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It's easy to assume that plays - and novels, for that matter - begin with some grand idea. But many grow not from the intellect but with a tap on the shoulder: an image or a vague mood the author feels compelled to explore.

In 1974, Harold Pinter wrote a screenplay based on The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel. One evening, aswim in technical problems, he dined alone. On the taxi ride home he imagined two people "sitting in a room, and one of them was about to pour a drink and he said, 'As it is?' and the other said, 'As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is.'"

Pinter had no idea who they were: just character A fixing a drink for character B and then fixing one for himself (Pinter always began his plays with an alphabetical letter for each role; names came later).

"I pursued that. I had an image of two people standing up in a room and one offering a drink. It's a very simple thing. It can hardly be called complicated. But I was thrust into a situation where they knew more about it than I did. So I had to find out, I had to pursue it..."

He wrote down the first two lines as the start of an inquiry: Who are they? What brought them together? What are they wearing? What will their drinks say about them? What should the next line of dialogue be?

"It's easy to sound pretentious about this, but in fact it's the way I think writing - in my case dramatic fiction - works. You have to follow the clue of what you're given, but the crucial thing is to get the clue in the first place, to have a given fact. If I don't have that, I'm in the desert."

On Monday, June 11 at 8:00 p.m., the North Coast Repertory Theatre will do a staged reading of Pinter's major work, No Man's Land. Cast members are: Ken Ruta, Frank Corrado, Richard Baird, and David Ellenstein.

The play begins:

Hirst: "As it is?"

Spooner: "As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is."

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