Trading In a Desk for Footlights

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Henry Woronicz was the artistic director of one of the largest theater institutions in America, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, between 1991 and 1995. While there, he commanded a $12-million budget. He oversaw as many as 750 performances of 11 productions each year. The festival keeps approximately 60 actors on full-time contracts for at least six months each year.

Now, his life in the theater has changed. He’s taken a leading role in Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms,” a drama about a Middle East hostage crisis, at the 65-seat Jewel Box Theatre in North Hollywood. He’s paid only the token fees that are required by Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan.

After resigning in Ashland, Woronicz moved to L.A. to “dive into acting"--in film and TV instead of the stage, where he had done “way too much Shakespeare for anyone’s health,” he said (he has acted in 27 of Shakespeare’s plays). So far in TV-land, he has done a “Picket Fences,” a “Frasier” and a TV movie. He also directed a Chinese-language staging of “The School for Scandal” in Hong Kong. “Two Rooms” is his return to stage acting.

Small-scale theater is “much more fun in some ways,” Woronicz said. “It has an immediacy that’s sometimes missing in larger theaters.”


He speaks from an administrator’s viewpoint as well as an actor’s. “Huge organizations are unwieldy and hard to change,” he said. “They’re like giant oil tankers--you have to start turning them way in advance, before they hit something. When you start saying, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ that can be a dangerous mind-set for an arts organization. You can lose that sense of inquisitive passion that asks, ‘Why are we doing this play at this time?’ You do certain shows just to get the audience to renew.”

By contrast, Woronicz finds in L.A.'s many small theaters a more flexible attitude: “Be prepared and willing to change your way of working,” he said. “At its best, that’s what the L.A. small theaters should be doing for artists--allowing them to stretch their muscles, to reinvent themselves.” “Two Rooms” is “a way for me to get involved in the wide, wide range of the L.A. theater community.”

He knows, however, that there is a flip side to L.A.'s small theaters: “There’s a danger of fostering an extracurricular mind-set here, that theater is something we do only when we’re not employed. It’s easy to be sucked in by head shots. It’s a tricky situation.”

Ironically, opening night of “Two Rooms” was postponed a day because Woronicz had a conflict with the shooting of an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” in which he plays a reptilian alien. Said “Two Rooms” director Nelson Handel: “It wouldn’t have been fair to open the play after Henry had spent the entire day under [his costume’s] foam.”


Still, for now, Woronicz is “nestling into L.A.,” turning down better-paying work in regional theaters elsewhere in order to stay here. “I’m pleased at the level of commitment and artistry I’ve found here,” he said.


NO SHAFFERS: Pasadena Playhouse’s July-December season appears to be one of the theater’s more original recent offerings, with three plays new to the area--and nary a Shaffer revival.

The first production of “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” a new musical, is slated for July 20-Aug. 24. Its author is Mark Saltzman (who wrote the “Mrs. Santa Claus” TV musical), and the music is by Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, who also are the leading characters. Set in 1915, the story has Joplin asking Berlin to publish his opera “Treemonisha.” The show will feature a cast of 15 but no orchestra--just a piano or two. It’s not to be confused with “Tin Pan Man,” a new musical that unfortunately opened at La Mirada Theatre in 1992 on the day the L.A. riots broke out.


Following it is Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” the recent backstage comedy that featured Carol Burnett on Broadway. No one has been cast yet for the Sept. 21-Oct. 26 run.

The playhouse’s 80th anniversary season will close with Anne Meara’s “After-Play,” Nov. 16-Dec. 21, in which three couples dine in a New York restaurant after a play. No casting is set.

The Playhouse Bar & Grille recently opened on the playhouse premises, so those who see “After-play” won’t have to walk far to try to replicate the experience (assuming that the restaurant is still open--an earlier eatery, Critixx, didn’t last long in that space).

Since September, the playhouse has done or slated three Shaffer plays. Last fall brought Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” and his brother Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice & Lovage,” while Peter’s “Equus” will show up in March. Playhouse executive director Lars Hansen said that it was “just by accident--we had independent reasons for doing all three plays.”


The brothers “ought to come over on the Concorde and thank us,” joked Hansen. “We’ll heat their swimming pools for a year.”