And he's doing plenty of writing. Of his 14 total plays, several have been produced; the first, called Theology , was when he was the playwright-in-residence at a college at
. "They were well received, and the students that performed in them did a really good job," he says.
Leeper's writing extends to film screenplays, one of which will be shot in August in
; another screenplay has been optioned for future production. He says he wants all his plays to be produced, which at his current rate is a distinct possibility. At an undisclosed time in the not-too-distant future, you might hear talk about a playwright named Paul Leeper, if indeed that is his real name.
Paul Leeper leads something of a double life. For about 15 years, his work for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency has defined him to the naked eye as a white-collar, office-bound type. But in the pre-dawn hours before his morning commute, Leeper pursues his other passion: writing plays.
In about five years, Leeper has written 11 full-length and three one-act plays, a handful of which are familiar to local theater audiences through their inclusion in previous editions of the Tennessee Stage Company's New Play Festival. Now in its 11th year, the New Play Festival will produce Leeper's Safe House .
"This is a very important service the Tennessee Stage Company is doing for American theater," says Leeper. "Our new theater doesn't come from New York anymore; it comes from regional theaters that are brave enough to produce plays people haven't heard of."
Each year, TSC solicits previously unproduced plays from the nation's playwrights; Leeper learned about the New Play Festival several years ago through the company's advertisement in a writing magazine. This marks Leeper's fifth time to Knoxville as a visiting playwright, as his plays Surveillance and A Cuckold's Tale have been read aloud by actors as part of the festival's readings; Safe House has been read twice before this year's full production. Leeper says audiences at the Safe House readings at the Black Box Theatre have been "very positive. The audiences seem to find it intriguing and entertaining," he says.
The idea behind readings is two-fold: to give audiences a taste of plays that may be boosted to full shows in the future, and to help participating playwrights experience their work in a theater setting in front of people whose reactions they can gauge. Leeper says even the bare-bones presentation of Safe House has helped him fine-tune the piece. "We have made some modifications due to two readings," he says. "I think it's improved it."
Safe House is a drama that places a team of four spies in a very tense situation. Although the spies (played by Bruce Borin, Leigh Hruby, Orion Protonentis and Brandon Daughtry Slocum, who also directs) presumably work together on the same side of justice, their superiors have reported that there is a mole among them. To protect their secrets, and perhaps their very lives, each strives to find out which is the betraying informant. Naturally, lies dominate the dialogue, which inspires plenty of mistrust in the characters and the audience members alike.
"You're never quite sure who's sympathetic and who's not, but they're all people you can identify with," says Leeper.
And because the investigative quartet consists of two couples, the issues of confidence and trust enter relationship territory, leaving viewers to propose their own conspiracy theories regarding both espionage and romance.
Leeper acquired knowledge of undercover intelligence when he was employed by the U.S. government as a contracted advisor in the field of technical security countermeasures. Although he's not at liberty to discuss specifics, he says he did pursue assignments all over the world. Fans of spy fiction may already be familiar with a scientific contrivance Leeper introduces in Safe House , what's known as a SCIF—sensitive compartmented information facility. It's a "nice plot device," Leeper says, that allows characters to reveal secrets to some but not all of the other characters, while still sharing those details with the audience.
Leeper is familiar with some of the actors in his play from his previous trips to town, but he says he doesn't contribute his opinions about a production or a reading of his work unless he's asked directly.
"It's important to remember that a play is a collaboration, and it really isn't a play on the page," he says. "It's only a play when the actors act and the director directs. My part is only the writing."
And he's doing plenty of writing. Of his 14 total plays, several have been produced; the first, called Theology , was when he was the playwright-in-residence at a college at Northwestern University. "They were well received, and the students that performed in them did a really good job," he says.
The Tennessee Stage Company is just one of about 50 of the theater groups in the nation, seeking to produce new plays, to whom Leeper submits his work. He says he's fortunate to get two or three readings; it's even more rare to land a full-on production. "It's very competitive," he says.
Leeper's writing extends to film screenplays, one of which will be shot in August in Philadelphia; another screenplay has been optioned for future production. He says he wants all his plays to be produced, which at his current rate is a distinct possibility. At an undisclosed time in the not-too-distant future, you might hear talk about a playwright named Paul Leeper, if indeed that is his real name.
What: Tennessee Stage Company's New Play Festival World Premiere Production of Safe House by Paul Leeper
When: May 12 thru 22, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Clarence Brown Theatre Lab Theatre, UT campus
How much: $12 general, $10 students & senior citizens. Call 546-4280 for reservations.