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GUY THROWS A NICE CHANGEUP BILL KERNEN WAS A BIG-TIME COLLEGE BASEBALL COACH; NOW HE'S A ROOKIE PLAYWRIGHT

Oct. 06, 1997
Oct. 06, 1997

Table of Contents
Oct. 6, 1997

Faces In The Crowd
Ryder Cup
NHL 97-98

GUY THROWS A NICE CHANGEUP BILL KERNEN WAS A BIG-TIME COLLEGE BASEBALL COACH; NOW HE'S A ROOKIE PLAYWRIGHT

Tugging the bill of his black Cal State-Northridge cap, Bill
Kernen scrutinizes the delivery, searching for a veteran who
won't freeze on opening night. When he was the baseball coach at
Northridge, Kernen scouted plenty of players. But he is no
longer eyeballing athletes with wicked sliders or soft hands. He
is casting the lead character in his off-off-Broadway play, A
Graveyard Symphony.

This is an article from the Oct. 6, 1997 issue

"I look for the same thing that I looked for in athletes,"
Kernen whispers during the audition. "Some exaggerated quality
in their personality. Anything that is middle-of-the-road I try
to avoid. It's very difficult to kick somebody into gear if he's
too even."

During 18 years of coaching, the last seven at Northridge,
Kernen kicked players into gear. In 1990 the Matadors finished
second in the NCAA Division II championships, and when the
program moved up to Division I in 1991, Kernen led it to three
straight postseason appearances. In the summer of 1995, at age
47, Kernen shocked the Northridge athletic department by
abruptly resigning to pursue a career in New York City as a
playwright--a gutsy move considering that he had never written a
line of dialogue.

"People thought I was crazy," says Kernen, who gave up a
$100,000 annual income and now lives in a studio apartment the
size of a dugout. But for the coach, who had been divorced in
1992, it was a chance to start over. "I wanted to do something
directly, instead of through 19-year-old baseball players," says
Kernen.

Theater was an unlikely career choice for someone who had spent
most of his life around ballparks, including three years as a
pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system. Kernen started
coaching in 1977, as an assistant at Cal State-Fullerton. It was
then that he began to use his vacation time to travel more. "I
learned that baseball coaching wasn't the beginning and the end
of the world," he says. "The first time I ever went to the
theater, I thought, Wow, this is amazing. You get to create
stuff, and it's real human beings doing something that you
created."

After moving to New York City two years ago, Kernen enrolled in
a master's program at Columbia University and also took a
workshop with playwright Eduardo Machado, who was fascinated by
Kernan's career path. "If someone wants to change that
drastically, you have to take him seriously," says Machado.

Writing plays, Kernen discovered, "is describing emotion. It
isn't much fun. It's very uncomfortable, because you go places
in your mind where you really don't want to be emotionally." His
first year he wrote And Other Fairy Tales, whose main character
is loosely based on a woman he once knew. The three-act play is
threaded together by flashbacks of the woman's life from ages
six to 60. In March the play had a four-day showcase--a
production in which actors work for free, agents evaluate the
talent and critics don't do any reviews.

On opening night, Kernen, the nervous rookie, stepped outside
during the intermission to avoid hearing the audience's
reaction. After the final curtain he fled without saying a word
and went home to walk his dog, Buckaroo. "I thought I'd be
really excited," he says of the showcase. "But I didn't like it
at all. It was like baring my soul to the world." He heard later
that the play received a positive response from the audience,
which lauded him for creating strong roles for women.

Kernen's second play, A Graveyard Symphony--a three-act drama
about troubled relationships between fathers and
daughters--started a three-week run Sept. 18.

Does he ever get the itch to return to baseball? "I'm still a
fan," says Kernen, who works at a real estate agency to make
ends meet. "As far as missing being on the field and that kind
of stuff? Nah. I'm just as happy at Shakespeare in Central Park
as I am at Yankee Stadium."

COLOR PHOTO: GABE PALACIO In "A Graveyard Symphony," Kernen cast Karen Stanion (right) and Melanie Warner. [Bill Kernen, Karen Stanion, and Melanie Warner]