About a half a dozen years ago, Natalie Wood was
selected by the Harvard Lampoon as "the worst actress of this or any
other year." To everyone's astonishment, Miss Wood wired ahead that
she would come to Cambridge and collect her award. In her acceptance
speech, she said, "I would like to thank all the producers and
directors, without whose help I could never have earned this award."
Natalie Wood put neatly into words the most
naggingly common lament in show business.—"He sold me down the river!"
Of course, passing the buck and avoiding the blame are not peculiar to
the entertainment industry, alone. There's not an assembly-line worker
alive who isn't certain he could run the line better than his foreman.
Nor a professor who isn't convinced he could run the department better
than his chairman. Nor a tackle who doesn't think he could run the
team better than his coach. Similarly, every bad performance in a
professional theatrical production (to hear an actor's explanation) is
the result of some idiot director's dim-witted mistakes. There are
many actors, in fact, who simply refuse to listen to a director,
because they are convinced no director alive is as talented as they
are. A few of them even manage to find work from time to time.
While grousing and griping are clearly not confined
to any one walk of life—indeed it often appears to be our favorite
national pastime—what is rare is the man who becomes finally fed up
with his superiors and sets out, independent and unmeddled-with, to
prove them once and for all incompetent. Rarer still is the man who
attempts it and succeeds.
"Second guessing," says actor Joseph Stern, "turns
to cynicism and sour grapes. I decided I wanted to turn it into
something positive." His "something positive" is what he hopes to to
call An Actors' Theatre.
It is not Stern's project alone. Stern, who has
acted in repertory theaters around the country, also appeared in
Macbird and in several New York Shakespeare Festival productions
with Stacy Keach. He also acted for several years on the television
soap opera, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, along with David
Birney (who graduated last season to the ill-fated Bridgette Loves
Bernie series). Together, Keach, Birney and Stern began some
months ago to evolve a plan for a theater which would free them from
the wretched dominance of unimaginative producers and inept directors.
"Producers are the taste-makers," says Stern. "A
few of them dictate each year what we will see. An Actors' Theatre
evolves from the common desire to impose our artistic
sensibilities on the public, to show we are the answer."
In 1969, Stern produced A Whistle in the Dark
off-Broadway. From this experience and from his desire to show he
is the answer, Stern has taken upon himself the role of "producing
Though he will not act in An Actors' Theatre's
productions, he will be producing plays, he feels, with an actor's
taste and judgment and with a strong knowledge of what an actor needs
and craves. Envisioned as a non-profit, non-commercial theater, it is
hoped that An Actors' Theatre will be freed from all Broadway
Actors will serve frequently as directors,
especially since Stern, Keach and Birney are all convinced that only
an actor knows how to evoke a really good performance from another
actor. There will be four productions a year, each performing in a
limited run of six weeks only. Each play will rehearse for four weeks,
thus requiring the presence of actors for only ten weeks for each
production. And since Stern's vision encompasses a company of as many
as 60 performers, clearly an actor might only appear in one production
a year. This would give him much free time to appear in other, more
remunerative productions, or perhaps in films. This would also give
actors an opportunity to feel part of a theatrical community with a
minimum of participation. "What was the phrase someone came up with?"
reflected Stern. " 'A continuing commitment without a continuing
A truly attractive concept. Particularly to actors
who never know where or when their next project will materialize. Here
is a commitment that will succor and shelter them, utilize their
talents and yet leave them free to scramble after fame and fortune on
the side. And all for a minimum of ten weeks' effort a year. And that
at a guaranteed off-Broadway minimum wage (which is less, actually,
than any good typist can pull down as a starting salary).
Says Stern, "Actors have committed themselves. They
will be there." Those committed include Keach and Birney, of course,
along with James Earl Jones, Kathleen Widdoes, Rip Torn, Geraldine
Page, Raul Julia, Len Cariou, and such other, lesser-known but regular
Broadway professionals as Michael McGuire, Stephen Elliot, Tom
Aldredge, Nancy Marchand, Jill Clayburgh and Rue McClanahan. Al Pacino,
one of the first committed, has since pulled out.
This is not a theater of vague vision, without
concrete plans. They are considering scheduling The Seagull by
Chekhov, Romeo and Juliet or Richard II by Shakespeare, Ah,
Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill, or perhaps Baal by Bertolt
Brecht. They have, as of this writing, congregated twice, once to read
through Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the second time to try out
Charley's Aunt. Each time there was a small audience in
attendance, limited exclusively to intimate friends. The actors were
not performing, rather they were getting the feel of the company,
learning how to work with new colleagues, seeing just how much they
would actually enjoy the work they were proposing to do. For
make no mistake, this is a theater which aims to correct what actors
dislike about the theater, at least for those actors fortunate
enough to be invited to join the company. Not for these actors are
productions in which actors are little more than puppets. If sinking
the teeth into a particular script does not instantly release a
particularly pleasant flavor, the project will not be to this
An Actors' Theatre has a designer, too, Kert F.
Lundell, a blisteringly talented set designer born in Sweden, trained
at Yale and at Chicago's Goodman Theater. Lundell has designed several
distinctive Broadway productions, among them an airy, yet complexly
cage-like slum for Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and a
chipped-edged, fading hotel room which managed not to yield a trace of
gloom or depression for Neil Simon's bright and lightweight comedy,
The Sunshine Boys.
The new company has a theater as well. Several
years ago, Samuel Rubin, the hugely successful founder and president
of Faberge, had his personal foundation pick up a church-community
house complex which was lost deep in the wilderness of Manhattan's
teeming garment district. Minus its congregation as a result of the
area's commercial expansion, the church was standing empty when the
Rubin foundation bought it and turned it over to a non-profit company
known as The Space for Innovative Development, Inc.
The Space (as it is known for short) was founded to
provide working room "for rehearsing, teaching, creating and
performing," the performing arts. Such obscurely experimental groups
as Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, The Murray Louis-Alwin Nikolais
Dance Theater Lab and Eric Salzman's Quog Music Theatre have all found
bases in the Space's massive five-story complex. An Actors' Theatre
intends to have its home there, too. Already the Space is setting up
shops for scenery and costumes, spanking new dressing and shower
areas, and is redesigning the major playing area.
All An Actors' Theatre needs now is the money. As
Show goes to press, An Actors' Theatre exists actually only on
paper and in its dreams of glory, its dreams of vindication—its dreams
of revenge. For it hasn't raised a penny. Moreover, there has not been
a successful theater run by a successful actor since the death of
England's Henry Irving in 1905, the last of the once traditional
actor-managers. (This excepts Laurence Olivier who managed England's
National Repertory Theatre for the past decade or so, because his was
an essentially government-supported operation.)
Still this is a theater which, above all, intends
to keep the needs and desires of all its actors at the forefront of
its operational decisions, not the frenzied slathering after profits
customary to most producers, nor the usual egocentric
wish-fulfillments of arbitrary and arbitrarily designated directors.
This is a theater dedicated to the principle that what is best for
actors is—or at any rate ought to be— what is best for the
Perhaps. One hopes the money can be found in time
and that these actors can once and for all find out whether they
indeed know better than the reputedly tasteless tastemakers. Joseph
Stern, for one, fully recognizes that there is too much in the world
waiting to be accomplished for anyone to waste his time in griping. An
Actor's Theatre is intended as a step toward ending all that.