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Sam Weisman: Opera's Loss is Theatre's Gain
(Originally printed in Drama-Logue, May 14-20, 1981)


He's always wanted to direct, but he was sidetracked into acting. Now, having just turned 34, actor Sam Weisman has directed his first professional level production, and the difficulty in obtaining tickets will indicate the quality of his work. The play is James Lapine's Table Settings, in its west coast premiere production currently running to sold out houses at the Matrix on Melrose. Another indication is the stature of the cast which opened the run, including Valerie Curtin and Tames Sutorius (replaced this past week by Donna McKechnie and Mark Lonow).

Upstairs at the Matrix, Sam Weisman slouches in a comfortable chair, his arms and legs stretched out. He is a comfortable man.. "It's my first directing job at this level, I guess. I started out wanting to be a director," he says softly. "I was a music history major as an undergraduate at Yale and sort of vaguely got interested in the theatre; I'd been in a couple of little things. I didn't know what I wanted to do. There was the war and the draft and it was a very confused time, you know, what to do, not to go, go to Canada." But he graduated and began teaching in private secondary schools in Connecticut and Westchester County in New York. I directed some plays with students and I found I really enjoyed it and really had a flair for it."

He accidentally got a summer stock job as general manager of the Brunswick Musical Theatre, an Equity resident company in Maine, during the summer between his two teaching years and the die was cast. The next step was graduate work in acting and directing at Brandeis University, "having never really acted at all. I'd been in one play in my life. I didn't have any money. They accepted me with no money and said if I did well they would give me a fellowship later."

Weisman did the first professional production of Michael Weller's Moonchildren, after its Broadway run, at the Academy Festival Theatre in Chicago. "So I really sort of fell into all of this acting work, you know, and I did some commercials and I really decided I wanted to be an actor."

Europe called, the grand tour, so after Brandeis Weisman spent several months on the other side of the Atlantic.  "I got really fascinated with the English theatre, and obsessed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and their approach to things." The experience taught him something more about acting, technical versus Method: "I feel there is a problem with American actors. They are very reluctant to address themselves to physical things." As part of the learning process experience is, he took what he had had of Method training, with coaches such as Michael Howard, what he had had of technical training, what was bubbling in his mind and let it simmer. "A lot of it has not really crystallized for me until recently. All the study I did with Howard, and the movement at Brandeis, it's all beginning to come together now, in the last year. I think it's from doing Life in the Theatre with Stephen Elliott." This was at the Matrix, replacing Bruce Davison after a couple of weeks and finishing the run.

However, Sam was not unprepared for the Life experience. He had gone through the struggling years in New York, doing the things dedicated actors do, except "not making a living was getting tonne." He was having those doubts all struggling actors cherish. "Then, on a quirk, I got offered a job as assistant stage manager at the Metropolitan Opera under John Dexter, who had just taken over as director of productions. They offered me $450 a week, which at that time was more money than I could have conceived of making. I was faced with a choice. Was I going to give up acting for a year, because it was a year's contract, and then possibly never go back to it and do this? My background is really music, and there are people who were in the opera world who knew about me who were interested in me because I had a theatre background too, and they were trying to groom me as an opera conductor." He was even offered a job with the New England Conservatory. "I kept saying 'no! no! no!' because basically I wanted to act.

So the day I was offered the job at the Metropolitan, the agent I had recently signed with in New York, who had moved to L.A., called me and said, 'Come to L.A. I'm making no promises, so just pack a couple of suitcases.' So I literally packed a couple suitcases and came out here. I borrowed f500, I had no money. I was so in debt it was incredible. This was November of '76. I got my first job three weeks after I got out here, a part on an episode of Baretta, and then I got a guest star on a Police Story." This was followed by the continuing role of Howie Freeze on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

At about this time he met Joseph Stern, producer of Table Settings, and William DeVane. "They were just going into rehearsal for Chapin. Literally I walked in off the street and auditioned for the show and wound up doing it. I played in the show for the whole run, seven months. I got a lot of exposure and it kind of gave me a home in L.A. I ended up never going back to New York. I stayed here and got married, over two and a half years ago." Sam's wife is actress Constance McCashin of Knot's Landing.

Table Settings has been the springboard for other projects, including a musical tentatively titled A Game of Hearts, with music by and starring Amanda McBroom, which will open at the Westwood Playhouse under Sam's direction and hopefully then head for New York.

Having worked Equity-waiver as both actor and director, Sam Weisman knows the territory and has some definite ideas about the situation. "Because of Table Settings I've been offered waiver plays to direct, but I have a lot of problems about waiver theatre. I know in New York that it was botched up, and now it's coming full circle. The problem is that the audience is too segmented in L.A., and in New York, too. In New York you have tourists and people from out of town who see Broadway, so that Broadway theatre to me is still the strongest, most viable theatre in the country, because of dollars and cents. Beyond that you have a lot of segmentation, a lot of people competing for grant money, which is now disappearing. They're competing for audience, they're competing for real estate. Here in L.A. it boils down to real estate."

"Was I going to give up acting - and then never go back to it?"

It's all in the finances, he feels. "The whole story of waiver theatre is people leaving; it's just one thing

after another. The stage manager leaves, this person leaves, you know, it all boils down to the fact that unless people can make money they're not going to stick around. You get producers and casting directors who go to New York, they see an off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway show, they'll snap the people up, the directors, the actors, whatever. We've got a great cast here. Nobody in this cast has gotten any work out of this show. Nobody relates to the theatre here in the same way they relate to it in New York." But Equity-waiver keeps trying, trying, trying, and that is precisely why Sam Weisman is part of it.

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