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.
"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."