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Honour Producer Joe Stern
(Originally printed in L.A. Stage Magazine, Issue 26, July/August 2005)

By Deborah Behrens
Photo: Marina Rice Bader

One of LA's most prolific and honored producers, Joseph Stern has built a respected 30-year theatre career while simultaneously producing such noted television dramas as Law & Order and Judging Amy. He is a recipient of the James A. Doolittle Ovation Award and the Margaret Hartford Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in the Theatre, among others. His 45 productions at the Matrix and other venues have garnered more awards than any other 99-seat house.

Andy Robinson, the director, had heard about it from friends in London. We held a reading of it with Susan Sullivan and Bob Foxworth. He had done it on Broadway. I was blown away. The play had such an impact emotionally on everybody. Foxworth, to my surprise, said that he would do it again. He felt they hadn't done it right on Broadway.

Over the years I've been attracted to this kind of material. I've done a lot of plays about triangles. Without thinking about it dogmatically or as a statement of purpose, I just now realized the theme of my work is relationships. I've always been interested in the relationship between men and women.

The double casting at the Matrix started in 1993 when I got back from Law & Order. It's very difficult to do. It takes many weeks of rehearsal and three weeks of previews but we really got it down to a science. From 1993-1995, we won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award every year. And the critics were seeing two different casts. It's remarkable to see two actors win for the same part. This is the first time I've single cast since 1989.

It's food. It feeds that spirit. It's the old "I couldn't do otherwise." I used to say I do it to change the audience's life and in the doing change my own. I love actors and I think they have a very difficult time in this culture. I'm an actor activist. I see them as an endangered species. On Judging Amy I've used nearly every one of the company's 100 actors. Everybody I've ever worked with has been on the show.

It was a shattering experience for me to be on the back page of the L.A. Times with no picture last year. It's never happened to me in 30 years. It was a sobering moment. It seems to me what they've done is categorize everything that's 99 seats and moved it to the back page on Friday. They have not respected the body of work. I understand everybody can't be on the front page, but there's a difference between 99-seat theatres.

I believe you have to look at the specific artistry. You can't group them together. There isn't any small theatre that can compare to the history of this theatre in terms of actors. My work is not the same as someone who's done two productions. You can't take a person who has a 30-year history, who has won awards, and put them with the rest. I don't think awards are intrinsically the standard of life, but they still reflect the body of work. It is a consensus that there is a consistency of work.

I've produced under every contract in this town. I've produced in New York so I have a deep understanding of the landscape. This is what's happened. The 99-seat theatres now go on the back page in Stage Beat and it doesn't matter if it's Joe Stern or Simon Levy or the kid on the corner producing his first play. What's happened is we've been invalidated.

Here's the real underlying problem that people don't get. Equity has never wanted the 99-seat theatre. They've been trying to get rid of it for 30 years. I wrote the current contract. Barbara Beckley.  Tom Ormeny, Maria Gobetti and I have kept the theatre alive in this town, legally.

We sued the union in 1988. It was called the "waiver wars." It was written in all the papers. We were the four people who did it. Tom Ormeny got a legal firm to give us $200,000 of pro bono work. We stopped Equity from changing this into a showcase in '88.

They've been trying to cut the amount of performances for 20 years. It's been a battle. The only thing New York has we don't, in terms of an industry, is theatre. We have everything else. To validate us is to invalidate what they do. Productions go from LA to New York but they don't put it in their biographies because they feel there's a backlash.

When John Patrick Shanley did The Italian American Reconciliation here in the Valley 15 years ago, and it went to New York, he never mentioned it was a big hit in L.A. I did A Common Pursuit in the mid-80s with Simon Gray after it failed at The Long Wharf two years earlier with Harold Pinter directing. It became a big hit here and when the New York producers came and took it to New York, that genealogy is not quoted because the actors didn't get union salaries.

It is because they believe they are the theatre and we're not. We're the movies. But the truth is everyone has emigrated here. We don't have Broadway. We don't have the money. But the work being done here in the smaller theatres is just as good.

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