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
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