LAST WORD: How Will the Actors in our History Shape our
(Originally printed in Theatre L.A. magazine, Volume
1 Issue 4, June/July 1983)
Joseph Stern founded Actors for Themselves in 1976 and moved into the
Matrix Theatre in 1980. He recently received the 1982 LADCC Margaret
Harford Award "For the boldness and variety of his productions and for
exemplifying the courage, single-mindedness and occasional pugnacity of
the paradoxical phrase, 'Actors for Themselves.'"
by Joseph Stern
photo by Robert Marshall Sinskey
When I returned to
Los Angeles from New York in the summer of 1974, it was with the thought
of staying but a few brief months.
My memory and impression of Los Angeles theatre had been the 200-seat
Gallery and Player's Ring Theatres on Santa Monica Boulevard. Now there
was the Music Center in place of the Biltmore downtown, and Century City
was sprouting up. Less obvious on the surface was the fact that the
Equity-waiver was two years old. The waiver allowed actors to perform in
their own theatres (99 seats) free from the traditional financial and
economic requirements of theatrical productions. As summer of 1974 turned
into winter, I discovered the waiver theatre and its healing ways.
Some of my colleagues had also relocated on the West Coast and each day
more were arriving to seek refuge from their fixed incomes in New York
theatre. Ralph Waite, also an actor, had preceded most of us here, found
his fame and fortune, and was taking the next step — the creation of a
theatre which he called the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. He had put his
money where his heart was.
While Ralph was spending a large amount of money trying to build a place
where he and his colleagues could work and grow old, Bill Devane and I
became involved with Alan Miller in a production of Are You Now or Have
You Ever Been? as co-producer and director. For many years Bill and I
had sat around dressing rooms complaining, second guessing and expounding
on what we could do if we were at the helm.
Ralph Waite, meanwhile, put on two handsome productions: The Hairy Ape
and The Kitchen, and Bill and I resurrected an old dream called
Actors for Themselves.
Our concept was age old. We figured that if you could eliminate the need
for large sums of money to be "in control" — then the rules would be based
strictly on ability. Actors (artists) could then, if money were not the
issue, create a theatre where they could develop other skills, i.e.,
directing, writing and producing. Eliminating money as the controlling
factor would beat the system.
By 1980, waiver theatre was thriving. Fifty yearly productions became 300
and then 500. In a sense, Actors' Equity Association had, through the
waiver, created an open market. There may not have been an abundance of
quality but each year had its highlights. And, for once, there was no cry
of conspiracy or repression by the establishment. We, the artists, could
now look to ourselves, whether in failure or success, for the theatre was
in control of the actors. It was ours.
Traditionally, theatres have often been created by actors. However, one of
the by-products of actor-created theatres is often success, which
inevitably creates issues of expansion and of commerce. Theatre becomes
business and it is naive to assume when that happens that it will not then
be run by businessmen. A businessman is not necessarily the enemy,
although ultimately, he can undermine the art.
In the last three years the most highly acclaimed L.A. productions were
produced in waiver theatres, many actor-created. Indeed, 23 of the 29 1983
achievement awards handed out by the LADCC were to waiver productions.
During this period we have seen the rise of the L.A. Stage Co. with their
Hollywood and Beverly Hills based mid-sized theatres. The proprietors
would be the first to acknowledge that their success is directly tied to
the long running waiver-created production of Nuts, which was produced by
an actor named Michael Zand.
The conflict between theatre as an art form and theatre as a business is
centuries old, but here in Los Angeles in 1983 it is again becoming highly
relevant and very important. We are on the threshold of another explosion.
In the next few years more mid-size houses will be created. I believe that
waiver theatre as we know it will change. The actors and actresses who
have created, almost single-handedly, this thriving Equity-waiver theater
are in danger of being pushed out; of losing control of the real estate,
the management and the environment — losing control of our destiny.
It is not that the producers and managers and administrators who are now
recognizing and capitalizing on the economic potential of waiver theatre
are bad people, or that they intend real harm. It is a question of
sensibility — they think differently than artists and have different
For all of us — the hired help of the theatre businessman — who have sat
and complained in dressing rooms, control of our destiny is too important
to let go. And it doesn't have to happen if we do one of two things: (1)
give up our timidity, face reality and learn to go the distance as
producers. Remember that it is easier for artists to become businessmen
than the other way around, as too many ambitious
producers-turned-directors have discovered to their peril. Or, (2) if we
really cannot make the conversion or will not, then surround ourselves
with support people who can, but who are in our control and to whom we
have firmly and clearly communicated the actor's sensibility. Acquire the
skill or hire it — but stay in control.
If the actors and actor/producers in Los Angeles' actor-created theatres
will not do this then it is very clear that we will be replaced. Theatre
in Los Angeles will come increasingly under the control of producers with
"show-biz" mentalities who create product or institutions and cement that
power with real estate.
And when that kind of theatre becomes dominant, the actor is once again
relegated to the outside, back in the dressing room trying to figure out
how to beat the system.
Sometime within the next few years, a $13 million edifice will appear
downtown under the name of the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. It will be a
monument to diligence, foresight, skill and business acumen. But the
legend will nowhere include the name of Ralph Waite — actor.