JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
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TV, Stage Producer Joe Stern Contends the Best Actors Don't Get Exposure
(Originally printed in Drama-Logue, July 27 - August 2, 1979)

by Terry Fisher

Joseph Stem is not your ordinary breed of theatrical producer.

When he sees a reviewer at the end of a long line of people waiting to pick up her tickets for The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, he will step out of the box office of the Coronet Theatre (in tennis shorts!) and bring the tickets to her. He's the kind of producer who will come up to that same reviewer during intermission of Chapin at the Improvisation and ask if she thinks the music is too loud.

Two years ago. Joe Stern turned his hand to producing for television. I visited him on the set where Mrs. R's Daughter was being filmed by Dan Curtis Productions (based at MGM Studios) for showing on NBC later this year.

The story by Emmy award-winner George Rubino (The Last Tenant) stars Cloris Leachman, Season Hubley, Donald Moffat, Stephen Elliot and Ron Rifkin.

I asked Stern how he compared producing for the stage and producing for television. "I pretty much approach them in exactly the same way," he replied, "in the sense that I'm very concerned, that the script be executed as well as possible, that the proper actors are cast for each part, that the actors are faithful to the words. That everything be accurate and true to character, true to period. The only difference is that TV places certain restrictions on you in terms of casting or text which don't exist on the stage. I'm still learning the mechanics of making movies so, if anything, I may make a misjudgment. I look at it as a stage play almost, and sometimes people get a kick out of it. They say I don't recognize the magic of television what the process of making movies can do. I suspect that' 11 change after a while.''

Asked about casting on future projects which would be of interest to Drama-Logue readers, Stern stated, "We have a number of features on the board all kinds of pictures. Hopefully, the next picture I'm going to do has a lot of minorities in it Orientals and blacks but I don't know who will be handling casting. One of the problems with TV is that a lot of the pans are network-approved. You don't have a lot to say. I've been fortunate in this production in that I've been able to get a lot of people that I've worked with before, so it's loaded with actors from the stage. At the very top you can't do that. The network has the say."

Joe Stern wasn't always a producer. He became a professional actor 15 years ago after being graduated from UCLA with acting honors. He performed in repertory companies throughout the U.S., off-Broadway, and for film and television. He played the Earl of Warren in Macbird and last appeared onstage in Hot l Baltimore. He was also in six productions for the New York Shakespeare Festival.

His first Equity job was in Hamlet for Joseph Papp in 1965. It was during this production that Stern met his present business associate, William Devane. "He was a carpenter and I was holding a spear," recalled Stern. "We didn't talk at all during Hamlet. Then I went into Othello and he was still a carpenter. We all read for one-line parts. The next day we were talking about who got what part and I said, 'Who got that part where the guy comes out and says, "Here is more news"?' One of the actors shook his head and said, "The carpenter.''' Stern pauses and smiles. "I said, 'You're kidding.' It turned out Bill had been an actor. He really hadn't done much. He'd worked for Papp for years as janitor, anything he could do.

"We became fast friends, kind of grew up together. Then I was very helpful in getting him into Macbird, which changed his career. I had to audition for it and I said to him, 'Come on, I'll take you in there.' They thought I was kidding because I brought this guy in off the street who looked like Bobby Kennedy, and he got the part. They thought it was a joke. They didn't think he was an actor. Then he took off." (William Devane did indeed take off. He played John F. Kennedy in Missiles of October and John Henry Faulk in Fear on Trial on television, in addition to stage and film roles.)

Their friendship led them into the area of producing. Their first play was Thomas Murphy's award- winning A Whistle in the Dark off-Broadway. Together and individually, they have made their mark on Los Angeles theatre. In 1975, Stern co-produced and Devane directed Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, which was honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Stern co-produced The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia. Under their banner company of Actors For Themselves, Stern and Devane co-produced The Changing Room at the Odyssey Theatre and Chapin, both directed by Devane.

'THERE'S A REAL ARROGANCE IN THE THEATRE.'

Two and one-half years ago, Stern and Devane bought the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue. Actors For Themselves will commence its first season there around Christmas. They plan to do four or five plays a season, each running about six weeks. "The problem now," says Stern, "is that Bill is tied up for the rest of the year with From Here to Eternity, I'm tied up making movies. We were supposed to start June 1. We've put it off till October now. When I produced those four plays in a row, they ran consecutively overlapping for 32 months and I was in the box office every day and in the theatre every night. I did everything because I am compulsive. What I need to do is get a couple of people in who can run the thing so that I can supervise it."

Stern would not say what plays they contemplate doing because he has found that whenever he does that, other people end up doing them. They plan to do a mixture of old and new plays, and Stern is interested in reading original scripts.

To my question about casting, he replied that it is open but "the truth of the matter is, we know so many people that we really in a sense often choose the people before the play. It's part of the concept of Actors For Themselves. Often we start with the actors and then find the play and the director. We also hope to develop actors into directors."

When I asked Joe Stern his feelings about Los Angeles theatre, he zeroed in like a missile on target. "The problem with the theatre has always been the misuse of power," he said. "There are four or five people running theatre in the U.S. like Joe Papp, Ted Mann, Gordon Davidson, who are figureheads and who have a conflict of interest. They got the land first. They got the building put up, and they got money, and they're terrific salesmen. But they all had yearnings to be directors and so they appointed themselves as directors and all of them are mediocre.

"Now there's a certain question of ethics here, which is the fact that all these theatres are partially publicly funded. So in a sense they have a responsibility to you and I who pay our taxes. And they haven't done what I feel a producer should do. He should have one goal, which is to pursue excellence. He brings the best people together to achieve the best product, which means he brings in people who often know more than he does. And that's a very difficult thing for anybody to accept. All these people that I have mentioned, and a few others who have run the biggest theatres in our country, have never done that. They have surrounded themselves with people who are less than the best. The acting companies are not particularly distinguished. The directors certainly are not. All these people who run the theatre have developed very few directors, if any, in the last 10 or 15 years, which is frightening.

"Their big claim is that they do take chances because they do avant garde and they test new playwrights. But, you see, it's not chance-taking at all because the truth of the matter is, it's been the way you get money and justify your program to the powers that hand out the grants. It's in your interest to promote new plays whether they're bad or good. If they're bad, then it doesn't matter because you've lost nothing. You're a great experimenter. And if they're good, you get all the glory. And what's also interesting is that these guys save themselves the best play to direct. When they're personally involved in terms of their ego and" vanity being on the line, which means directing and not producing, they don't take very many chances. It's a very clever modus operandi.

"I have had some 100 actors in all my plays, and they're all L.A.-based. Only one or two have appeared in any productions at the Taper. People are always asking me, where do these guys come from? Well, they're right here in L.A., and they're dying to work. And they can't get in down there. Maybe they get an audition, but they're not on that stage there. When we go to the Taper every year, we are not seeing the best actors in the city. And we are not seeing the best directors. Now I won't mention any names, but someone at the Taper has directed about 15 productions there in the last decade or more. He may be a very nice man but there are many more gifted people around. I would venture to say I've only been back five years that there has not been a recipient of an LADCC award for directing who has subsequently been asked to direct a play at the Taper.

"I read in New York Theatre Review that Gordon Davidson said no play has ever moved from a waiver situation to a successful commercial run. He didn't mention Are You Now . . . which ran 14 months, or Knights of the White Magnolia which ran for seven. I don't see the Taper furthering L.A. theatre, taking advantage of its talent in the directing, , writing or acting ranks. I've never seen people like Bill Devane, Ron Sossi, Elaine Moe or Gwen Arner direct a production at the Taper.

"A guy like Devane even though he's my partner -- wins two directing awards in a row. He's never been asked. Ron Sossi has gotten great reviews for years. Personally, I'm not a big fan of his as a theatre owner, but as a director he's obviously a man of talent. To my knowledge, he's never been asked to direct a play at the Taper.

"I just saw a production of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial by a guy I never heard of named Frank Condon. Here's a perfect example of a terrific show that could move to the Taper. Why aren't they doing it? Instead, they're bringing in three off-Broadway productions from New York. I see in Condon's credits that he's been involved with the Taper's Improvisational Theatre Project. Why wasn't this guy promoted? Why hasn't he directed a mainstage production at the Taper? This guy can direct for me at the Matrix anytime! I know why he hasn't been asked. He's obviously a strong-minded guy, and anybody who is strong-minded can usually be called a renegade and is not going to get hired in any of these theatres, much less the Taper, because they threaten the guys that run them who are also directors and less gifted. So in these theatres you don't see renegade writers, actors or directors.

STIMULATED BY 'ZOOT SUIT'

"Every year when you go to the Taper, that guy decides the four or five plays you're going to see, who's going to direct them and who's going to act in them. The only thing I've ever been really stimulated by at the Taper was the second act of Zoot Suit, and that was El Teatro Campesino. The most positive thing I've seen there was this Playworks Series where Gwen Arner, who's a very good person, was brought in.

"I find it incredible to see theatres named after people I never heard of who are alive. The Solari Theatre, the Gene Dynarski Theatre," said Stern, laughing. "It took Olivier 50 years to have a theatre named for him. How dare they?! That offends me! I think there's a real arrogance in the theatre. It has very much to do with retaining power."

I asked Stern point-blank, "Don't you want power?"

"Oh, yes! But I feel I know how to use power in the most positive sense that is, to bring people together, to pursue excellence, to create something that's really fine. The main thing that drives me is that in each play or whatever it is that I do, I always learn something about myself, and therefore the audience must be learning something about itself, too. If you try to control every situation you're in, you're not going to learn anything and the audience won't either. Because all you're concerned about is holding on to your piece of land, how much money you've got, or whatever it is. Once you do that, you can't really go after your objectives. It becomes about something other than the experience. It becomes about your own ego, your own survival, and that gets in the way of the work. And so the experience is diminished for everybody."

I reminded Stern that he brought in people he has worked with in the past for his television projects and will be doing the same thing at the Matrix. Isn't he doing exactly what he accuses others of doing? "Yes, I realize that when I say that," he admitted. "But I don't bring people in to satisfy my own comfort. I bring them in because I think they're the best. Sometimes I work with people who make me uncomfortable because I know they're good, and I know they have something to contribute. I don't think a lot of other people do that, and I think that's the difference between the way Bill and I use people and the way other theatres use people. I'm a strong believer in groups of people working together again and again and again. So I don't want to mislead you. What I'm saying is that it's how you choose those people, what needs they fulfill, how far you're willing to extend yourself."

"What about all these hundreds of actors in L.A. who are really talented," I asked him, "whom maybe you don't know about, who would like to read for parts at the Matrix and won't be able to because you're going to be pre-casting in a sense?"

"It's a real handicap and a real failure of mine," he replied. "Usually I discover new people by going to see them perform in other plays, and you never get to see as many plays as you should. That is my misuse of power that 'x' amount of people won't get an opportunity who should. But usually in each production we pick up two or three people we didn't know from before so that the amount of people has grown in the last three or four years. It's a real problem, there's no question about it. Again, it has to do with power and how far you're willing to extend yourself. And everybody has their limitations, me included.

"I'm proud to produce for the theatre and now to be in television, because I think there's a real art in producing and it has to do with .generosity of spirit, humility and the ability to be vulnerable. This has been a natural progression for me to go from theatre to movies and TV and see people who have been in relationships with me moving with me. It's no longer whom we're looking up to in theatre and movies. We are the theatre. We are the movies. We've got the power. We've been given the opportunity to create. What are we going to do with it? "

The Los Angeles theatre community will no doubt eagerly await Joe Stern's answer to his own question.
 

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