Several chefs prepare new drama menu for PBS

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After years of charges that PBS has ignored American drama in favor of
British imports, the tides are turning. This fall will bring a host of dramatic
works, from televised stage productions to cinematic interpretations of
literature to short new plays filmed in high-definition video. What ties
them together is their renewed focus on literature and theater that is distinctly
red, white and blue. Send a transatlantic wire: American drama is back.

Instead of entrusting the genre to a single production unit, as it did
with American Playhouse in 1982-94, PBS is now buying dramas from
several production units, each with its own approach.

ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theater’s American Collection is dramatizing
classic literature, and Kentucky ETV’s American Shorts will focus
on new works presented in the nation’s regional theaters. While WNET’s Stage
on Screen
will offer an array of plays from Broadway and beyond, KCET’s
PBS Hollywood Television will feature television movies filmed on
L.A. sound stages.

KET drama goes high-def

Famed American playwright Arthur Miller will kick off the season on Aug.
25, when KET presents “The Ryan Interview,” an adaptation of Miller’s newest
short play. The piece, commissioned by the Actors Theater of Louisville
four years ago, tells the story of a young big-city journalist (played by
Ashley Judd) assigned to interview Bob Ryan (Eddie Bracken) on the eve of
his 100th birthday. Instead of filming the play on stage, KET shot in high-definition
video on a local farm where producer Guy Mendes used to live.

“People may disagree with this, but realistic drama doesn’t work very well
. . . when it’s obviously a taped play,” said Ira Simmons, who adapted the
script for television. “Opera works, dance works, concerts work, but realistic
drama, it doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s because the audience has been
conditioned to a certain amount of cinematic realism over the years . .
. but that’s part of making it accessible; taking it off the stage and shooting
it on location.”

And accessibility is one of the main goals of American Shorts, which
will focus on televising new plays culled from the nation’s regional theaters.
With those scripts already in development by the theaters, KET can keep
costs low, Simmons said. KET has received a grant from the National Endowment
for the Arts and will use it to produce three dramas, with pieces by such
authors as Joyce Carol Oates, Tony Kushner and Lanford Wilson under consideration.

“With Broadway being dominated by musicals and becoming less of a place
for straight drama, it seems the regional theaters are taking up that slack,”
Mendes said.

By filming in high-definition, Simmons said he is convinced that not only
will the works be better appreciated for their aesthetics and attention
to detail, but will be saved for posterity.

“It can be said this is the first primetime drama series originated from
the grassroots, not from a New York or Los Angeles, and I don’t think that’s
happened before,” Simmons said. “I think it’s wonderful to have more drama
and I think there’s a lot of ways to get there.”

Bringing Broadway to the tube

WNET is taking a different route, and will premiere its season of Stage
on Screen
Oct. 7 with a live performance of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”
from Roundabout Theater Company. The classic Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman
comedy stars Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane and Jean Smart, best known for
her role on TV’s Designing Women.

Shooting the play on stage was a departure from producer Jac Venza’s usual
preference. Only in rare cases should television drama be filmed on stage
in front of an audience, Venza says, but it’s effective for a riotous comedy.
And by exposing the true nature of theater to the public, the actors said
they are hopeful they can attract a new crop of theatergoers.

“Somehow there’s still an attitude in this country, at least compared to
other countries, that theater is somehow an intellectual experience,” Smart
said at the recent TV critics press tour in Pasadena. “It’s like going to
the theater is like going to a college lecture or something–that it’s going
to be sort of high brow and hard to understand and kind of long and dull
and boring. It’s going to be ‘good for you.'”

Venza said he thinks the broadcast will create more interest in the play,
which is running as part of Roundabout’s subscription series. The run was
extended two weeks beyond the subscribed time so that WNET could choose
its camera positions and not cut into seats offered to Roundabout’s 46,000

Stage on Screen will continue its season with an adaptation of “Far
East,” by A.R. Gurney, which premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
and was produced off-Broadway by New York’s Lincoln Center Theater. Also
scheduled is “Twilight: Los Angeles,” a collection of stories about the
riots following the Rodney King trial by Anna Deavere Smith, commissioned
by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Venza said he is still in negotiations
about the rest of the season, which will feature selected dramatic programs
from WNET’s “Treasures from the Archives.”

Collecting American stories

ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre is concentrating on high-end film
productions, collaborating with ALT Films to produce dramatic films based
on American literature. The first in the American Collection sub-series
is based on a 10-page Langston Hughes story, “Cora Unashamed,” and will
air Oct. 25.

Fueled by a $15 million grant from CPB, the American Collection will
include Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart,” Willa Cather’s “The Song of the
Lark,” James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” and Esmerelda Santiago’s “Almost
a Woman,” all of which, along with “Cora,” will be produced by ALT Films.
Masterpiece Theatre will present Henry James’ “The American,” Tennessee
Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and “Mark and Livy,” a story based on the
life of Mark Twain and his wife Olivia. While the ALT Films productions
have been fully funded, WGBH’s projects are dependent on putting together
funding from various partners, including the BBC.

Picking works to recreate for television was a challenge, ALT Films producer
Marian Rees said, noting that the planners wanted them to reflect American
voices and to be “relevant, because we knew people’s attention span is limited
and they’re bombarded with options.” Rees chose not to do re-makes but instead
introduce audiences to works that might be unfamiliar.

“We didn’t want to do dead old white men–that’s turgid and boring,” Rees
said. “The one thing you don’t want to do is be boring. Reading is not boring.”

Entertainment is the goal, even though producers are working closely with
the National Council of Teachers of English to create lesson plans and scholastic
projects to coordinate with the films. A web site accompanying the series
offers suggestions for teachers and a “Literary Map” of America that solicits
schoolchildren for information about their regions’ literary histories.
But even with the educational focus, the producers are quick to point out
that presenting dramatic works in an engaging manner is the primary goal.

“To my mind the most important thing is that these make good drama,” said
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the series. “That’s the first step.”

;It also helps when Eaton goes to the U.K. to secure funding. Instead
of reacting to projects proposed by their British partners, Eaton’s group
is pitching and selling the stories to them. British television is filled
with American drama, and Eaton said it’s been difficult to convince them
to contribute towards the productions.

“What they respond to, as any of us do, is a really good story,” she said.
“If it will make good TV, they are inclined to do it.”

Sunset Boulevard

Mare Mazur has a first step of her own to take before November: find a
script. That’s when she heads into sound studios to begin shooting the first
of four 90-minute dramas set to be presented by KCET under the working title
PBS Hollywood Television.

Mazur, senior v.p. of programming and production at KCET, will co-executive
produce the first film with Bruce Paltrow. Although she’s not sure what
the series will shoot, Mazur says that the productions will bring back “a
genre of storytelling that isn’t currently on television but certainly is
one of the most fundamental forms of storytelling on television.”

All four films will be shot in Los Angeles sound-stages, and Mazur said
she is hoping to attract the area’s film and television stars to the projects.
Filmed, not taped, each project will have the “look” of television’s most
popular one-hour dramas, she said. The funding for the films, each budgeted
at $1.5 million, comes from PBS, CPB and some private foundations, and KCET
is looking to secure corporate underwriting.

KCET originally brought in Mazur as a consultant to revive dramatic production
in its Sunset Boulevard sound stages, and PBS Hollywood Television has
been her baby. She said that while she pitched a variety of projects to
the station, this one made the most sense because it capitalized on an area
lacking in commercial television and cable.

“The available resources in commercial television are so extraordinary
that I thought it was important to create a model where actors and directors
would have a safe harbor to do their work,” she said.

The other drama production executives echo Mazur’s enthusiasm. They talk
at length of the grand vision of bringing quality drama programming to PBS,
of the spirit of the projects, of the sense of history that will be attached
to the new crop of work. And Mazur notes that not only is drama imaginative
and fun, it is a niche that makes sense for public TV.

“I love this creatively, and business-wise I can hardly wait to do it,”
she says.

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