugh, “I got a letter from Peter Culman, their managing director, saying ‘We’re all very upset here, because we’d really like to do your play but we don’t know how to do it, given the cast size and our subscribers and that sort of thing.’ Well, that was very flattering, so l sent them another play—On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning. They gave that a staged reading, too. Then, out of the blue, things started happening.”
The “things” included a commission for a completely new play; being made an artistic associate of the theatre; and commitments to produce both Native Speech and On the Verge. That was more than a year ago, and, says Overmyer, “It quite revolutionized my life.”
The playwright’s subject matter is wide-ranging, his use of language dense and ambitious. And he has been known to populate his plays with large, multi-ethnic casts. Native Speech (which recently created what the playwright terms “a stir” when it was produced at Theatre #1, a small company in Dallas) concerns an underground disc jockey known as Hungry Mother, and the pushers, pimps and derelicts within earshot of his incessant rapping. On the Verge presents three intrepid Victorian women traveling through time into the Eisenhower era. Clearly, Overmyer has paid no heed to the notion that small-cast, realistic plays have the best shot in an economically constrained field.
And yet that stubbornness has paid off in the unstinting support of Center Stage. Since Culman’s initial dilemma over how to produce Native Speech, the theatre has added a second season to its schedule, known as Playwrights 85. Native Speech will be produced in that series next month, under the direction of Paul Berman. On Jan. 4, On the Verge opens as part of the mainstage series, directed by Jackson Phippin. Phippin, Center Stage’s associate artistic director, has been working with Overmyer on the latter play for over a year—through readings, rewrites, and a three-week in-house workshop. Yet a third play has been commissioned, possibly for next season, which is, in Overmyer’s words, “still too inchoate to discuss.”
On the subject of new play development—a rather controversial topic in the playwriting community of late—Overmyer offers a surprising point of view. “I’m the leading skeptic when it comes to development,” he states flatly. “I have very little belief in the development system. Doing rewrites on a script based on readings can be very misleading—in fact, I can’t bear readings. You just do them because you have to have your play heard, create interest in it. Another problem is that readings are often granted to playwrights in lieu of productions for sheerly economic reasons. And plays are rewritten to a common denominator on the basis of readings—they become less original. Lately, readings have become a mania in the New York theatre, and I think it’s very destructive.”
If this sounds like a direct contradiction in light of the process Overmyer has gone through at Center Stage, he’s quick to point out that it isn’t. “I’m in a very different situation at Center Stage,” he notes, leaning in for emphasis. “They respect my work and they’re very aware of the pitfalls of the development process. The readings, and especially the three-week workshops—which are like a full production without the production—are useful because Stan and Jack are sensitive to the ways in which the development process can ruin a play. I do my rewriting in conjunction with a director that I trust–not from hearing the play read, but on my own, with some input from trusted colleagues. Center Stage was committed to the plays before the readings; the readings weren’t auditions.”
So Center Stage has gained a distinctive new voice, and Overmyer has gained a venue for what every playwright wants—productions. He says simply, “They saved my life, I think.”
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