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  November 20, 2000

Directors, Playwright Work Together to Shape New Production

Six months ago, when playwright Bob Duxbury read aloud the first few scenes of his new play, Robert McDonald was awestruck.

"I knew immediately that I had to direct the play," says McDonald, a professor of dramatic arts.

Today, McDonald is directing Looking Toward Half Dome, an Off-Off-Broad way equity showcase production in New York that premiered on Nov. 5.

Looking Toward Half Dome, a contemporary play set in California, revolves around art, failed relationships and the problems of the wealthy. McDonald's work on the play is part of a sabbatical leave project.

McDonald met Duxbury, who teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College in California, at a month-long workshop for actors and directors in Great Barrington, Mass.

When Duxbury began reading sections of his new play, McDonald wanted to hear more:

"I was struck by the play's humor, it's lively characters and situations and its crisp dialogue," he says.

Playwrights send out many scripts to producers, but they often go nowhere. If a director likes it, it has a better chance of being produced, McDonald says. "A good play needs one key ingredient: a director who is excited by it, committed to it and wants to do it."

McDonald didn't waste a minute. He called a former student, Nancy Walsh, one of the producers and the main actor of a small New York theater group, The Present Co.

"I told her I was excited about the play and that I thought there was a very good role for her in it," McDonald says. Walsh and her husband John Clancy, co-founder and co-producer of The Present Co., were also impressed by the work and decided it should be performed.

The two lead actors, Walsh and Rik Walter, are UConn graduates, as are costume designer, Jayde Chabot and scenic designer, Tony Andrea. "This was a wonderful way to bring together the talents of UConn alums who are living in New York - to do a play that I think is a winner," McDonald says.

Several months were spent "working, reworking, molding and shaping" the play with Duxbury, an opportunity that is unusual for a director, McDonald says. "The most exciting thing about the project was to work with a playwright that closely," he says. "To be able to tell him, 'we need to cut three pages out of this scene, it's just not working,' or 'this character is not clear, the actors are confused, why is she doing this or saying that.' Little things playwrights sometimes miss when they are tucked away writing in their rooms.

"There is no measuring stick better than live performance to tell a writer whether his material is working or not," McDonald adds. "And when a scene works beautifully after some reworking and reshaping, our work is confirmed."

McDonald also went to San Francisco for five days, spending most of the time with Duxbury "at the kitchen table going over and over the script. He also took me to the condo in which the story is based, and we walked around inside taking photographs. I then worked with my set designer to capture the feeling of the California condo right on the stage," McDonald says.

Duxbury is delighted with the results of McDonald's work. "The play was like a blunt pencil and Bob sharpened it," he says. "I think he's a very talented director. The acting is wonderful and it was very, very pleasing to see a production of that quality."

Looking Toward Half Dome is produced by Matching Productions, a company formed by McDonald and Duxbury, in association with The Present Co.

The show is at the Present Company Theatorium on Stanton Street. Running through Nov. 26, performances are on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinee performances Nov. 19 and 26 at 3 p.m. For information call (212) 420-8877.

Sherry Fisher