MAKING A WORK OF ART Overmyer play studies the creative process


For Eric Overmyer, Center Stage has almost always been the right place at the right time.

Rarely has this been more true than now, when his latest play, "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," is receiving its world premiere in the new Head Theater.

"This is a play about how difficult and exhilarating it is to create a piece of work," director Stan Wojewodski Jr. says of the poetic script, which uses the collaborative ragtime composition of the title to examine the creative process.

The director's words might also be describing the newly created Head Theater -- a parallel the playwright welcomes readily. Debuting "Heliotrope" in Center Stage's innovative performing space "gives [the play] a wonderful resonance," he says. "It is like boxes within boxes."

Nor should it be overlooked that "Heliotrope" -- a play about an artistic collaboration -- is being produced at a theater which, over the years, has established a significant artistic partnership with Mr. Overmyer.

The 39-year-old playwright has been an associate artist at Center Stage since 1984. All but two of his seven plays have been staged here; three were world premieres, beginning in 1985 with "On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning," which went on to become the most widely produced play in American regional theaters the following season.

Mr. Overmyer, who has referred to Center Stage as his artistic home, feels an equal bond with the theater and artistic director Wojewodski. Now that the latter will become dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre in July, the playwright is unsure of what form any future collaboration will take, or in which setting.

In the case of "Heliotrope," Center Stage's collaboration with Mr. Overmyer has been recognized by grants from two foundations -- a $150,000 New American Plays grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation of Charlottesville, Va., as well as $50,000 from AT&T;, which has also given funds to California's La Jolla Playhouse, where the play will receive a second production in August.

This is a lot of attention paid to a fledgling work based on a relatively little-known piece of music. Even Mr. Overmyer admits he'd never heard of "The Heliotrope Bouquet" or Chauvin until a few years ago. That's when he was approached by a composer %% named Roger Trefousse, who was writing an opera and wanted him to do the libretto.

He did write the libretto, and as far as he knows Mr. Trefousse is still working on the opera. But, Mr. Overmyer says, "There were things he needed in the libretto that I found frustrating in terms of form, and I thought if I rewrote it I could explore a little further."

The result is the current play, which he describes as "a dream play . . . It's not documentary, but it's informed by fact." He's not reticent about the fact that he did "minimal research -- I read half a book real fast. I always do that. I don't like to be bogged down by too much fact. Fact is a springboard for the imagination."

Nor was he, as a Caucasian, hesitant to focus on an aspect of black culture. "I consider it part of my American culture and part of human culture. I wanted to make sure that I imagined it fully and respectfully," he explains. "I think any writer should be able -- to write about anything. You're just limited by your imagination and your empathy."

If anything, he says this particular play "feels very personal to me. The concerns that I put in the mouths of Joplin and Chauvin I'm sure are mine: What is art? Is it important? How do you live in the world as an artist? All those sorts of things."

Despite Mr. Overmyer's considerable success in regional theater, for the last six years he has supported himself primarily by writing for television; his credits include "St. Elsewhere," "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," "Slap Maxwell" and a new series, "Sisters," scheduled to premiere on NBC this spring. "Now I can make a living," he says. "Even with all the productions of 'On the Verge,' I could have supported myself for a year . . . but that's all."

Writing for TV differs from writing for the stage "in every way except it has to be speakable and actable," he explains. "The most important way is TV is work for hire, and there are definitely givens that you have to work within -- time frame, permanent characters, budgets, all kinds of political concerns."

Nonetheless, Mr. Overmyer admits he has had some enjoyable television experiences, particularly with "Molly Dodd." "It was suited to me -- open-ended and character-driven rather than plot-driven, and you could do quirky, strange things," he says.

He currently has a development deal with 20th Century-Fox to create his own television show. The result, he hopes, will "be closer to my own playwriting" -- a style that is not only language-oriented, but inherently theatrical.

He's also started a new play, although the work is so preliminary he says, "I don't know what it's about yet."

Mr. Overmyer prefers the old-fashioned tools of a pad of paper or a typewriter for the actual writing process. "I had a word processor for a while, but I've regressed," he kids. "When I'm working I try to write every day, but I take periods where I don't write; I sort of stew. I like to write in the morning best of all. I kind of fade away after 5 o'clock."

Born in Colorado and raised in Seattle, he began writing poems )) and stories as a child; he didn't try playwriting until he was a student at Reed College in Oregon. Of all of his plays, Mr. Overmyer says "Heliotrope" is probably the closest to poetry. "It's a little like a piece of music."

"Heliotrope" was still in rehearsals at Center Stage when Mr. Overmyer began work on his new play. He admits it's unusual for him to plunge in again so soon, but atypically, he found himself doing relatively little rewriting during the rehearsal process.

One reason he may have felt so secure is that he's pleased with Center Stage's "very beautiful, visually very stunning" production.

In addition, Mr. Overmyer explains, "partly because ['Heliotrope'] so close to being a poem, it just feels finished to me. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, it just feels it's found its final form."


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