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Double Casting Coups
(Originally printed in the TheaterWeek, July 8, 1996)

Matrix, according to Webster, is "that within which.. .something ignites, takes form, or develops." However, to the Los Angeles theater community—and word is spreading quickly—Matrix means exciting theater.

It's the dream that grows on Melrose (7657 Melrose, to be exact), under the watchful eye and guiding hand of producer Joseph Stern, its owner and artistic director. Three years ago, he formed the Matrix Theater Company, the founding members of which were Penny Fuller, Robin Gammell, Tony Giordano, Charles Hallahan, Mary Joan Negro, Lawrence Pressman, Andrew Robinson, and Cotter Smith. And Stern decided to double-cast the productions at his 99-seat theater. In that way, actors of equal caliber could play the same roles; and when one had to shoot a sitcom episode, or be on location for a movie role, the other would appear. "Actors couldn't do theater because of job conflicts," says Stern, "and audiences are usually disappointed when understudies come on."

In its first three seasons, the Matrix Theater Company has done six productions. And, for an unprecedented third year in a row, it's received the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Production: George M. Cohan's The Tavern won for 1993; Chekhov's The Seagull for 1994; and Pinter's The Homecoming for 1995.

In his TheaterWeek review of Endgame, Charles Marowitz observed, "By L.A. standards, this production and its actors are head and shoulders above anything being done in other Waiver houses around Melrose, Hollywood, or the valley. There is a palpable intelligence at work here, and producer Joe Stern has assembled some of the most skillful actors in the city for his rotating company."

Explains Stem, 'The actors mix and match during rehearsals, and in previews. The last week, I freeze it, so they can have two or three performances together, before the opening. We flip a coin for opening night. The casts are assembled by the coin flip. So, it's not Cast Number One and Cast Number Two, or Cast A and Cast B. Critics started coming to both shows, and reviewing both casts. During the run, due to other jobs, it becomes mix and match. On a given evening, any possible combination of actors may perform together. You can see a play any number of times and never see the same show twice.

"Watching performances, I'm constantly knocked out by the number of talented actors who are wasted in this culture which doesn't support the arts. I think the great talent that's out here is a microcosm of the American actor. More and more young actors are coming lo Hollywood; the theater isn't as much of a training ground as it once was. I think the talent here is greater than in New York, or in London—and the fact that so few work in the theater is a great waste. This is the place where there could be a national rep company."

A former actor, who started his career in the mid-Sixties at the Public Theater, Stern says, "I was just a working actor. I never wanted it bad enough." Born in Los Angeles, he was raised two blocks from the Matrix, which he and acting pal William Devane purchased in the late 1970s. In 1980, he became the sole owner, and during the next decade, the plays that Stern produced, under his Actors for Themselves banner, earned 19 awards from the L.A. Drama Critics Circle.

Simultaneously working in films (among others, he produced Dad, starring Jack Lemmon) and TV (where his numerous credits have earned him five Emmy nominations), Stern accepted a 1990 otter to work in New York as co-executive producer of the then-new NBC-TV series, Law and Order. After three seasons, he and Peppy Stem (his wife since 1964, and mother of their two sons) moved back to L.A., where he formed the Matrix Theater Company.

As I speak to Joe Stem, it's early morning in his Pacific Palisades home, and he'd been "at the Matrix till one o'clock, this morning," working on the latest Stem turn, Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, which begins the company's fourth season. "It has eleven actors playing forty parts-times two. I've got actors speaking Romanian, intricate fight scenes, singing... We could never do this without the skill of [the cast, director Stephanie Shroyer, and crew].

"In the last two weeks, I've lost seven actors. Tony Amendola went to Williamstown for the lead in a new play. Charlie Hallahan rehearsed the first two weeks, and had to drop out. Philip Baker Hall took his place. Then, he went to play opposite Julie Harris in Purchase, New York, in Leon Katz's play [Sonya] about Tolstoy. After they're finished doing those plays, they'll come back and do Mad Forest. Cotter Smith is in Seattle, doing the workshop of the new Wendy Wasserstein play [An American Daughter], which stars Meryl Streep. He'll join us after that ends.

"Plus, my lighting guy's in the hospital. I had to bring in a new lighting designer. And I bought a brand new board for sixteen-thousand dollars because I couldn't light the theater. We had to cancel the first two previews. And, after twenty years, I took out all the seats; I've gutted my theater. I had benches built; the audience is all over the theater. And the actors are all around them—in their face. My subscribers are in for a real ride."

What he's tried to do in the last three years, Stern says, "is to revive works of a classic nature—of different genres—so the actors could be tested, and the public could see all these actors keep evolving. So, I've done a George M. Cohan comedy. I've done—not a good play— Habeas Corpus, a farce [by Alan Bennett]. It's paper thin, a very difficult play, but Kris [director Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori] did a brilliant production. We took plays that were not necessarily commercial—and The Seagull, which has been done ten-thousand times, but we did a deconstructionist version. We did Jean-Claude Van Itallie's translation. He came to see it, and stood up and said that he'd seen over two-hundred productions, and ours was one of the best. And that we'd achieved a sense of family. That was due to Milton [Katselas's direction].

"We did Endgame in July. The joke was: 'Who was going to come to see Beckett in the summer?' And we sold out! We did Pinter's Homecoming. Now, we're doing Mad Forest. We've done six completely different genres and honored the masters. And what we proved was that people will come, if the theater is good."

It takes "a long lime" to find plays to do at the Matrix, Stem notes. "We try to find plays that are very ensemble. And we have a lot of people in the company who are older. What we're not trying to do is knock off four or five plays a year, like a regional theater. We're trying to do two, maybe three, plays—really well. The rehearsal periods are five or six weeks. The previews are three weeks. We have to take our time."

There are some older plays, to which Stern has been refused the rights. "The public is denied some great plays. We see Shakespeare all the time, but not authors whose plays had large casts, and which are now only done in high schools and colleges." In arguing for the rights to one play, Stem recalls, "I asked the agent. 'Why deny audiences an opportunity to see it?' And I was told, 'My dear, they can go out and rent it on video,' How do you fight that type of thinking?

"We did Endgame because I couldn't get the rights to The Little Foxes. Cotter Smith and Andy [Robinson] suggested Endgame. I was reticent, but they convinced me. It had a very short run in the early summer of the second season. We couldn't extend it, because of a prior commitment to a guest production called Names, which is going to New York, probably off-Broadway. So, we opened the third season with Homecoming, and then brought back Endgame for a return engagement.

I'm working with actors who have not worked in the theater as much as they'd like to—for fiscal reasons. And we've tried to create an environment where actors will return to the theater—and also get the audiences to come."

With two casts, "performances, in some cases, are a hundred-and-eighty [degrees different]. In The Homecoming, Lynnda Ferguson [as Ruth] was very laid back— like Princess Di. And Sharon Lawrence [in the same role] was this hot, very sexual.... They couldn't have been more different. In the Tavern, you couldn't have had two more diverse actors than Cotter Smith and Robin Gammell playing the Vagabond.

"It's an amazing experience to watch these people co-exist [at rehearsals]. It's a very, very healthy environment." But Stern recognizes that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of double casting. "Christine Lahti said, 'Rehearsal's very important to me.' And Carol Kane had a problem with it. An actor friend of mine, W. H. Macy, said he couldn't imagine sharing the same part. [Laughs] He said that it would seem a little like watching somebody fuck your wife."

As happy as he is with the Matrix's success, Stem wants "to be in a college—in a bigger theater. I want these actors interfacing with students. The image is the old APA [Repertory] on the Ann Arbor campus. The hope was—and still is—that we'd move into a larger venue. It's very important to get the young people to come back into the theater—as an audience. And to have young actors be around older actors, to have role models, lo have interaction—the way I did when I was a young actor." Concludes Joe Stem, 'This was a pilot project that I thought would last a couple of years. I never dreamt we'd do so well."

Comments From Some Matrix Members

Sharon Lawrence

Sharon Lawrence is very busy these days. Best known for playing the wife of Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on ABC's NYPD Blue, she's continuing in that role while starring in her own sitcom that's scheduled for a mid-season start on NBC ("Right now, it's called Fired Up, and the pilot was directed by James Burrows"), and, as we speak, is making a CBS-TV movie for the fall. (She gives networking a new meaning.) Still, she was happy to take a few minutes to speak about the Matrix, where she's played Masha in The Seagull and Ruth in The Homecoming.

"For me [double-casting] is a Godsend, for a lot of reasons. It's the only way I can get to do theater in Los Angeles. The different combinations, the interaction of the different casts is very appealing to me. lt's exciting! It's such a different way of exploring a play. Different energies combine, the alchemy blends in. It keeps you on your toes; you have to listen in a different way, because the rhythms are different. You get different tones for the same show, which makes it interesting for the audience, as well as for the actors. It's terrific to have someone else to watch. You find out very technical things—like where a powerful area onstage is. You have a mirror there. I cut my teeth on Chekhov, but I'd never done Pinter before."

David Dukes

Most recently on Broadway in Arthur Miller's Broken Class, David Dukes speaks to me from New Mexico, where he's on location for a TV-movie ("a Western based on an Elmore Leonard novel. Last Stand at Saber River, in which I play a villain"). He's appeared at the Matrix "in The Tavern and The Homecoming.  I started rehearsals for Habeas Corpus, but I had to leave before opening. I was raised in rep. And once you have a group like [the one at the Matrix], everybody's good enough to play any part. I had a small role in The Tavern; but, as the run went on, I took over for Robin Gammell as the Vagabond."

For Dukes, the Matrix fills a need. "You want to work in the theater, and you want to do classical theater. How do you do that in L.A. and still pay the rent? If you're working for the Mark Taper Forum—or any other group—they insist that you commit to them for a total of four-and-a-half months.

"The collaboration of two actors rehearsing every part is wonderful. Frustrating, sometimes, but wonderful. Somebody else is paying attention to your little part of the play, as intently as you are paying attention to it. In The Homecoming, 'Sonny' Van Dusen and I both played Teddy. We got the great advantage of watching the situation, of talking about it. You learn so much. There's an added insight, and you go into the character more deeply. And when any one of us gets a job, the play goes on. I think the Matrix is unique. It's become a fixture in only three years. Joe is to be given all the credit. He's done the leg work, the scheduling, and solved the problems of so many egos in a room. We love being part of it!"

Cotter Smith

Founding member Cotter Smith, who first gained attention playing Robert Kennedy in the TV-movie Blood Feud and was later a regular on Equal Justice, has many New York stage credits, most of which are with Circle Rep. He's the only actor to have appeared in all six Matrix productions, and received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award for his performance in The Tavern. He'll join the cast of Mad Forest ("probably the toughest one we've done"), following his two-week workshop of An American Daughter.

From Seattle, where the workshop is in progress. Smith says, "What's happened is quite extraordinary. The double-casting system has become the ethic of the company. It has created an egoless, amazingly collaborative, generous group of actors. You do have to adjust; it does keep you on your toes. And it's double work for the director. But it becomes a bit of an improv, every night. We all rehearse together, sharing in the creation, and then we mix and match. You never have quite the same show."

Penny Fuller

A Tony nominee for Applause, Penny Fuller has appeared "in two Matrix productions, The Tavern and The Seagull." She's also a founding member of the Matrix, and recalls that "one of the first meetings took place in my dining room, deciding what play we would do first."

Says Fuller, 'The thing that's happened is very interesting. The idea, originally, was to be like the actors in London, where we wouldn't have to give up being in the theater in order to be in the industry where we could make a living—to not have it be an either/or thing. But it's turned into something far more important than that.

"Two people are cast for each part, but they try to get two different kinds of people, two different approaches to the character. And it makes the actor's art interesting to the audience again. People come back. They want to see what another actor will do with the part. It's like the ballet, where you see this one's Swan Lake, as opposed to that one's Swan Lake. You want to see what more you can learn about life, or about the character, through another person's persona.

Charles Hallahan

Honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for his performance in Endgame, founding member Charles Hallahan has also appeared in the Matrix productions of The Tavern ("I was the sheriff'), The Seagull ("as a Chekhovian knucklehead"), and Habeas Carpus, in which, "Joe let me play the doctor—a role I would never get to play, in a thousand years, anywhere else. It was a struggle, but I conquered it."

Acting at the Matrix, observes Hallahan. "is the kind of experience that fills you to the brim. It makes you feel like you've just rediscovered yourself. Life in L.A. is suddenly quite wonderful! [Laughs] The weather's nice, you get paid real good to do TV, and [the Matrix gives you a chance to exercise your skills. If I were a golfer, I'd have a bag with eight or twelve clubs in it, and I could hit good shots with all of them. But the movie industry only asks me to bring the nine-iron. They say, 'You hit nine-iron shots, and we'll pay you well.' It's fine. It's a good way to make a living. God knows, I want to send my kids to a good college, and all that kind of shit. But you want to bring out the driver, once in a while, you want to take the wedge shot, you want to go in the sand, and see what it's like again."

Andrew J. Robinson

Actor-director Andrew J. Robinson, also a founding member of !he Matrix Theater Company, has "acted in The Tavern and Habeas Corpus, and directed The Homecoming and Endgame," which earned him this year's double honor as Best Director from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Most recently on Broadway in Frank Gilroy's Any Given Day, his New York credits include playing murderer-writer Jack Abbott in In the Belly of the Beast. Movie fans remember him best as the vicious killer chased by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. With that role, he "gained and lost a career. It's a little glib, but it's true. I was proud of my work, but he was such a despicable character that people didn't want to know me. I thought: 'Why am I being punished for doing good work?'"

Robinson, who's "equally divided between acting and directing." is very much in favor of double-casting. "It can work quite wonderfully, but only if the director is up to it." Speaking from his L.A. home, Robinson (who added the middle initial as a tribute to his maternal grandfather) notes, "You really have to be a director who is totally behind the concept. Any equivocation will kill you, because it's just too hard, too demanding. It takes almost a zen-like concentration; and the other element, of course, is the willingness of the actors to share the roles. And not only share the roles, but also to come to all the rehearsals. Fortunately, in Homecoming and Endgame, all the actors were willing to do that, so we were able to work on it—and not invent the wheel each time.

"If you have two actors who are leveraging the information in the same role, the amount of information that does come is extraordinary. And, if each actor is open, it doesn't matter which one makes a discovery. It's a funny thing because after awhile, when you get into the run of a piece, I can't remember which actor came up with a certain piece of business. And. for the most part, the actor can't remember. If a good piece of business comes up, it doesn't make any difference who found it, you just take it and make it yours."

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