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Fill in the Blank

Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

The metal pipe seemed to flash out of nowhere. He felt an explosion in his forehead and, a heartbeat later, crashed to the ground, his face bathed in crimson.

As Daniel Henning describes the awful night he was mugged in Manhattan in 1988, he slips in bits of unexpected humor, referring to the blow as “the bonk” and laughing at his decision to dress for Halloween that year as Frankenstein, adding gory fake stitches to real ones.

Somehow, Henning saw light in that darkness and turned hardship into opportunity. Today, he can point to two very different consequences: a 2 1/2-inch scar at his hairline and the award-winning Blank Theatre Company.

Henning received a $4,000 worker’s compensation settlement from the state of New York because he was working when he was attacked. He used most of it to found the Blank in Los Angeles, where his acting career had led him.

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“I said, ‘I have to do something good with this money. This is blood money.’ ”

In eight years, the Blank has become one of Los Angeles’ most eclectic and most surprising small theater companies. Henning has enticed such stars as Noah Wyle (Dr. John Carter on NBC’s “ER”), Ken Page (Broadway’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and “Cats”) and Dennis Christopher (“Breaking Away”) to work with him, and the Blank’s productions of such shows as “The Fantasticks,” “Chess” and “Breaking the Code” have earned critical raves as well as three Ovation and four Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards.

As the 32-year-old artistic director-producer reflects on this history, he is able to sit still for the first time in hours. He is directing the West Coast premiere of the musical “Hello Again,” and he has been popping out of his seat all afternoon to coach Susan Egan--who played Belle in the New York and Los Angeles productions of “Beauty and the Beast"--through her scenes.

Wyle, taking a rare afternoon off from his rounds on “ER,” dropped by to watch. Though he isn’t performing in the show--which opens Friday at the Blank’s Hollywood home--he’s an integral behind-the-scenes player. As the company’s new artistic producer, he’s the principal fund-raiser and an all-around trouble-shooter.

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Wyle says he’s cast his lot with the Blank because of Henning’s “passion and enthusiasm and dedication--it’s difficult to find an equal to it. He’s very smart. He’s honest.”

Egan echoes those opinions, saying she initially met with Henning to tell him no to “Hello Again,” and “an hour later, I’m saying, ‘OK, so I’ll see you on Monday.’

“He creates this fire, this passion--and it’s about doing really great work.”

When Wyle and Egan have gone, Henning asks: “So, am I the luckiest man on the face of the planet, or what?” Eyes twinkling behind his chunky black-framed glasses, he adds, “I can’t believe I’m working with these people.”

Henning pretty much is the Blank Theatre Company, even though he has been assisted by a handful of people through the years. “I keep saying ‘our,’ but ‘our’ meaning the royal ‘we,’ ” he jokes.

He has designed sets for most of the shows, and he has costumed them out of thrift stores. He has directed all seven of the last productions, and he’s the one who gets on the phone to coax critics to attend on opening night.

He’s also the one who has kept a wary eye on the bottom line, trying to ensure that his scrappy nonprofit company--living mostly off of its box-office receipts--didn’t overextend itself.

“Producing for the Blank Theatre Company has nothing to do with money,” Henning says. “Producing means figuring out how not to spend money.”

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With Wyle aboard, however, the Blank is entering a new phase.

Wyle, then unknown, performed in the Blank’s second production, a 1991 staging of David Mamet’s dating comedy “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

He has stood by the company since then, and last fall, he offered to take on an official role. Nowadays, he leaps into tasks large and small, right down to scouting props.

“Every time I came into some TV money, I tried to let it flow over to the company,” Wyle says, though he declines to specify a dollar amount. Recently, he also secured a corporate donation in exchange for his appearance in a community outreach campaign. Again, he declines to specify an amount, other than to say, “This theater will run for the next three years on what they’re going to give us.”

Consequently, Henning has been able to budget the run of “Hello Again” at about $45,000, compared to the $2,000 to $15,000 of previous Blank productions. In addition, the 49-seat theater has 34 new stage lights, a larger, computerized lighting board, new stage walls, four tiny crystal chandeliers in the house--and new seats are on order.

“Hello Again” is Michael John LaChiusa’s musical revamping of Arthur Schnitzler’s classic play “La Ronde.” It grew out of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater and premiered to mixed reviews in 1994.

As in Schnitzler’s original, the action progresses through a series of intimate encounters, with one character in each scene moving on to a new partnering in the next.

Henning describes it as a story of “nine people who are desperately searching for love and have no idea how to find it, and one person who does.” The nine who don’t include everyone from a college boy to a senator. The one who does is a prostitute.

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In addition to Egan, the production features Richard Kline (Larry on “Three’s Company), Alyson Reed (Cassie in the film version of “A Chorus Line”) and Marcia Strassman (the wife in “Welcome Back, Kotter” and mom in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”).

The L.A. theater community is forever asking how Henning gets such people to work with him.

A lot of it has to do with his relentless enthusiasm and his ability to talk initially hesitant performers into signing on. What’s more, he is known among actors as someone who will shape his rehearsal schedule around his performers’ other gigs. Since he pays next to nothing, he knows he must let them go off to earn some real income.

Marquee names aren’t Henning’s top concern, however. “I only like to work with nice people,” he says. “You saw the dressing room"--it’s only about 12 feet by 15. “If I had 10 people who were not nice back there, it would be horrible for them.”

Born in Oakland and raised in nearby Alameda, Henning began acting at 4 (“I can’t recall a moment when I didn’t want to do theater,” he says) and became active in politics in his teens. As a college freshman, he became a phone bank organizer and delegate vote rallier on the national staff for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign.

Through his theater studies at New York University, he linked up with Circle in the Square, where he talked his way into a position as production assistant on the world premiere of “The Widow Claire.” This afforded an up-close view of Horton Foote refining the script and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (“Agnes of God”) translating it to the stage.

After graduating from NYU, Henning managed Circle in the Square’s off-Broadway house. He was delivering the theater’s box-office paperwork when he was mugged.

He had already been exploring a move to Los Angeles, and as he mulled the idea of forming a theater company here, he began to formulate its operating principles. Unlike most of Los Angeles’ small theaters, it would have no permanent company, no permanent home and no particular attachment to any one style or period. Each production would, in essence, begin from scratch. Hence its name, the Blank Theatre Company.

Henning co-starred in the first production, “Hosanna,” in May 1990, playing a drag queen whose life’s ambition was to be Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra.” “I was nekked at the end of it,” Henning wryly recalls. “If you’re going to really give your all to a company, this is the way to start. After that, anything I had to do was nothing.”

Because the Blank bounced around so much, theater observers didn’t always associate the company’s name with such early productions as “Sexual Perversity,” “Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens” or “Snake in the Vein.”

That changed with the 1993 staging of “The Fantasticks,” which won an Ovation Award for best musical in a smaller theater and announced the company’s emergence as a major contender. Continued success with “Gertrude Stein and a Companion,” “The Cradle Will Rock,” “Chess” and “Breaking the Code” cemented the company’s reputation.

The Blank finally settled in one place in the spring of ’96, when it began renting the 2nd Stage in Hollywood. Late last year, as Wyle came aboard, the Blank bought out the theater’s master lease and plans to remain there for at least three years.

Proud of what the company has accomplished, yet humbled by it as well, Henning says, simply, “It was my blood that started it; it’s my blood that has kept it going.”

“HELLO AGAIN,” Blank Theatre Company at 2nd Stage, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Opens at 8 p.m. Friday and continues Thursdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends June 7. Prices: $27-$30. Phone: (213) 660-8587.


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