Sounds Crazy, but All Good Actors Aren't Nuts

Dakin Matthews is founding director of the Antaeus Company and is a busy actor in television, film and theater

Am I sorry I missed the Playwrights Forum at the Taper ("Three Playwrights, No Actors, One Memorable Night," Calendar, April 11); I was working on theater business that afternoon and evening and was unable to attend. Sounded like a pretty memorable event. Relying on Don Shirley's account of the highlights of the evening, I have a few observations to make.

First about that headline: Much as it might be someone's institutional fantasy to have memorable evenings in the theater with no actors present, the fact is that two of the participants were specifically actor-playwrights, not just playwrights.

Next, Tony Kushner is a bright, even brilliant man of the theater, who has written what I think is the greatest and most beautiful play of the 1990s (in fact, two of them: "Angels in America," Parts 1 and 2). But that doesn't mean he can't occasionally say some stupid things. Perhaps he was just being flip, or perhaps he was taken out of context (or perhaps both)--but, honestly: "You have to be nuts to be a really good actor. So it would be scary to have actors running theaters. Directors take over for that reason."

Where shall I start? How many errors are there in that one observation? All really good actors are nut cases? Really good directors aren't nut cases? Nut cases can't or don't run theaters? What theaters has Kushner been working in?

I've been in the theater longer than Kushner, but surely even he knows that some really good actors aren't nut cases and some are. That some really good directors are nut cases and some aren't. And that some theaters are run perfectly well by nut cases, and some are run badly; and some are run badly by perfectly sane people, and some are run well.

But directors taking over theaters and altruistically shouldering the burden of saving incompetent actors from themselves and rescuing theaters from the actors' obvious mental aberrations? Come on, Tony, that was a cheap shot at actors' expense. I can only hope you didn't actually say it. Or mean it. Maybe it was just Don Shirley being his usual contentious self. (Which I mean in the nicest possible way.)

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But then it is part of a fairly typical strategy of reducing actors to idiot savants in order to keep them out of the decision-making loop--something that affects not only their careers and the roles they play, but also the kind and quality of plays that get produced. The only surprise of the evening is that someone like Kushner, in whose successes some "really good actors" have been instrumental, should fall into that trap. Perhaps for suggesting that actors don't have the "necessities to manage" theaters, we should give Kushner the Al Campanis Award to put up there next to his well deserved Pulitzer Prize and Tony. And maybe give him a little history refresher about some fairly successful actor-mangers like Shakespeare, Moliere, Garrick, Stanislavsky, Bernhardt, Barrault, Olivier and Le Gallienne.

Then there's his other comment in the context of theaters maintaining resident acting companies: "There's no way to fight the competition with film and TV." Couldn't exactly the same thing be said about writers or designers or directors, for whom the pay-scale chasm is equally gaping? And yet some find a way to straddle it.

Why? Because artists who love theater, artists who are committed to theater, will find a way to work in the theater--no matter what the financial sacrifice. And that includes actors. I know it's a lot harder, but honestly, why in any major theater organization should the support staff be permanent and the artists transient? It's not so in orchestras, it's not so in ballet companies. It shouldn't be so in theater. Not anywhere. Not even in Los Angeles.

I have spent much of the last seven years developing a concrete way for theaters, even in Los Angeles, to house resident companies of actors who continue to work in all media. It can be done--efficiently and creatively. It is not easy; it involves training actors a lot better, and rethinking the relationship between them and their home theaters, and then treating them with a little more respect and creativity and flexibility, like mature professionals rather than developmentally disabled nut cases; but it can be done. Ask Joe Stern about the Matrix. Or, even better, ask me about the Antaeus Company.

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