'THERE'S A REAL ARROGANCE IN THE THEATRE.'
Two and one-half years ago, Stern and Devane bought
the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue. Actors For Themselves will
commence its first season there around Christmas. They plan to do four
or five plays a season, each running about six weeks. "The problem
now," says Stern, "is that Bill is tied up for the rest of the year
with From Here to Eternity, I'm tied up making movies. We were
supposed to start June 1. We've put it off till October now. When I
produced those four plays in a row, they ran consecutively overlapping
for 32 months and I was in the box office every day and in the theatre
every night. I did everything because I am compulsive. What I need to
do is get a couple of people in who can run the thing so that I can
Stern would not say what plays they contemplate
doing because he has found that whenever he does that, other people
end up doing them. They plan to do a mixture of old and new plays, and
Stern is interested in reading original scripts.
To my question about casting, he replied that it is
open but "the truth of the matter is, we know so many people that we
really in a sense often choose the people before the play. It's part
of the concept of Actors For Themselves. Often we start with the
actors and then find the play and the director. We also hope to
develop actors into directors."
When I asked Joe Stern his feelings about Los
Angeles theatre, he zeroed in like a missile on target. "The problem
with the theatre has always been the misuse of power," he said. "There
are four or five people running theatre in the U.S. like Joe Papp, Ted
Mann, Gordon Davidson, who are figureheads and who have a conflict of
interest. They got the land first. They got the building put up, and
they got money, and they're terrific salesmen. But they all had
yearnings to be directors and so they appointed themselves as
directors and all of them are mediocre.
"Now there's a certain question of ethics here,
which is the fact that all these theatres are partially publicly
funded. So in a sense they have a responsibility to you and I who pay
our taxes. And they haven't done what I feel a producer should do. He
should have one goal, which is to pursue excellence. He brings the
best people together to achieve the best product, which means he
brings in people who often know more than he does. And that's a very
difficult thing for anybody to accept. All these people that I have
mentioned, and a few others who have run the biggest theatres in our
country, have never done that. They have surrounded themselves with
people who are less than the best. The acting companies are not
particularly distinguished. The directors certainly are not. All these
people who run the theatre have developed very few directors, if any,
in the last 10 or 15 years, which is frightening.
"Their big claim is that they do take chances
because they do avant garde and they test new playwrights. But, you
see, it's not chance-taking at all because the truth of the matter is,
it's been the way you get money and justify your program to the powers
that hand out the grants. It's in your interest to promote new plays
whether they're bad or good. If they're bad, then it doesn't matter
because you've lost nothing. You're a great experimenter. And if
they're good, you get all the glory. And what's also interesting is
that these guys save themselves the best play to direct. When they're
personally involved in terms of their ego and" vanity being on the
line, which means directing and not producing, they don't take very
many chances. It's a very clever modus operandi.
"I have had some 100 actors in all my plays, and
they're all L.A.-based. Only one or two have appeared in any
productions at the Taper. People are always asking me, where do these
guys come from? Well, they're right here in L.A., and they're dying to
work. And they can't get in down there. Maybe they get an audition,
but they're not on that stage there. When we go to the Taper every
year, we are not seeing the best actors in the city. And we are not
seeing the best directors. Now I won't mention any names, but someone
at the Taper has directed about 15 productions there in the last
decade or more. He may be a very nice man but there are many more
gifted people around. I would venture to say — I've only been back
five years — that there has not been a recipient of an LADCC award for
directing who has subsequently been asked to direct a play at the
"I read in New York Theatre Review that
Gordon Davidson said no play has ever moved from a waiver situation to
a successful commercial run. He didn't mention Are You Now . . .
which ran 14 months, or Knights of the White Magnolia which
ran for seven. I don't see the Taper furthering L.A. theatre, taking
advantage of its talent in the directing, , writing or acting ranks.
I've never seen people like Bill Devane, Ron Sossi, Elaine Moe or Gwen
Arner direct a production at the Taper.
"A guy like Devane — even though he's my partner --
wins two directing awards in a row. He's never been asked. Ron Sossi
has gotten great reviews for years. Personally, I'm not a big fan of
his as a theatre owner, but as a director he's obviously a man of
talent. To my knowledge, he's never been asked to direct a play at the
"I just saw a production of The Chicago
Conspiracy Trial by a guy I never heard of named Frank Condon.
Here's a perfect example of a terrific show that could move to the
Taper. Why aren't they doing it? Instead, they're bringing in three
off-Broadway productions from New York. I see in Condon's credits that
he's been involved with the Taper's Improvisational Theatre Project.
Why wasn't this guy promoted? Why hasn't he directed a mainstage
production at the Taper? This guy can direct for me at the Matrix
anytime! I know why he hasn't been asked. He's obviously a
strong-minded guy, and anybody who is strong-minded can usually be
called a renegade and is not going to get hired in any of these
theatres, much less the Taper, because they threaten the guys that run
them who are also directors and less gifted. So in these theatres you
don't see renegade writers, actors or directors.
STIMULATED BY 'ZOOT SUIT'
"Every year when you go to the Taper, that guy
decides the four or five plays you're going to see, who's going to
direct them and who's going to act in them. The only thing I've ever
been really stimulated by at the Taper was the second act of Zoot
Suit, and that was El Teatro Campesino. The most positive thing
I've seen there was this Playworks Series where Gwen Arner, who's a
very good person, was brought in.
"I find it incredible to see theatres named after
people I never heard of who are alive. The Solari Theatre, the Gene
Dynarski Theatre," said Stern, laughing. "It took Olivier 50 years
to have a theatre named for him. How dare they?! That
offends me! I think there's a real arrogance in the theatre. It has
very much to do with retaining power."
I asked Stern point-blank, "Don't you want power?"
"Oh, yes! But I feel I know how to use power in the
most positive sense — that is, to bring people together, to pursue
excellence, to create something that's really fine. The main thing
that drives me is that in each play or whatever it is that I do, I
always learn something about myself, and therefore the audience must
be learning something about itself, too. If you try to control every
situation you're in, you're not going to learn anything and the
audience won't either. Because all you're concerned about is holding
on to your piece of land, how much money you've got, or whatever it
is. Once you do that, you can't really go after your objectives. It
becomes about something other than the experience. It becomes about
your own ego, your own survival, and that gets in the way of the work.
And so the experience is diminished for everybody."
I reminded Stern that he brought in people he has
worked with in the past for his television projects and will be doing
the same thing at the Matrix. Isn't he doing exactly what he accuses
others of doing? "Yes, I realize that when I say that," he admitted.
"But I don't bring people in to satisfy my own comfort. I bring them
in because I think they're the best. Sometimes I work with people who
make me uncomfortable because I know they're good, and I know they
have something to contribute. I don't think a lot of other people do
that, and I think that's the difference between the way Bill and I use
people and the way other theatres use people. I'm a strong believer in
groups of people working together again and again and again. So I
don't want to mislead you. What I'm saying is that it's how you choose
those people, what needs they fulfill, how far you're willing to
"What about all these hundreds of actors in L.A.
who are really talented," I asked him, "whom maybe you don't know
about, who would like to read for parts at the Matrix and won't be
able to because you're going to be pre-casting in a sense?"
"It's a real handicap and a real failure of mine,"
he replied. "Usually I discover new people by going to see them
perform in other plays, and you never get to see as many plays as you
should. That is my misuse of power — that 'x' amount of people won't
get an opportunity who should. But usually in each production we pick
up two or three people we didn't know from before so that the amount
of people has grown in the last three or four years. It's a real
problem, there's no question about it. Again, it has to do with power
and how far you're willing to extend yourself. And everybody has their
limitations, me included.
"I'm proud to produce for the theatre and now to be
in television, because I think there's a real art in producing and it
has to do with .generosity of spirit, humility and the ability to be
vulnerable. This has been a natural progression for me to go from
theatre to movies and TV and see people who have been in relationships
with me moving with me. It's no longer whom we're looking up to in
theatre and movies. We are the theatre. We are the movies.
We've got the power. We've been given the opportunity to create. What
are we going to do with it? "
The Los Angeles theatre community will no doubt
eagerly await Joe Stern's answer to his own question.