This innovative approach to casting has attracted an
impressive lineup of actors, including Cotter Smith, Lindsay Crouse,
Marian Mercer, David Dukes and Audra Lindley.
"The Matrix experiment has solved a major issue, which
is: If you're working here in town and you're only going to miss a night
here and there, does that mean you have to give up the theater? And the
answer is no," Hallahan said.
Smith, best-known as prosecutor Eugene Rogan on the
former ABC legal drama "Equal Justice," added: "I think this company is
very important for this city. We need a good repertory company of actors
like this. (The) concept of double-casting is bringing in actors who don't
have the time or energy to do a long run of a play anymore, given that
they have families and mortgages and needs to make money other ways."
The actors aren't the only ones who are raving.
Tavern" opened in previews Nov. 24, and as soon as glowing reviews hit
print in early December, audiences steadily grew until they filled the
99-seat theater. The Jan. 17 earthquake caused attendance to dip, but the
numbers are back up to an average 95 percent of capacity.
Now, as the entertainment world passes through awards
season, the show is racking up a slew of nominations.
The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle — whose members
write for local newspapers and trade publications — has nominated the show
for seven awards, including the prestigious Best Production prize. Its
tally ties with the lavish "Sunset Boulevard" for most nominations.
(Winners will be announced Tuesday.)
The critics at the Weekly have nominated "The Tavern"
for three awards — including outstanding revival production — as part of
that publication's annual awards to smaller theaters. And the theater
trade publication Drama-Logue gave the show two awards, including
"I was trying to get good actors to recommit to the
theater and, if I could, get the audience to recommit to the theater,"
Joseph Stern, the Matrix Theatre Company's producer.
He appears to have succeeded.
"The Tavern" is the first production of a newly
reconstituted company under Stern's supervision.
He was one of the leading lights of Los Angeles theater
in the 1980s, when he led Actors for Themselves at the Matrix — in the
same Melrose Avenue theater that the new company occupies,
Actors for Themselves established an enviable track
record, staging the world premieres of such renowned plays as Lyle
Kessler's "Orphans" and Simon Gray's "The Common Pursuit," and winning the
Drama Critics' prestigious 1982 Margaret Harford Award for sustained and
distinguished achievement in small theater.
Stem left Los Angeles for three years in the early '90s
to serve as executive producer of the NBC drama "Law & Order" in New York.
When he returned, he was determined to solve one of Los Angeles theater's
most perplexing problems:
Why do big-name actors rarely appear on local stages,
even though many of them are itching to tread the boards?
For most, they earn their bread and butter in the
lucrative television and film fields, so theater is a hobby they can't
On series television, a well-known actor can earn
$10,000 to $30,000 per episode, Stern said. Most weeks at the Matrix, the
actors have earned $14 a performance, in accordance with the relaxed
salary standards that the Actors Equity Association union allows in
theaters with 99 or fewer seats.
Not only does theater pay poorly, but it requires a time
commitment of weeks or months.
So if actors accept stage jobs, they face a dilemma
whenever screen work becomes available. They either must turn it down or
bow out of the stage production, leaving the show in the lurch if it
doesn't happen to have understudies. And many stage shows don't,
especially smaller ones.
With its double-cast roles, however, "The Tavern" allows
prominent actors like Hallahan to work for television or film, then
moonlight in the theater.
The actors appreciate this access to theater, in which
they stoke their creative energies.
"Suppose you're an expert golfer and you have a bag that
has 10 clubs in it, and you hit good, straight, true shots with all 10
clubs," Hallahan said. "You've been trained to do so, and you've worked
hard so that you're good with all clubs. When the movies hire you, they
ask you to just bring your nine iron, and in the theater, you get to use
all your clubs."
The Matrix and its audiences benefit by gaining access
to some of the most experienced and best-known actors in the business.
And for audiences and actors alike, there's an added
level of excitement in the Matrix's policy of reshuffling the cast every
One night, Smith might be portraying a wandering
vagabond opposite Mitchell Ryan as a tavern owner and John Walcutt as the
owner's son. At the next performance, Smith might play opposite Jim Haynie
and Kurt Deutsch in those roles. And the next, he might play opposite Ryan
This changes the play's dynamics.
"It's something like musicians jamming," said performer
Penny Fuller, perhaps best-known for her Emmy Award-winning performance as
Mrs. Kendal in "The Elephant Man." "We know the play, but because it's a
little different (every night), we're taking off on riffs — because the
person opposite you is a little different than the one last night."
Ticket buyers are not told who's playing the night
they're purchasing tickets. "We don't want to buy into that whole star
number," Stern said. "It's a repertory company and whoever you see you
Stern intends to double-cast most Matrix shows. The
exceptions will be brand-new plays, which the company will begin to tackle
in future seasons. New plays often need to be refined during rehearsals, a
process that would be too complicated with two actors in each role. "The
writer needs the continuity," Stem said.
In coming seasons, the Matrix will tackle a broad range
of dramatic literature, including classics, revivals and new plays. "I'll
do anything that's good," Stern said.
The company's second show will be "Habeas Corpus," a
little-known 1973 British farce by Alan Bennett, April 12 through June 19.
For the third show, several company members are adapting and staging short
stories by Anton Chekhov.