Jim Leonard talks 'The Diviners' and beyond 

click to enlarge Leonard in 2010 - ANTHONY MASTERS, ANTHONYMASTERS.COM
  • Leonard in 2010
  • Anthony Masters, anthonymasters.com

Everything in moderation, says the sage; and for Jim Leonard - a Hanover grad and once-Bloomington resident - that means finding a balance between, say, working in TV with guys like Jerry Bruckheimer and staging a new play with his buddies at Los Angeles's Circle X Theatre Co. He's not alone in his quest for harmony. "We have this group of writers who go back and forth between film and television and the stage," Leonard recently said of his Circle X cohorts. "We're trying to emulate the Brits in that, all trying to do a little bit of all of it."

Leonard started his career in theater: His second play, The Diviners (on stage this week at Carmel Community Playhouse), has been a go-to script for community theater companies since shortly after it was published in the early '80s. He co-founded the still-flourishing Bloomington Playwrights Project in 1979, before heading east to New York City to join the Circle Repertory Company, then west to teach playwriting at Arizona State University - and then further west, to Los Angeles, where he remains today.

Leonard more actively embraced television in the '90s, giving in to the fact that it's the way to communicate with the largest possible audience, via the medium they find most important. Not that it's all about exposure, according to Leonard: "Now I've come to believe that some of the best writing of the world is on television, and I don't say that to aggrandize what I do. I think comedies have gotten smarter and more daring. Television is expanding, and more and more people I know - really good writers - want to work there, from Aaron Sorkin on."

Leonard has created three television series - Close to Home, a legal drama set in Indianapolis that aired on CBS for two seasons; Skin, a Bruckheimer-produced tale of sex, drugs and the rest that FOX killed off before it found an audience; and Thieves, which involved John Stamos. More recently, he's been helping James Duff to wind up his series The Closer and create a Closer spinoff starring Mary McDonald; they were working on an episode of the spinoff when I phoned Saturday.

NUVO: Why do you think The Diviners continues to be produced?

Jim Leonard: Well, it's got a big, bold story and characters that people can identify with. And the fact that it's set at an iconic time makes it something that translates across years; people can continue to identify with it.

NUVO: You mentioned you were in New Harmony recently. [Leonard has been involved with The New Harmony Project, a playwriting workshop based out of the titular Indiana city, since the '80s, first as a participant, now as a board member.]

Leonard: Yeah, right now it's more about giving back to the project than me particularly working on my own stuff. The first time I went was with The Diviners, which had been produced as a play in New York. Robert Altman was supposed to direct it as a film starring William Hurt. And at that time they were developing screenplays as well as plays.

NUVO: Can you describe the process? How is it helpful for someone developing a screenplay or play?

Leonard: First of all, the town is fantastic; it's easy to walk around and think, which puts you in a creative mindset from the get-go. The late Jane Owen did a marvelous job, not just restoring the town, but developing multiple places to walk and sit and think - and, she would probably say, pray and contemplate. And I like to walk around when I write; it helps clear my head, and I get a stronger sense of what the story is rather than just staring at words on the page. The thing that's helpful about the process is that there are 50 or 60 actors, plus a group of students, usually, from the University of Evansville. It's easy to grab an actor or group of actors at any time and have them read a scene for you, in order to hear things aloud.

NUVO: You're working on a pilot.

Leonard: It's sort of a throwback. Paul Newman did a movie years ago called Harper, which I loved, where he played a private investigator created by Ross McDonald, who wrote the Lew Archer series and did hard-boiled detective novels set in the '60s and '70s in Southern California. I've secured the rights to that series of books, and I'm recreating that series for television, and we'll see if it flies.

NUVO: You're cobbling together storylines from all of these novels?

Leonard: Yes, I'm stealing liberally and, hopefully, wisely. And his stuff is fun; he was considered the father of psychological detective fiction. It was less about clues and the mystery and more about why. He also wrote an awful lot about the disparity between the uber-wealthy and the not-so-wealthy.

NUVO: What's your theater company up to?

Leonard: We're producing a new play of mine that's a musical in October. It's called Bad Apples, and it's about the love triangle at Abu Ghraib between Lynndie England - you remember her? thumbs up? - a man named Charles Graner and a woman named Megan Ambuhl.

NUVO: I would think it would be difficult to sympathize with those characters.

Leonard: I kinda like them! It's sort of Brechtian, fun and a little crazy.

NUVO: You've also done a musical that starts during the Civil War.

Leonard: I did a show called Battle Hymn at Circle X two years ago, and it's been published and done a little bit since then. It's about a girl who gets pregnant during the Civil War by her 16 or 17-year-old boyfriend before he goes off. Her dad throws her out when he finds out she's pregnant, and she runs off to find a boyfriend, but she doesn't know what side he's even fighting for. She does end up finding him eventually, and by the time she finds him, he's with his boyfriend and things have changed a bit. She ends up looking for a safe place to have her baby - and she stays pregnant for over 150 years.

NUVO: With the Bloomington Playwrights Project you built a sort of hardy beast that survived the years.

Leonard: I'm stunned. Like any theater that survives - whether it's the IRT or the Phoenix in Indianapolis, or the Steppenwolf in Chicago - there's a core group of people who commit themselves to it. That was myself and Tom Moseman for the first three or four years, and after that it became other people who found an outlet for expression and great meaning through working there. It's also a very rare thing in that it is, basically, a community theater dedicated to new work, and I don't know of another place like that; and the community it happens to be in is a very creative community.

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