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An Actors' Theatre - To Be Or Not To Be...
(Originally printed in Show Magazine, early 1970s - date unknown)

[ Historical note:  this article is about Joseph Stern's earliest attempts to put together in New York what eventually became known in Los Angeles as "Actors For Themselves" and, later, "The Matrix Theatre Company." ]

A Galaxy of Stars Determined to Run Their Own Show

by Henry Weil

About a half a dozen years ago, Natalie Wood was selected by the Harvard Lampoon as "the worst actress of this or any other year." To everyone's astonishment, Miss Wood wired ahead that she would come to Cambridge and collect her award. In her acceptance speech, she said, "I would like to thank all the producers and directors, without whose help I could never have earned this award."

Natalie Wood put neatly into words the most naggingly common lament in show business.—"He sold me down the river!" Of course, passing the buck and avoiding the blame are not peculiar to the entertainment industry, alone. There's not an assembly-line worker alive who isn't certain he could run the line better than his foreman. Nor a professor who isn't convinced he could run the department better than his chairman. Nor a tackle who doesn't think he could run the team better than his coach. Similarly, every bad performance in a professional theatrical production (to hear an actor's explanation) is the result of some idiot director's dim-witted mistakes. There are many actors, in fact, who simply refuse to listen to a director, because they are convinced no director alive is as talented as they are. A few of them even manage to find work from time to time.

While grousing and griping are clearly not confined to any one walk of life—indeed it often appears to be our favorite national pastime—what is rare is the man who becomes finally fed up with his superiors and sets out, independent and unmeddled-with, to prove them once and for all incompetent. Rarer still is the man who attempts it and succeeds.

"Second guessing," says actor Joseph Stern, "turns to cynicism and sour grapes. I decided I wanted to turn it into something positive." His "something positive" is what he hopes to to call An Actors' Theatre.

It is not Stern's project alone. Stern, who has acted in repertory theaters around the country, also appeared in Macbird and in several New York Shakespeare Festival productions with Stacy Keach. He also acted for several years on the television soap opera, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, along with David Birney (who graduated last season to the ill-fated Bridgette Loves Bernie series). Together, Keach, Birney and Stern began some months ago to evolve a plan for a theater which would free them from the wretched dominance of unimaginative producers and inept directors.

"Producers are the taste-makers," says Stern. "A few of them dictate each year what we will see. An Actors' Theatre evolves from the common desire to impose our artistic sensibilities on the public, to show we are the answer."

In 1969, Stern produced A Whistle in the Dark off-Broadway. From this experience and from his desire to show he is the answer, Stern has taken upon himself the role of "producing manager."

Though he will not act in An Actors' Theatre's productions, he will be producing plays, he feels, with an actor's taste and judgment and with a strong knowledge of what an actor needs and craves. Envisioned as a non-profit, non-commercial theater, it is hoped that An Actors' Theatre will be freed from all Broadway pandering.

Actors will serve frequently as directors, especially since Stern, Keach and Birney are all convinced that only an actor knows how to evoke a really good performance from another actor. There will be four productions a year, each performing in a limited run of six weeks only. Each play will rehearse for four weeks, thus requiring the presence of actors for only ten weeks for each production. And since Stern's vision encompasses a company of as many as 60 performers, clearly an actor might only appear in one production a year. This would give him much free time to appear in other, more remunerative productions, or perhaps in films. This would also give actors an opportunity to feel part of a theatrical community with a minimum of participation. "What was the phrase someone came up with?" reflected Stern. " 'A continuing commitment without a continuing presence'."!

A truly attractive concept. Particularly to actors who never know where or when their next project will materialize. Here is a commitment that will succor and shelter them, utilize their talents and yet leave them free to scramble after fame and fortune on the side. And all for a minimum of ten weeks' effort a year. And that at a guaranteed off-Broadway minimum wage (which is less, actually, than any good typist can pull down as a starting salary).

Says Stern, "Actors have committed themselves. They will be there." Those committed include Keach and Birney, of course, along with James Earl Jones, Kathleen Widdoes, Rip Torn, Geraldine Page, Raul Julia, Len Cariou, and such other, lesser-known but regular Broadway professionals as Michael McGuire, Stephen Elliot, Tom Aldredge, Nancy Marchand, Jill Clayburgh and Rue McClanahan. Al Pacino, one of the first committed, has since pulled out.

This is not a theater of vague vision, without concrete plans. They are considering scheduling The Seagull by Chekhov, Romeo and Juliet or Richard II by Shakespeare, Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill, or perhaps Baal by Bertolt Brecht. They have, as of this writing, congregated twice, once to read through Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the second time to try out Charley's Aunt. Each time there was a small audience in attendance, limited exclusively to intimate friends. The actors were not performing, rather they were getting the feel of the company, learning how to work with new colleagues, seeing just how much they would actually enjoy the work they were proposing to do. For make no mistake, this is a theater which aims to correct what actors dislike about the theater, at least for those actors fortunate enough to be invited to join the company. Not for these actors are productions in which actors are little more than puppets. If sinking the teeth into a particular script does not instantly release a particularly pleasant flavor, the project will not be to this company's taste.

An Actors' Theatre has a designer, too, Kert F. Lundell, a blisteringly talented set designer born in Sweden, trained at Yale and at Chicago's Goodman Theater. Lundell has designed several distinctive Broadway productions, among them an airy, yet complexly cage-like slum for Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and a chipped-edged, fading hotel room which managed not to yield a trace of gloom or depression for Neil Simon's bright and lightweight comedy, The Sunshine Boys.

The new company has a theater as well. Several years ago, Samuel Rubin, the hugely successful founder and president of Faberge, had his personal foundation pick up a church-community house complex which was lost deep in the wilderness of Manhattan's teeming garment district. Minus its congregation as a result of the area's commercial expansion, the church was standing empty when the Rubin foundation bought it and turned it over to a non-profit company known as The Space for Innovative Development, Inc.

The Space (as it is known for short) was founded to provide working room "for rehearsing, teaching, creating and performing," the performing arts. Such obscurely experimental groups as Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, The Murray Louis-Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater Lab and Eric Salzman's Quog Music Theatre have all found bases in the Space's massive five-story complex. An Actors' Theatre intends to have its home there, too. Already the Space is setting up shops for scenery and costumes, spanking new dressing and shower areas, and is redesigning the major playing area.

All An Actors' Theatre needs now is the money. As Show goes to press, An Actors' Theatre exists actually only on paper and in its dreams of glory, its dreams of vindication—its dreams of revenge. For it hasn't raised a penny. Moreover, there has not been a successful theater run by a successful actor since the death of England's Henry Irving in 1905, the last of the once traditional actor-managers. (This excepts Laurence Olivier who managed England's National Repertory Theatre for the past decade or so, because his was an essentially government-supported operation.)

Still this is a theater which, above all, intends to keep the needs and desires of all its actors at the forefront of its operational decisions, not the frenzied slathering after profits customary to most producers, nor the usual egocentric wish-fulfillments of arbitrary and arbitrarily designated directors. This is a theater dedicated to the principle that what is best for actors is—or at any rate ought to be— what is best for the theater.

Perhaps. One hopes the money can be found in time and that these actors can once and for all find out whether they indeed know better than the reputedly tasteless tastemakers. Joseph Stern, for one, fully recognizes that there is too much in the world waiting to be accomplished for anyone to waste his time in griping. An Actor's Theatre is intended as a step toward ending all that.

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