by Connie Danese
"I believe there are only a handful of people who are great at anything.
I guess what I'm trying to do is be a great producer." Joe Stern is the
owner and producer of a company called Actors For Themselves at the
Matrix Theatre. He also produces movies for Paramount; his current one
is The Winds of War, a 16-hour mini-series. "I think a great
producer is like a great conductor. He brings all the elements together
and stays with it every step of the way so that it can fulfill its
potential. The downfall of some of the great producers in American
theatre is the fact that they want to be, and have been, directors. And
they have all been mediocre. They operate in such a way so that the
people they surround themselves with cannot know more or threaten them
in any way, even the actors."
Joe Stern's objective at the Matrix is
to create a place where top-caliber people can do their work. "A
first-class theatre of 99 seats, nothing more." His current waiver play
there is Table Settings by James Lapine. It's selling-out every
performance, yet there has been no effort made to move it to a larger
house. "What's a hit in waiver isn't necessarily going to be a hit in a
commercial situation. You have based your weekly ad campaign on trying
to sell 400 seats. When you make a move you're looking at anywhere from
2,000 to 4,000 seats a week. Table Settings has been running over
13 weeks. You have to move a show within six weeks to take advantage of
the heat. Once it gets past that it takes a very unusual show to keep
going. First of all, our cast has changed. It's been months since anyone
has read the reviews. To move you have to capitalize it, which means
raising $20-30,000. There are huge salaries and you are open to being
re-reviewed. If you don't get that review in the L.A. Times
again, you're dead."
There has been a movement in Los
Angeles to attempt to develop the interim-size house as a viable
alternative to the larger theatres (i.e., Pantages, Shubert). "People
are very price-conscious today. They can go to the Taper for $12-13.
Right now they are getting $15 at the Las Palm-as [now renamed L.A.
Stage Co.] for Uncommon Women. That's too much money. People will
pay it for Evita and see two shows a year. But to get 15 bucks
out of them you gotta have a red hot show and even then they think
twice. I charged $7.50 for our show till May 24th when I added a dollar
increase. We have one of the most comfortable theatres in town and there
are theatres like the Cast getting $9 for a matchbox."
Besides price, Stern believes
location and parking play a large part in the success of a theatre.
"There are a great majority of people who will never go anywhere except
to Century City and downtown. Even the Pantages is in a better location
than the Las Palmas. Hollywood and Vine is a landmark. It's also cleaner
"In New York it's fashionable
to walk in dirt. It's a totally different culture, but you live with it
from day to day. The juxtaposition of the cultures is something you
don't have here. You have an incredible white Jewish middle-class here
that goes to the theatre and they don't know dirt. They predicate
theatregoing on underground parking. They call the Matrix and ask what's
the parking situation. I say there's miles of streets and it's all empty
at that hour. You're talking about a car culture. You're talking about a
culture that regards the word comfort more than anything else in
the world. You're talking about tremendous competition for the
entertainment dollar with the sports capital, Knott's Berry Farm and
Magic Mountain. They are not going to go to the Matrix or the Las Palmas
or anywhere else."
Stern agrees there is another audience
out there looking to spend their entertainment dollar on theatre, "but
they don't want to spend 15 bucks unless they have to see it.
This girl [Susan] Dietz is a hell of an entrepreneur. I don't know what
kind of a producer she is. She hasn't done enough plays for me to know.
Whether she can get a big enough subscription to come to that theatre is
doubtful and you cannot make it without a subscription. But I hope
it-works because it helps all of us."
The showcase code gives many
Broadway producers an expensive tryout, Stern states. "When a show
moves, producers have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars not to
mention the risk factor. Who pays for it but the actor? He gets very
little and should be protected. I agree with the AEA position that the
original actors should be compensated. The first-class Broadway producer
gets a show that has already been mounted and critically acclaimed. What
is his obligation but $7-10,000 in salary? Think of the hundreds of
thousands he would have to pay in a tryout."
He agrees that the actors in New York
are in effect subsidizing theatre. "But not so much in L.A. There's no
place to move shows here. Actors in L.A. are working for two reasons:
the work and the glory. There are no producers reaping the benefits. The
only people making any money are the landlords. — 25-50% of the budgets
go for rent."
Actors also do waiver to entice the
film industry to see their work, "but I'm a nut for no comps. except the
press. I have two free previews in which actors can invite anyone they
want. It's my experience that if you give somebody something for free
they do not have the same expectations. All we ask is for them to spend
$6 or $7 to watch. You spend $5 on a movie. We're asking for the lowest
barest subsidy which is the price of a ticket. I hate to see an actor go
into his own pocket. I will personally call an agent or casting director
and try to re-educate them about the theatre to explain why it's
important that they pay and support us. The really big ones always pay.
Class. You've got to train the industry to respect the theatre."
The next production at the Matrix is a
heavy piece called Two Small Bodies. It was supposed to open four
weeks after Table Settings. "I did not intend to sit down with a
commercial play for five or six months and do this nice Jewish comedy.
Although I think now that it's more than that. The new play is based on
the Alice Crimmins case. She was the cocktail waitress on Long Island
who killed her two children. It's a surrealistic dance with her and the
cop. I think it will knock the theatrical community on its ass. It's a
tremendous duet for two actors."
Joe Stern considers himself a creative
producer but, "the only thing I question personally is whether in the
end producing is enough." He works hard to see his vision on the stage
and is considering taking a step as a director. "I don't know. I guess I
have to be willing to fail. I have no problem failing as a producer.
It's a question of whether I have the guts to fail as a director. I
definitely believe that producing is a real art. I do what I do to
change other people's lives and in the doing of it change my own life.
That is why I do it. It's the same drive as the writer or director. It's
the same need that I have as a producer."