It is crisp and clear at twilight, and from her
home high in the Hollywood Hills, Lisa James can see out over West
Hollywood, all the way to the Pacific. Millions of stories are playing
out down there in the snaking lines of traffic, in the office towefs-still
humming with activity and in the houses where lights are just flicking
James, a stage director, loves to tell those
stories—one sort in particular.
"I like plays that turn on a dime," she says, "that
are making you laugh one minute, and the next minute, you're horrified
James' own plot turned on a dime 11 years ago when,
as an actress with the much-admired L.A. Theatre Unit, she happened
upon a play that she felt compelled to direct. Critics and audiences
applauded that first effort, the screwball crime comedy "Heartstopper,"
and, 3Vz years later, delivered even louder ovations for
"Palladium Is Moving," about the shark-eat-shark world of
Her current project, just the fifth that she has
directed, is "The Water Children" at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose
Avenue. Part issue play, part romance, it focuses on a man and
woman—on opposite sides of the abortion debate—who find themselves
powerfully attracted to one another. The reviews have been
enthusiastic, with James singled out for particular praise.
"I was a director living in an actress' body,"
James, 46, says of her turnaround. "The second that I sat down in that
seat on the other side of the footlights, I knew that was what I did.
I just knew. I could see it in my head, I could hear it and I could
Her actor husband Gregg Henry—a sweet-natured guy
who keeps getting cast as a bad guy in such films as "Body Double" and
the upcoming Mel Gibson feature "Payback"—was blown away by the
change. "You think you know everything about someone, and then,
suddenly, she's astounding me every day with her ability and knowledge
Henry, who has acted in all his wife's plays and is
alternating with Don McManus as the male lead in "Water Children,"
says she pushes actors "to the edge of imagination, of boldness, of
making that big, big stroke—so that you're really working at your
"I am manipulative and controlling," she says
dryly, "and that's the heart of directing, as far as I'm concerned."
In the same wry manner, she describes "The Water
Children"—written by Wendy MacLeod, whose "The House of Yes" was
recently adapted into a film starring Parker Posey—as "a feel-good
The story centers on Megan, an actress who believes
in legal access to abortions and who had an abortion at 16. Stuck in a
dry stretch between jobs, she agrees to an interview with Randall, the
head of an anti-abortion group. He's considering her for a television
commercial, in which she would portray a woman who regrets having an
abortion. Sparks fly as they debate their beliefs—and find that they
are falling in love.
"I focused on the comedy and the love story," James
says, "so that the issue would sort of fall through the cracks—so you
would absorb it but not be pummeled by it."
When the script indicates a dramatic crescendo,
however, James doesn't soft-pedal it.
Megan drops by unannounced one evening at Randall's
apartment, where she finds him engaged in spin control after an
incident at one of his group's anti-abortion rallies. Horrified at the
news, Megan subtly sets out to determine the limits of his beliefs.
James pushes the action into the narrow aisle
between the Matrix's seats—to make it seem as though Megan and Randall
are talking in his apartment building's hallway, struggling to keep
their voices low. Viewers in some of the seats find themselves just
inches from the action.
"We're peeking in on something that we shouldn't be
privy to," James explains. "That intimacy was very, very powerful for
James states, flat-out, that she was at first wary
of "The Water Children."
"I was very frightened, frankly," because the play
"is so balanced. I was frightened that I was maybe putting
something out into the air that shouldn't be there—that there even
is an option other than choice, because I don't believe there is."
She ultimately realized, however, that, as
director, she had the last word. "I do not interpret this as anything
but a pro-choice play—and what the play is saying is that the journey
and the choice is a tough one; it's not easy for anybody, coming from
Joe Stern, the Matrix's producing artistic
director, says he tapped James for the assignment because she
"approaches things by instinct; she's kinetic."
He also likes the way she works with actors. "Being
an actress herself, and being married to an actor, she understands
acting," he says, "and she understands behavior."
James grew up on New York's Upper West Side with
her father—novelist, magazine writer and PR man Selwyn James—her
homemaker mom, Faye, and her younger sisters Debbie (now an opera
singer) and Melanie (a mom).
James started out as a dancer, a discipline she
pursued seriously until about age 20, when people began telling her
that she had such presence that she should be acting. She moved to Los
Angeles, where she landed guest-starring roles in episodic television
and small roles in movies, including the 1979 Chuck Norris flick "A
Force of One." She and Henry met through a mutual friend, became pals
and ended up performing opposite one another— as lovers—in a play.
Soon they were playing for keeps.
The pair were among the founders of the
much-admired L.A. Theatre Unit. It was while sifting through scripts
for that group that James happened upon "Heartstopper" and the play
suddenly unfolded—full-blown, in flowing, detailed scenes—in her mind.
That had never happened before, and it excited her so much that she
went to the company's board of directors and said she thought she
could direct the piece.
"Heartstopper" required her to weave together 10
actors, 17 locations and an often fractured plot. "I staged montages
set to music and got reviews comparing the play to an Alan Rudolph
movie. I just saw it that way.
"If you don't know what the rules are, you don't
know that you're breaking them—and then everybody thinks you're really
exciting and innovative." She leans over her coffee cup and lets out a
The L.A. Theatre Unit disbanded, but James and her
husband went on producing plays through their own Appian Way
When they happened upon "Palladium Is Moving," they
knew they had found a keeper. It was, in many ways, an old-fashioned
morality play, but set in the troubling new world of telephone
salesmen who con people out of thousands by selling them phony
products and investments. While programming software in one of the
so-called boiler rooms of these high-pressure operations, Lenore
Carlson soaked up the environment and turned it into a play. A friend
of James' happened to attend a writing workshop with Carlson and
passed the script along.
"I idly picked it up one night," James says,
reliving the moment of discovery, "and went, 'Aah!"
She has now written a screenplay with Carlson and
is set to make her feature directing debut when Persistent Pictures,
the small independent company that has optioned it, moves into
production. She also has been writing screenplays with another
partner, and she staged "Better Days" in 1991 and "Little Egypt" in
James thrives on hard work. You can tell by the way
her voice crackles with excitement as she describes a director's most
"It's all-consuming," she says in a tone
approaching reverence. "There's nothing else. There's fast food
and obsessively long conversations about every nuance."