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A new cheatsheet for theater buffs

April 28, 2010 | 11:29 am

Inanhour So, you have a term paper on Euripides due tomorrow and you haven't even cracked "Medea," "The Trojan Women" or any other of the ancient Greek writer's tragedies.

Or you're an actor who has an audition this week for a Tom Stoppard play and you don't have time -- between your other auditions and your gig waiting tables -- to brush up on the British scribe's biography.

What do you do? You could panic. You could plunge into the dubious depths of Wikipedia, which has the advantage of being free but poses obvious problems of reliability. 

Is there a more trustworthy source that can offer a quick fix of theatrical knowledge? The publishing house Smith & Kraus perhaps has the answer. It has recently launched a series titled "Playwrights in an Hour" that consists of 27 slim volumes dedicated to different dramatists. The series -- a kind of Red Bull for theater buffs -- covers Western writers from Shakespeare and Moliere to August Wilson and Theresa Rebeck.

Authored by a diverse group of academics and theater professionals, "Playwrights in an Hour" is intended to offer readers a "a brief, highly focused accounting of the playwright's life and work," writes the late UCLA drama professor Carl Mueller, who penned some of the volumes.

Each book contains a 30- to 40-page essay covering the highlights of the playwright's life and situating his or her works in a biographical context. The essay is followed by excerpts from notable plays in the writer's body of work. 

The volume dedicated to Rebeck, for example, traces the playwright's life from her childhood in Ohio to her association with the feminist movement to her successful stage and screen career. The essay is followed by excerpts from five plays, including two scenes from "The Scene." 

Other living playwrights included in the series are Stoppard, Sam Shepard, Alan Ayckbourn and Sarah Ruhl.

Marisa Smith, one of the publishers, said that her team picked the most studied and produced playwrights of all time.

"Our belief was that if people knew about the playwright before going to the theater, then their experience at the theater would be more profound," Smith said in an interview.

She added that the series is aimed at theatergoers of all levels of experience. "Of course, it's useful for schools and colleges too," she said.

The series includes a volume on Edward Albee, but it's a noticeably short one because the playwright declined to grant permission for the use of any excerpts from his plays, according to the publisher. 

Among the other notable playwrights included in the series are Sophocles, Aristophanes, Moliere, William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, Frank Wedekind, Samuel Beckett, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson.

The publisher said on its website that the next 18 volumes in the "Playwrights in an Hour" series will be released in April 2011.

-- David Ng

Photo credit: Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles Times

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