JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
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LAST WORD: How Will the Actors in our History Shape our Destiny?
(Originally printed in Theatre L.A. magazine, Volume 1 Issue 4, June/July 1983)
Joseph Stern founded Actors for Themselves in 1976 and moved into the Matrix Theatre in 1980.  He recently received the 1982 LADCC Margaret Harford Award "For the boldness and variety of his productions and for exemplifying the courage, single-mindedness and occasional pugnacity of the paradoxical phrase, 'Actors for Themselves.'"


by Joseph Stern
photo by Robert Marshall Sinskey

When I returned to Los Angeles from New York in the summer of 1974, it was with the thought of staying but a few brief months.

My memory and impression of Los Angeles theatre had been the 200-seat Gallery and Player's Ring Theatres on Santa Monica Boulevard. Now there was the Music Center in place of the Biltmore downtown, and Century City was sprouting up. Less obvious on the surface was the fact that the Equity-waiver was two years old. The waiver allowed actors to perform in their own theatres (99 seats) free from the traditional financial and economic requirements of theatrical productions. As summer of 1974 turned into winter, I discovered the waiver theatre and its healing ways.

Some of my colleagues had also relocated on the West Coast and each day more were arriving to seek refuge from their fixed incomes in New York theatre. Ralph Waite, also an actor, had preceded most of us here, found his fame and fortune, and was taking the next step the creation of a theatre which he called the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. He had put his money where his heart was.

While Ralph was spending a large amount of money trying to build a place where he and his colleagues could work and grow old, Bill Devane and I became involved with Alan Miller in a production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? as co-producer and director. For many years Bill and I had sat around dressing rooms complaining, second guessing and expounding on what we could do if we were at the helm.

Ralph Waite, meanwhile, put on two handsome productions: The Hairy Ape and The Kitchen, and Bill and I resurrected an old dream called Actors for Themselves.

Our concept was age old. We figured that if you could eliminate the need for large sums of money to be "in control" then the rules would be based strictly on ability. Actors (artists) could then, if money were not the issue, create a theatre where they could develop other skills, i.e., directing, writing and producing. Eliminating money as the controlling factor would beat the system.

By 1980, waiver theatre was thriving. Fifty yearly productions became 300 and then 500. In a sense, Actors' Equity Association had, through the waiver, created an open market. There may not have been an abundance of quality but each year had its highlights. And, for once, there was no cry of conspiracy or repression by the establishment. We, the artists, could now look to ourselves, whether in failure or success, for the theatre was in control of the actors. It was ours.

Traditionally, theatres have often been created by actors. However, one of the by-products of actor-created theatres is often success, which inevitably creates issues of expansion and of commerce. Theatre becomes business and it is naive to assume when that happens that it will not then be run by businessmen. A businessman is not necessarily the enemy, although ultimately, he can undermine the art.

In the last three years the most highly acclaimed L.A. productions were produced in waiver theatres, many actor-created. Indeed, 23 of the 29 1983 achievement awards handed out by the LADCC were to waiver productions. During this period we have seen the rise of the L.A. Stage Co. with their Hollywood and Beverly Hills based mid-sized theatres. The proprietors would be the first to acknowledge that their success is directly tied to the long running waiver-created production of Nuts, which was produced by an actor named Michael Zand.

The conflict between theatre as an art form and theatre as a business is centuries old, but here in Los Angeles in 1983 it is again becoming highly relevant and very important. We are on the threshold of another explosion. In the next few years more mid-size houses will be created. I believe that waiver theatre as we know it will change. The actors and actresses who have created, almost single-handedly, this thriving Equity-waiver theater are in danger of being pushed out; of losing control of the real estate, the management and the environment losing control of our destiny.

It is not that the producers and managers and administrators who are now recognizing and capitalizing on the economic potential of waiver theatre are bad people, or that they intend real harm. It is a question of sensibility they think differently than artists and have different priorities.

For all of us the hired help of the theatre businessman who have sat and complained in dressing rooms, control of our destiny is too important to let go. And it doesn't have to happen if we do one of two things: (1) give up our timidity, face reality and learn to go the distance as producers. Remember that it is easier for artists to become businessmen than the other way around, as too many ambitious producers-turned-directors have discovered to their peril. Or, (2) if we really cannot make the conversion or will not, then surround ourselves with support people who can, but who are in our control and to whom we have firmly and clearly communicated the actor's sensibility. Acquire the skill or hire it but stay in control.

If the actors and actor/producers in Los Angeles' actor-created theatres will not do this then it is very clear that we will be replaced. Theatre in Los Angeles will come increasingly under the control of producers with "show-biz" mentalities who create product or institutions and cement that power with real estate.

And when that kind of theatre becomes dominant, the actor is once again relegated to the outside, back in the dressing room trying to figure out how to beat the system.

Sometime within the next few years, a $13 million edifice will appear downtown under the name of the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. It will be a monument to diligence, foresight, skill and business acumen. But the legend will nowhere include the name of Ralph Waite actor.

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