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A Theater Where the Actor Comes First
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar, Sunday, September 3, 1989)
Joe Stern's Pride of Service

by Dan Sullivan

(also see related article, The Pugnacious Conscience of L.A. Theater, published the same day)

It's too bad that Joe Stern refuses to read Simon Gray's book about his experiences trying out "The Common Pursuit" at the Matrix Theater (see Barbara Isenberg's adjoining article). If he ever softens, he'll discover that Gray found him a lovable man and a patient producer.

Patient???? I only hear from Stern when he's upset about something—a dumb review, some crazy new stunt from Actors' Equity. He's not too patient then. But under the surface noise you hear a serious concern for the theater. Not just his theater, but everybody's.

Gray criticizes Stern for spending too much tryout time on actors who obviously weren't going to be cast in this play, or perhaps any play. That's because Stern understands the agony actors go through at auditions, having been one himself.

What does he call his organization? "Actors for Themselves." The record hasn't been that altruistic, but the title shows Stern's priorities. The guy just loves actors. Even better, he believes in them.

That's rare these days. Everybody gives lip service to the idea that the actor is as central to the theater as the priest is to the Mass.

But in an industry town—a town where 300 people will show up for the lowliest Equity Waiver tryout—it's easy to take actors for granted. It's easy to start to look at the town's talent pool in the patronizing way of a New England textile mill owner regarding his town's labor pool—endlessly available, instantly replaceable. What's really admired, in this philosophy, is a strong foreman—i.e., director.

That has never been the philosophy at the Matrix. Stern does hire strong directors, as with his current twin bill, "Wenceslas Square" (staged by Lee Shallat) and "A Man With Connections" (Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori). Sam Weisman and Norman Rene are other names that come to mind.

But the director at Stern's shop is there to help the actors locate their performances, not to turn them into agents of his concept. Gray pokes fun at the Method-y stuff that went on at Weisman's "Common Pursuit" rehearsals, the emphasis on breaking down the script into beats and "finding the pain" of each character, and maybe the jargon does look a little silly.

But the reader recognizes a director who can talk the actor's language and who respects his need to know what is going on underneath the lines. The process may not be as invigorating as when the actors simply stand the play up and have a bash at it, London fashion. But it's the way that plays get rehearsed over here, in the better houses, and the results at the Matrix weren't half bad, even in Gray's eyes.

The Matrix is definitely one of our better houses. Stern's priorities sometimes lead him to take on a script that "acts" like crazy but doesn't add up to a hill of beans, "Orphans" being the best example.

But in general one goes to the Matrix confident that the script will be intelligent; that the company will be well chosen and well rehearsed (Stern doesn't just love actors, he knows actors); that the production will be handsomely designed and precisely lit, and that the amenities will be observed.

The program for "The Common Pursuit," for example, was printed on good paper in a chaste red-and-black typeface. The reference was to the literary quarterly that figured in Gray's plot. It was a touch of class that most local small-theater producers would have rejected as too expensive, if it had occurred to them at all.

Above all, the Matrix has stood for fine acting, minutely observed. Crisp acting, too. They may go for "the pain" in rehearsal at the Matrix, but the performances are very much on the line. Stern likes actors who have a top story and a bottom story, who don't see a contradiction between feelings and intelligence.

The results can be very rich, as with Nancy Lenehan's current performance in "Wenceslas Square." Lenehan plays three women, each with a different answer to the question: How is it possible to live an acceptable life in a country (Czechoslovakia) that has had its tongue cut out?

The first woman's answer is to be cautious. The second woman's answer is to be gruff and scornful. The third woman's answer is to be gay. Lenehan understands each answer and also understands that no human being is all of a piece. The timid one can laugh with delight. The flirtatious one can be thoughtful. All in all, Lenehan is really playing about nine people here, as simply as if she were playing one.

Beautiful stuff. But we've had dozens of fine performances at the Matrix. There was Helen Verbit in "Table Settings," a Jewish mother who wasn't going to let anybody treat her like a stereotype, especially not her family. There was Ian McShane in "Inadmissible Evidence,"; a burned-out case careening to disaster, the only thing that would save his hide.

There were McShane, Lawrence Pressman and Penny Fuller in Pinter's "Betrayal." They betrayed nothing, and said it all. There was also Michael Alaimo in the tiny role of a waiter in an Italian restaurant. Without taking the focus away from the main story, he had a story of his own, relating to pride of service—the pleasure that a person can take in providing world-class service, even when his patrons don't notice it. Joe Stern runs on the same juice.

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