Two Authors Venture Into Alien Land of Theater

(New York Times, Friday, February 8, 1985).

by Samuel G. Freedman

When a novelist decides to work in theater, he journeys into an alien land. Authors usually write alone and reach their audience indirectly, through the printed page. Theater is perhaps the most social of the arts, a collaboration between playwright, director, actors and designers that often resembles nothing so much as group therapy.

But writers such as Michael Frayn, Isaac Bashevis Singer and A.R. Gurney Jr. have successfully migrated between page and stage, and this weekend two more acclaimed authors are making that transition. "City Boy," a play adapted from the short stories of Leonard Michaels, is playing at the Jewish Repertory Theater. And "The Crate," a collection of sketches by Shel Silverstein, the poet-novelist-cartoonist-songwriter, is in previews at the Ensemble Studio Theater.

"All my work has been done alone," Mr. Silverstein said in a recent interview. "You draw alone. You write alone. But theater is a collaborative art and it takes a different personality. You must relate to other people. You get the joys you get from being in a relationship, and also the pain. It's like asking, 'Is it better to live with someone or to live alone?' The answer is that it's just different."

Mr. Silverstein--while best known for his cartoons in The New Yorker and Playboy magazines and for "A Light in the Attic," his best-selling book of poems and drawings for children--is not entirely new to theater. He has worked with Art Wolff, the director of "The Crate," on "The Lady or the Tiger," and "Remember Crazy Zelda" at the Ensemble Studio Theater.

[continues with a description of Leonard Michaels' "City Boy"]

Mr. Silverstein's "Crate" began last year as a few unrelated monologues and skits. The Ensemble Studio Theater gave Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Wolff three days of rehearsal and two days of performance for the monologues as part of its October 1984 festival of plays in progress.

To keep costs low, the theater provided no props for the festival, and Sam Hochman, a friend of Mr. Silverstein, lugged a crate in from the street to serve in one scene. Thus struck inspiration. Mr. Silverstein began writing scenes using the crate--as lectern, boat, coffin, throne and jack-in-the-box, among other things. "It was a game for myself," Mr. Silverstein said. "The idea of limitation pushed me on. If someone had said I could have any facilities--we'll build you anything--I can't think what I would've wanted. I don't want to show the sinking of the Lusitania. But I liked the idea of using a box and making something good out of it."

The fact that Mr. Silverstein writes plays at all is in some ways a testament to the Ensemble Studio Theater. He certainly had a complete career without becoming a playwright, and he is an intensely shy man, as well. He first came to the theater only at the urging of his writer friend Herb Gardner. to whom he had spouted ideas for plays.

"Herb said, 'You've got to stop telling me the ideas because you're not writing them,'" Mr. Silverstein recalled. "I realized I had to shut up and start writing. You can't keep saying you're moving to the country--and not do it. After a while, your friends stop throwing you going-away parties."