Matrix, according to Webster, is "that within which.. .something
ignites, takes form, or develops." However, to the Los Angeles theater
community—and word is spreading quickly—Matrix means exciting theater.
It's the dream that grows on Melrose (7657 Melrose, to be exact), under
the watchful eye and guiding hand of producer Joseph Stern, its owner and
artistic director. Three years ago, he formed the Matrix Theater Company,
the founding members of which were Penny Fuller, Robin Gammell, Tony
Giordano, Charles Hallahan, Mary Joan Negro, Lawrence Pressman, Andrew
Robinson, and Cotter Smith. And Stern decided to double-cast the
productions at his 99-seat theater. In that way, actors of equal caliber
could play the same roles; and when one had to shoot a sitcom episode, or
be on location for a movie role, the other would appear. "Actors couldn't
do theater because of job conflicts," says Stern, "and audiences are
usually disappointed when understudies come on."
In its first three seasons, the Matrix Theater Company has done six
productions. And, for an unprecedented third year in a row, it's received
the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Production: George M. Cohan's
The Tavern won for 1993; Chekhov's The Seagull for 1994; and
Pinter's The Homecoming for 1995.
In his TheaterWeek review of Endgame, Charles Marowitz
observed, "By L.A. standards, this production and its actors are head and
shoulders above anything being done in other Waiver houses around Melrose,
Hollywood, or the valley. There is a palpable intelligence at work here,
and producer Joe Stern has assembled some of the most skillful actors in
the city for his rotating company."
Explains Stem, 'The actors mix and match during rehearsals, and in
previews. The last week, I freeze it, so they can have two or three
performances together, before the opening. We flip a coin for opening
night. The casts are assembled by the coin flip. So, it's not Cast Number
One and Cast Number Two, or Cast A and Cast B. Critics started coming to
both shows, and reviewing both casts. During the run, due to other jobs,
it becomes mix and match. On a given evening, any possible combination of
actors may perform together. You can see a play any number of times and never see the same
"Watching performances, I'm constantly knocked out by the number of
talented actors who are wasted in this culture which doesn't support the
arts. I think the great talent that's out here is a microcosm of the
American actor. More and more young actors are coming lo Hollywood; the
theater isn't as much of a training ground as it once was. I think the
talent here is greater than in New York, or in London—and the fact that so
few work in the theater is a great waste. This is the place where there
could be a national rep company."
A former actor, who started his career in the mid-Sixties at the Public
Theater, Stern says, "I was just a working actor. I never wanted it bad
enough." Born in Los Angeles, he was raised two blocks from the Matrix,
which he and acting pal William Devane purchased in the late 1970s. In
1980, he became the sole owner, and during the next decade, the plays that
Stern produced, under his Actors for Themselves banner, earned 19
awards from the L.A. Drama Critics Circle.
Simultaneously working in films (among others, he produced Dad,
starring Jack Lemmon) and TV (where his numerous credits have earned him
five Emmy nominations), Stern accepted a 1990 otter to work in New York as
co-executive producer of the then-new NBC-TV series, Law and Order.
After three seasons, he and Peppy Stem (his wife since 1964, and mother of
their two sons) moved back to L.A., where he formed the Matrix Theater
As I speak to Joe Stem, it's early morning in his Pacific Palisades
home, and he'd been "at the Matrix till one o'clock, this morning,"
working on the latest Stem turn, Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest,
which begins the company's fourth season. "It has eleven actors playing
forty parts-times two. I've got actors speaking Romanian, intricate fight
scenes, singing... We could never do this without the skill of [the cast,
director Stephanie Shroyer, and crew].
"In the last two weeks, I've lost seven actors. Tony Amendola went to
Williamstown for the lead in a new play. Charlie Hallahan rehearsed the
first two weeks, and had to drop out. Philip Baker Hall took his place.
Then, he went to play opposite Julie Harris in Purchase, New York, in Leon
Katz's play [Sonya] about Tolstoy. After they're finished doing those plays, they'll come back
and do Mad Forest. Cotter Smith is in Seattle, doing the workshop
of the new Wendy Wasserstein play [An American Daughter], which
stars Meryl Streep. He'll join us after that ends.
"Plus, my lighting guy's in the hospital. I had to bring in a new lighting
designer. And I bought a brand new board for sixteen-thousand
dollars because I couldn't light the theater. We had to cancel the first
two previews. And, after twenty years, I took out all the seats; I've
gutted my theater. I had benches built; the audience is all over the
theater. And the actors are all around them—in their face. My subscribers
are in for a real ride."
What he's tried to do in the last three years, Stern says, "is to
revive works of a classic nature—of different genres—so the actors could
be tested, and the public could see all these actors keep evolving. So,
I've done a George M. Cohan comedy. I've done—not a good play— Habeas
Corpus, a farce [by Alan Bennett]. It's paper thin, a very difficult
play, but Kris [director Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori] did a brilliant
production. We took plays that were not necessarily commercial—and The
Seagull, which has been done ten-thousand times, but we did a
deconstructionist version. We did Jean-Claude Van Itallie's translation.
He came to see it, and stood up and said that he'd seen over two-hundred
productions, and ours was one of the best. And that we'd achieved a sense
of family. That was due to Milton [Katselas's direction].
"We did Endgame in July. The joke was: 'Who was going to come to
see Beckett in the summer?' And we sold out! We did Pinter's
Homecoming. Now, we're doing Mad Forest. We've done six
completely different genres and honored the masters. And what we proved
was that people will come, if the theater is good."
It takes "a long lime" to find plays to do at the Matrix, Stem notes.
"We try to find plays that are very ensemble. And we have a lot of
people in the company who are older. What we're not trying to do is
knock off four or five plays a year, like a regional theater. We're trying
to do two, maybe three, plays—really well. The rehearsal periods are five
or six weeks. The previews are three weeks. We have to take our time."
There are some older plays, to which Stern has been refused the rights. "The public is denied some great
plays. We see Shakespeare all the time, but not authors whose plays had
large casts, and which are now only done in high schools and colleges." In
arguing for the rights to one play, Stem recalls, "I asked the agent. 'Why
deny audiences an opportunity to see it?' And I was told, 'My dear, they
can go out and rent it on video,' How do you fight that type of thinking?
"We did Endgame because I couldn't get the rights to The
Little Foxes. Cotter Smith and Andy [Robinson] suggested Endgame.
I was reticent, but they convinced me. It had a very short run in the
early summer of the second season. We couldn't extend it, because of a
prior commitment to a guest production called Names, which is going
to New York, probably off-Broadway. So, we opened the third season with
Homecoming, and then brought back Endgame for a return
I'm working with actors who have not worked in the theater as
much as they'd like to—for fiscal reasons. And we've tried to create an
environment where actors will return to the theater—and also get the
audiences to come."
With two casts, "performances, in some cases, are a hundred-and-eighty
[degrees different]. In The Homecoming, Lynnda Ferguson [as Ruth]
was very laid back— like Princess Di. And Sharon Lawrence [in the same
role] was this hot, very sexual.... They couldn't have been more
different. In the Tavern, you couldn't have had two more diverse
actors than Cotter Smith and Robin Gammell playing the Vagabond.
"It's an amazing experience to watch these people co-exist [at
rehearsals]. It's a very, very healthy environment." But Stern recognizes
that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of double casting.
"Christine Lahti said, 'Rehearsal's very important to me.' And Carol Kane
had a problem with it. An actor friend of mine, W. H. Macy, said he
couldn't imagine sharing the same part. [Laughs] He said that it would
seem a little like watching somebody fuck your wife."
As happy as he is with the Matrix's success, Stem wants "to be in a
college—in a bigger theater. I want these actors interfacing with
students. The image is the old APA [Repertory] on the Ann Arbor campus.
The hope was—and still is—that we'd move into a larger venue. It's very important to get the young
people to come back into the theater—as an audience. And to have young
actors be around older actors, to have role models, lo have
interaction—the way I did when I was a young actor." Concludes Joe Stem,
'This was a pilot project that I thought would last a couple of years. I
never dreamt we'd do so well."
Comments From Some Matrix Members
Sharon Lawrence is very busy these days. Best known for playing
wife of Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on ABC's NYPD Blue, she's
continuing in that role while starring in her own sitcom that's scheduled
for a mid-season start on NBC ("Right now, it's called Fired Up,
and the pilot was directed by James Burrows"), and, as we speak, is making
a CBS-TV movie for the fall. (She gives networking a new meaning.) Still,
she was happy to take a few minutes to speak about the Matrix, where she's
played Masha in The Seagull and Ruth in The Homecoming.
"For me [double-casting] is a Godsend, for a lot of reasons. It's the
only way I can get to do theater in Los Angeles. The different
combinations, the interaction of the different casts is very appealing to
me. lt's exciting! It's such a different way of exploring a play.
Different energies combine, the alchemy blends in. It keeps you on your
toes; you have to listen in a different way, because the rhythms are
different. You get different tones for the same show, which makes it
interesting for the audience, as well as for the actors. It's terrific to
have someone else to watch. You find out very technical things—like where
a powerful area onstage is. You have a mirror there. I cut my teeth on
Chekhov, but I'd never done Pinter before."
Most recently on Broadway in Arthur Miller's Broken Class, David
Dukes speaks to me from New Mexico, where he's on location for a TV-movie
("a Western based on an Elmore Leonard novel. Last Stand at Saber
River, in which I play a villain"). He's appeared at the Matrix "in
The Tavern and The Homecoming. I started rehearsals for
Habeas Corpus, but I had to leave
before opening. I was raised in rep. And once you have a group like [the
one at the Matrix], everybody's good enough to play any part. I had a
small role in The Tavern; but, as the run went on, I took over for Robin Gammell as the Vagabond."
For Dukes, the Matrix fills a need. "You want to work in the theater,
and you want to do classical theater. How do you do that in L.A. and still
pay the rent? If you're working for the Mark Taper Forum—or any other
group—they insist that you commit to them for a total of four-and-a-half
"The collaboration of two actors rehearsing every part is wonderful.
Frustrating, sometimes, but wonderful. Somebody else is paying attention
to your little part of the play, as intently as you are paying attention
to it. In The Homecoming, 'Sonny' Van Dusen and I both played Teddy. We
got the great advantage of watching the situation, of talking about it.
You learn so much. There's an added insight, and you go into the character
more deeply. And when any one of us gets a job, the play goes on. I think
the Matrix is unique. It's become a fixture in only three years. Joe is to
be given all the credit. He's done the leg work, the scheduling, and
solved the problems of so many egos in a room. We love being part of it!"
Founding member Cotter Smith, who first gained attention playing Robert
Kennedy in the TV-movie Blood Feud and was later a regular on Equal
Justice, has many New York stage credits, most of which are with Circle
Rep. He's the only actor to have appeared in all six Matrix productions,
and received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award for his
performance in The Tavern. He'll join the cast of Mad Forest ("probably
the toughest one we've done"), following his two-week workshop of An
From Seattle, where the workshop is in progress. Smith says, "What's
happened is quite extraordinary. The double-casting system has become the
ethic of the company. It has created an egoless, amazingly collaborative,
generous group of actors. You do have to adjust; it does keep you on your
toes. And it's double work for the director. But it becomes a bit of an improv, every night. We all rehearse together, sharing in the creation,
and then we mix and match. You never have quite the same show."
A Tony nominee for Applause, Penny Fuller has appeared "in two Matrix
productions, The Tavern and The Seagull." She's also a founding member of
the Matrix, and recalls that "one of the first meetings took place in my
dining room, deciding what play we would do first."
Says Fuller, 'The thing that's happened is very interesting. The idea,
originally, was to be like the actors in London, where we wouldn't have to
give up being in the theater in order to be in the industry where we could
make a living—to not have it be an either/or thing. But it's turned into
something far more important than that.
"Two people are cast for each part, but they try to get two different
kinds of people, two different approaches to the character. And it makes
the actor's art interesting to the audience again. People come back. They
want to see what another actor will do with the part. It's like the
ballet, where you see this one's Swan Lake, as opposed to that one's
Lake. You want to see what more you can learn about life, or about the
character, through another person's persona.
Honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for his performance in
Endgame, founding member Charles Hallahan has also appeared in the
Matrix productions of The Tavern ("I was the sheriff'), The Seagull ("as a
Chekhovian knucklehead"), and Habeas Carpus, in which, "Joe let me play
the doctor—a role I would never get to play, in a thousand years, anywhere
else. It was a struggle, but I conquered it."
Acting at the Matrix, observes Hallahan. "is the kind of experience
that fills you to the brim. It makes you feel like you've just
rediscovered yourself. Life in L.A. is suddenly quite wonderful! [Laughs]
The weather's nice, you get paid real good to do TV, and [the Matrix
gives you a chance to exercise your skills. If I were a golfer, I'd have a
bag with eight or twelve clubs in it, and I could hit good shots with all
of them. But the movie industry only asks me to bring the nine-iron. They
say, 'You hit nine-iron shots, and we'll pay you well.' It's fine. It's a good way to make a living.
God knows, I want to send my kids to a good college, and all that kind of
shit. But you want to bring out the driver, once in a while, you want to
take the wedge shot, you want to go in the sand, and see what it's like
Andrew J. Robinson
Actor-director Andrew J. Robinson, also a founding member of !he Matrix
Theater Company, has "acted in The Tavern and Habeas Corpus, and directed
The Homecoming and Endgame," which earned him this year's double honor as
Best Director from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Most recently on
Broadway in Frank Gilroy's Any Given Day, his New York credits include
playing murderer-writer Jack Abbott in In the Belly of the Beast. Movie
fans remember him best as the vicious killer chased by Clint Eastwood in
Dirty Harry. With that role, he "gained and lost a career. It's a little
glib, but it's true. I was proud of my work, but he was such a despicable
character that people didn't want to know me. I thought: 'Why am I being
punished for doing good work?'"
Robinson, who's "equally divided between acting and directing." is very much in favor of double-casting. "It can work quite wonderfully, but
only if the director is up to it." Speaking from his L.A. home, Robinson
(who added the middle initial as a tribute to his maternal grandfather)
notes, "You really have to be a director who is totally behind the
concept. Any equivocation will kill you, because it's just too hard, too
demanding. It takes almost a zen-like concentration; and the other
element, of course, is the willingness of the actors to share the roles.
And not only share the roles, but also to come to all the rehearsals.
Fortunately, in Homecoming and Endgame, all the actors were willing to do
that, so we were able to work on it—and not invent the wheel each time.
"If you have two actors who are leveraging the information in the same
role, the amount of information that does come is extraordinary. And, if each actor is open, it doesn't matter which
one makes a discovery. It's a funny thing because after awhile, when you
get into the run of a piece, I can't remember which actor came up with a
certain piece of business. And. for the most part, the actor can't
remember. If a good piece of business comes up, it doesn't make any
difference who found it, you just take it and make it yours."