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Seeing Double at the New Matrix Theatre
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar section, October 24, 1993)

by Don Shirley

Well-respected actors sometimes shy away from stage jobs in Los Angeles because they are afraid a relatively low-paying gig might interfere with more lucrative work in film or TV.

In Joe Stern's new Matrix Theatre Company, that shouldn't be a big problem. He's double casting every role.

Stern is one of the few producers with strong credentials in L.A. theater and TV. In the old Equity Waiver days, theatergoers knew him for his 99-seat Matrix Theatre on Melrose and the group that inhabited it, Actors for Themselves, winner of 19 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. More recently Stern became better known as executive co-producer of "Law & Order" on CBS. But he left that job at the end of last season.

Now he's back with a new troupe at the old space. Rehearsals began Tuesday for George M. Cohan's "The Tavern," opening Dec. 4.

The cast features a bunch of L.A.'s leading actors, if not its highest-profile stars. For example, Lindsay Grouse and Penny Fuller will alternate in one role, David Dukes and Charles Hallahan in another. Audra Lindley and Marion Mercer will take turns playing Mrs. Lamson, and Robin Gammell and Cotter Smith will both play the Vagabond.

Each actor will rehearse with everyone else who might be performing any given scene. Sounds complicated, but Stern believes the actors are experienced enough— and know one another well enough—to pull it off. There will be no "A" cast or "B" cast. A theatergoer won't be able to find out in advance who is playing on any given night.

The actors will receive the token fees mandated by the Actors' Equity 99-Seat Theater Plan. But they'll also be compensated by the freedom to work elsewhere when they are not at the Matrix. The production is being paid for by money from Matrix rentals Stern has collected in the last three years—a fund that he hopes will pay for at least two seasons. After that, he'd like to attach his group to a college campus, which would again free the Matrix to be used for rentals.

Stern plans two more productions for the first season—though titles haven't yet been set—and subscription packages will be available. Opening on March 21 will be another revival, probably from the 19th Century. The final play, scheduled for May, will be a new work produced in conjunction with Off Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. Chances are it will play here first, then go to New York, Stern said. "We will be their regional theater."

Don Scardino, artistic director of Playwright Horizons, is an old friend of Stern and worked as a director on "Law & Order." He confirmed that his group will help Stern pick new plays for the Matrix and will probably retain an option on producing them in New York. "Anytime Joe wants to re-commit himself to the theater," Scardino said, "I want to support him."

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