THEATER : Hometown Boy Makes Waves : After a three-year absence in New York to helm TV’s ‘Law & Order,’ producer Joe Stern has returned to his roots and his first love, the L.A. theater scene, to work with ‘the greatest talent pool of actors in the world’
Joseph Stern is back and he’s mad as hell and not going to let us take it anymore.
“The actor is an endangered species,” producer Stern is saying, standing on the deck of his Pacific Palisades home. “Between the economy, the lack of funding, and its effect on our standards, actors are not practicing their art. They’re not doing something else. They’re not directing, or writing their memoirs. They’re just waiting for the next gig.”
Stern lists actors who quit the profession. He mentions stars who live in Los Angeles, yet never work on local stages. He speaks rapid-fire, sounding more adolescent than middle-aged, despite his 53 years.
After a three-year absence while working as co-executive and executive producer of the New York-based NBC-TV series “Law & Order,” Stern has returned to his hometown and his first love, the theater, specifically, his own theater, the Matrix, at 7657 Melrose Ave., where he’s currently producing a critically acclaimed revival of George M. Cohan’s 1920 melodrama “The Tavern.” (The show continues through Feb. 13.)
Despite two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for “Law & Order,” Stern left the show feeling he had “done all I could, and I didn’t feel we had the same goals anymore.” Among the very few theater producers who straddle stage and screen, Stern continues to balance both arenas more effectively than any other theater producer in Los Angeles. Last fall, while preparing to mount “The Tavern” at the Matrix, Stern simultaneously produced the controversial “Other Mothers,” the “CBS Schoolbreak Special” about lesbians parenting a high school boy.
A key mover and shaker during the phenomenal 1980s boom in Southern California theater, Stern was at that time both a leader and a rebel.
While mounting stage productions under his Actors for Themselves banner that earned 19 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, including the prestigious Margaret Harford Award for lifetime achievement, Stern accused Actors’ Equity of not supporting Southern California theater producers, publicly dueled with Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson (claiming that the Taper was not, at the time, using enough local talent), and demanded better working conditions for actors. Always, if there was a panel discussion, Stern was on it; call a debate, and he led the argument. Ask for a provocative statement, and he wrote the newspaper a letter. Stern could always be counted on to name names.
He has been missed here. “I’ve been told there’s a tightening of the belt (in L.A.) because of the economy,” Stern says. “Colleagues date it back to the riots, for whatever reason, and they feel the audience has seen too much bad theater. The audience is smaller. It’s not just the economy. It may be trust in the product. They’ve been burned too many times.
“But the greatest talent pool (of actors) in the world is right here in Los Angeles,” Stern declares with rising emphasis. “It certainly isn’t in New York. While living there for the last three years, I saw some 70 shows, and talked to a number of people, and auditioned some 6,000 actors. You can’t tell me the work is better there than in Los Angeles. This is where the talent pool is. . . . How do we get them back on stage?”
Stern’s solution was to form the Matrix Theatre Company, a repertory company of industry actors who, thanks to lucrative television and movie salaries, can afford to work in the theater for free. His model for this is Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company in London, a core resident company that enlists movie actors for various projects. But the problem, of course, is that in-demand performers frequently leave shows for paying industry jobs.
Stern solved this problem by double-casting “The Tavern.” That meant finding not just 15 actors, but 30. Each role has a minimum of two actors in alternating performances. When one actor’s agent calls with a job, another actor steps in. But if you cast actors the level of Marian Mercer (“It’s a Living”) and David Dukes (“The Mommies”), their alternates must be equal in talent. Such casting would be the envy of any theater in the world, let alone a not-for-profit 99-seat house.
“I knew double-casting was the only hope if I was going to get a great company of actors,” Stern remembers. “That way, they’re not missing a job. During the rehearsal period, some 15 or 20 jobs came up. Half of (the actors) were out at one point. Jim Haynie, Mitch Ryan--each had one or two jobs where they left for a few days. Talia Balsam missed the first week of previews. Charles Hallahan is in ‘Grace Under Fire.’ ”
Surprisingly, this unpredictability made the rehearsal process more cooperative and less competitive. Director Tony Giordano, who initially proposed “The Tavern” to Stern while observing a “Law & Order” location shoot, described the experience by phone from his New York apartment: “I viewed it as a big gamble. Though it was frustrating to lose people for days (to industry jobs) while I continued to progress through the rehearsal process, I expected that. But when they were in rehearsals, those actors were there a hundred-thousand percent of the time. Many times they came on their days off and observed rehearsals.”
Penny Fuller, who plays the madwoman in “The Tavern,” agrees with Giordano’s assessment. “It’s a wonderful way to have a sense of community without the financial or creative sacrifice,” says the actress who first worked for Stern in 1982 in an award-winning production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” at the Matrix. “On my off-days, I would watch Lindsay Crouse (Fuller’s double), and then we’d talk about the part and share ideas.”
“And there’s no billing problem,” Stern says of the traditional backstage vanity battles producers generally must endure. “An environment of such generosity has been created. We’ve proved that if you can eliminate the ego and the competitiveness--we’ve done about 80% of that--you can achieve the most amazing things. The biggest problem was finding younger actors. . . . The great majority just didn’t get it. If they read the play, they didn’t get the play. There’s just a lack of skilled young people. It was eye-opening.”
This realization saddened Stern. “When I was a young actor, I worked under major actors. That was another purpose (of the company), to pass on tradition. Basically, there’s just more and more actors over 40 quitting the business. The quality of television and movies is so awful because it’s now come down to producers saying, ‘Get me a (guild minimum) scale actor.’ They tell great character actors, ‘If you don’t work for scale, buddy, we’ll get the next guy.’
“We’re talking about artists here! We’re talking about 30 years of skill, of life! But the television and film producers don’t give a (expletive)! I’ll go on record! They just say, ‘If you won’t do it, someone else will.’
“What always turned me on in the theater was great actors,” Stern says with a sad sigh. “That’s what got me. Always. That is what changed my life.”
Stern was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and was raised two blocks from the Matrix Theatre. Throughout his education at Fairfax High, Los Angeles City College and UCLA, Stern repeatedly performed in school plays and emceed public events.
After being released from the Army reserves in 1964, he flew to New York and auditioned at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre. His ambition was to become a professional Shakespearean actor. Papp obliged. Three weeks after getting his first paid acting job, Stern married his college girlfriend, Peppy. (This year the Sterns will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary with their two sons.)
At the New York Shakespeare Festival, while carrying spears in crowd scenes, Stern became close friends with another unknown actor, William Devane. Soon Stern and Devane formed a nonprofit production company called Actors for Themselves. In the early 1970s, Stern was cast in a network series starring Karen Valentine and moved back to Los Angeles. He was subsequently fired from the show, and in the process realized that acting wasn’t his primary calling.
“I was just a working actor,” Stern says. “I never wanted it bad enough. I was always very precocious at school, but in the real world I knew I could never be great at it. I thought I had an instinct for conducting, for putting everybody together, and had a real instinct for behavior. I always felt I knew who had talent. I was never afraid to make decisions. And I was never afraid of failing. I’d always been a gambler.”
In 1975, actor-writer Allan Miller asked Stern to help produce a play in Los Angeles, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . ?” Stern brought his friend Devane west to direct, and their production ran for a record-breaking 14 months before moving to Washington, D.C.
In 1976, Stern discovered the Matrix, and learned that the ensemble that was playing there was struggling to survive. He and Devane borrowed money from Stern’s salesman father and bought the theater and allowed the company to continue. Meanwhile, Stern was also head of development and production for Dan Curtis Productions, a television production company, from 1977 to 1982, participating in the making of the hit miniseries “The Winds of War,” and receiving an Emmy nomination for producing the first season of “Cagney & Lacey” for Orion.
In 1980, Devane traded his half of the Matrix to a dentist for an Arabian racehorse. Stern soon after bought out the dentist and became sole owner of the Matrix. The ensemble company left and his professional double-life debuted, with Stern juggling pilots for Curtis Productions with plays such as David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” for the Matrix. Throughout the ‘80s, his Actors for Themselves productions at the Matrix--notably the world premiere of Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans” and Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit"--garnered numerous rewards and international attention. He produced the feature film “Dad” for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Productions, and the television movie “Into Thin Air,” starring Ellen Burstyn. The decade ended with Stern’s ABC special “The Perfect Date” winning two Emmys.
Stern, who throughout this time was living in L.A., was careful never to allow the Matrix to become an industry showcase. But feedback and cross-pollination often occurred. For example, Stern hired Lee Shallat to direct the West Coast premiere of Larry Shue’s “Wenceslas Square” at the Matrix (1989) as well as last year’s after-school special, “Other Mothers.”
Now a director for “Murphy Brown,” Shallat says of Stern: “Joe is really responsible for getting me my first break in television. He’s amazingly generous and almost vociferous in his desire to get people to work together. Joe makes people better by his passion and by his demand for quality and his unrelenting tenacity.”
But Stern’s tenacity has also made him more than a few enemies. Some actors and directors he has worked with have claimed that his obsessive perfectionism is destructive. Others say his “hands on” style is manipulative.
“I’m there to force you to be better,” Stern retorts to such accusations, “not to make you better. I’ve never given anybody their talent. But I try to make you go to your capacity. I’m like a coach that way. I don’t allow you to quit.”
In 1994, while producing his three-play season (the two works to follow “The Tavern” are still in the process of being confirmed), Stern will also pursue his own television series. “If I want to keep this house,” he says, gesturing at his family’s recently purchased Pacific Palisades home, “then I’d better work in television. I have enough money to get me through a couple of years. I never owned a house before, purposely, because I didn’t want to have to take that bad job.”
Playwright Mayo Simon recalls a party at Stern’s rented apartment in the 1980s. Simon marveled that a successful television producer would not own a home. “Joe doesn’t buy homes,” said his wife, Peppy. “Joe buys theaters.”
Now Stern is tenaciously pushing forward his Matrix Theatre Company. His all-star company is currently involved in meetings to decide how to proceed in a quasi-democratic process that fits Stern’s style.
“In another six months, I’ll probably shoulder my satchel and hold out my hand and figure out how to get some money to run the Matrix,” says Stern, who this time around has relied only on his own savings and ticket sales to operate. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I feel for the American actor. I really do. And I do believe they’re an endangered species.”