OVATION AWARDS SPEECH: "Fail Better"
(As reprinted in Theatre L.A. magazine, Volume
9 Issue 7, December 1996)
given in receipt of James A. Dolittle Award for Leadership in LA Theatre
on November 18, 1996 at the Shubert Theatre, for the Theatre L.A. Ovation
where he was honored
alongside legendary playwright August Wilson.
by Joseph Stern
I suppose one receives recognition like this for a body of work, a
lifetime of one's efforts. I only know you are the sum total of your
choices and your actions. The thing about this business is that you never
know whether it chooses you or you it. I was an actor until I was 37 years
old and I was never able to answer that question.
It has been my job not only to have the answers,
but to ask the questions.
I suppose it was the same when I decided to quit acting to become a
producer - but now some 20 years later I think I know that / made the
choice. I'm not sure whether it was because I didn't have the courage to
remain an actor or because I had a need to make another kind of
contribution. Someone once said to me that we try to change the audience's
life, and in so doing change our own.
For me, to be a producer is to be the keeper of the flame - to create a
safe environment so that artists can come together to tell us the stories
that enrich our lives. Part of my journey has been to provide that
environment - to provide a place where artists can take their own journey,
a place to take the risk of self exploration, and a place not only to
succeed but to fail.
It has been my job not only to have the answers but also to ask the
questions. I have tried to take the same risks as my fellow artists and
ultimately to take responsibility for all those who have given me their
trust and, in a sense. a part of their lives. That means that I too must
reveal myself, and that I too must be ready not only to succeed but to
What I speak of is a kind of partnership in which we learn from each other
- knowing that our common enemy is fear. It is a word that not only
divides us but also binds us.
I've just completed a three-year partnership with some 100 actors,
directors, designers and technicians, and an audience of 15-20 thousand
people. It's probably the greatest learning experience I've ever had in
The double casting (two actors sharing a role) started out as an
experiment - to ensure that actors wouldn't have to lose paying jobs - and
it turned into an art form (I'm sure not the first time in history) and
more importantly an inspiring experience.
We proved that an environment could be created where artists could
subordinate their own vanity, keep their demons in check, and more
importantly exhibit a generosity of spirit. Besides displaying
extraordinary skill and artistry, they created that much-used but rare
word - ensemble - and in the end, provided the most valuable lesson for
all of us - that there is more than one way to tell the truth.
I was born and raised in this city and I am very proud to be a part of our
theatrical community. Over the past twenty years in Los Angeles, I've
spoken out (perhaps pontificated is the more accurate word) about this and
that injustice, but you know we've heard enough about the myth of the
differences between the so-called East Coast and West Coast artists. We've
talked enough about what the government and Hollywood and the newspapers
owe us. If they owe us anything, it is respect. And we'll keep fighting
We've got to support and love, or at least honor,
But what's most important is what we owe ourselves and each other. And if
they cannot give us respect, then we must respect ourselves. We gotta keep
creating out own environment. That means we gotta keep building our own
theaters. We gotta keep doing our work, and singing our songs, and most
importantly we gotta support each other and find a way to love or at least
honor each other.
And so to the Theatre of L.A. Board of Governors, and to all my fellow
artists and your friends and families that are here tonight. I thank you
for all your support. And to my family, my wife Peppy, my sons Luke and
Joshua, my later father Aleck, my mother Zelda and my brother Larry, and
to their loved ones and children - thank you all for your love and
support. You know, if you're gonna get into this business, it is a good
idea to have a supportive family.
And finally, reading over this speech this morning reminded me of a
lithograph that I have had for years that sits over my desk at home. It's
a scene from "Waiting for Godot" in which the author. Samuel Beckett, sits
on a park bench in the foreground, and deep in the background is the
character of Lucky at the end of his master's rope - a tether, if you will
- carrying life's baggage. The inscription that runs along the bottom
reads: "Try again, fail again, fail better." Your recognition tonight
gives me a deeper understanding of those words.