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A Stern Grip on Success
(Originally printed in Drama-Logue, June 18-24, 1981)

by Connie Danese

"I believe there are only a handful of people who are great at anything. I guess what I'm trying to do is be a great producer." Joe Stern is the owner and producer of a company called Actors For Themselves at the Matrix Theatre. He also produces movies for Paramount; his current one is The Winds of War, a 16-hour mini-series. "I think a great producer is like a great conductor. He brings all the elements together and stays with it every step of the way so that it can fulfill its potential. The downfall of some of the great producers in American theatre is the fact that they want to be, and have been, directors. And they have all been mediocre. They operate in such a way so that the people they surround themselves with cannot know more or threaten them in any way, even the actors."

Joe Stern's objective at the Matrix is to create a place where top-caliber people can do their work. "A first-class theatre of 99 seats, nothing more." His current waiver play there is Table Settings by James Lapine. It's selling-out every performance, yet there has been no effort made to move it to a larger house. "What's a hit in waiver isn't necessarily going to be a hit in a commercial situation. You have based your weekly ad campaign on trying to sell 400 seats. When you make a move you're looking at anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 seats a week. Table Settings has been running over 13 weeks. You have to move a show within six weeks to take advantage of the heat. Once it gets past that it takes a very unusual show to keep going. First of all, our cast has changed. It's been months since anyone has read the reviews. To move you have to capitalize it, which means raising $20-30,000. There are huge salaries and you are open to being re-reviewed. If you don't get that review in the L.A. Times again, you're dead."

There has been a movement in Los Angeles to attempt to develop the interim-size house as a viable alternative to the larger theatres (i.e., Pantages, Shubert). "People are very price-conscious today. They can go to the Taper for $12-13. Right now they are getting $15 at the Las Palm-as [now renamed L.A. Stage Co.] for Uncommon Women. That's too much money. People will pay it for Evita and see two shows a year. But to get 15 bucks out of them you gotta have a red hot show and even then they think twice. I charged $7.50 for our show till May 24th when I added a dollar increase. We have one of the most comfortable theatres in town and there are theatres like the Cast getting $9 for a matchbox."

Besides price, Stern believes location and parking play a large part in the success of a theatre. "There are a great majority of people who will never go anywhere except to Century City and downtown. Even the Pantages is in a better location than the Las Palmas. Hollywood and Vine is a landmark. It's also cleaner there.

"In New York it's fashionable to walk in dirt. It's a totally different culture, but you live with it from day to day. The juxtaposition of the cultures is something you don't have here. You have an incredible white Jewish middle-class here that goes to the theatre and they don't know dirt. They predicate theatregoing on underground parking. They call the Matrix and ask what's the parking situation. I say there's miles of streets and it's all empty at that hour. You're talking about a car culture. You're talking about a culture that regards the word comfort more than anything else in the world. You're talking about tremendous competition for the entertainment dollar with the sports capital, Knott's Berry Farm and Magic Mountain. They are not going to go to the Matrix or the Las Palmas or anywhere else."

Stern agrees there is another audience out there looking to spend their entertainment dollar on theatre, "but they don't want to spend 15 bucks unless they have to see it. This girl [Susan] Dietz is a hell of an entrepreneur. I don't know what kind of a producer she is. She hasn't done enough plays for me to know. Whether she can get a big enough subscription to come to that theatre is doubtful and you cannot make it without a subscription. But I hope it-works because it helps all of us."

The showcase code gives many Broadway producers an expensive tryout, Stern states. "When a show moves, producers have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars not to mention the risk factor. Who pays for it but the actor? He gets very little and should be protected. I agree with the AEA position that the original actors should be compensated. The first-class Broadway producer gets a show that has already been mounted and critically acclaimed. What is his obligation but $7-10,000 in salary? Think of the hundreds of thousands he would have to pay in a tryout."

He agrees that the actors in New York are in effect subsidizing theatre. "But not so much in L.A. There's no place to move shows here. Actors in L.A. are working for two reasons: the work and the glory. There are no producers reaping the benefits. The only people making any money are the landlords. 25-50% of the budgets go for rent."

Actors also do waiver to entice the film industry to see their work, "but I'm a nut for no comps. except the press. I have two free previews in which actors can invite anyone they want. It's my experience that if you give somebody something for free they do not have the same expectations. All we ask is for them to spend $6 or $7 to watch. You spend $5 on a movie. We're asking for the lowest barest subsidy which is the price of a ticket. I hate to see an actor go into his own pocket. I will personally call an agent or casting director and try to re-educate them about the theatre to explain why it's important that they pay and support us. The really big ones always pay. Class. You've got to train the industry to respect the theatre."

The next production at the Matrix is a heavy piece called Two Small Bodies. It was supposed to open four weeks after Table Settings. "I did not intend to sit down with a commercial play for five or six months and do this nice Jewish comedy. Although I think now that it's more than that. The new play is based on the Alice Crimmins case. She was the cocktail waitress on Long Island who killed her two children. It's a surrealistic dance with her and the cop. I think it will knock the theatrical community on its ass. It's a tremendous duet for two actors."

Joe Stern considers himself a creative producer but, "the only thing I question personally is whether in the end producing is enough." He works hard to see his vision on the stage and is considering taking a step as a director. "I don't know. I guess I have to be willing to fail. I have no problem failing as a producer. It's a question of whether I have the guts to fail as a director. I definitely believe that producing is a real art. I do what I do to change other people's lives and in the doing of it change my own life. That is why I do it. It's the same drive as the writer or director. It's the same need that I have as a producer."

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