An Actors' Collective Sign of Belief

F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for Calendar

It takes a village to raise a small theater company. From commercial to creative concerns, many willing hands--and a few cool heads--are needed.

Since its inception in 1990, the Interact Theatre Company in North Hollywood has become known as one of the most exciting theatrical hamlets in the urban forest. From 1994's smash production of Elmer Rice's "Counsellor-at-Law" to 1999's celebrated "The Cherry Orchard," Interact has nurtured its share of acclaimed offspring, garnering a trove of awards--53 in all--along the way.

After years of splitting the seams of its cozy Hart Street venue, Interact moved last year to a new building on Bakman Avenue, in the heart of NoHo's theater district.

As any savvy villager knows, migration is a vulnerable time of exposure and risk. And when that village happens to be a democracy, the transition becomes even more complicated.

Relaxing over brunch at a sleepy North Hollywood cafe, Marilyn McIntyre and James Harper, veteran actors and two of Interact's founding members, chat candidly about the company's roots and the difficulties of the recent move.

"We co-founded Interact with 30 other members," Harper says. "That's very important. We are very specifically an actors' collective, with everybody being equal. Marilyn and I have done lot of work on behalf of the company, but there are other people who are equally as important and dedicated, and who have done as much work and in some cases maybe more than we have. But we are a democracy."

"An exhausting democracy," agrees McIntyre, who plays Desiree in Interact's latest production, "A Little Night Music," which Harper is producing. "We are in the middle of a very challenging time. 'A Little Night Music' is a huge musical. It's set in Sweden [around the turn of the century], and there are design requirements, especially with the costumes. You can't cut corners if you're going to do a full production. So we are stretching, not only our budget, but all of our human resources."

The company is used to stretching. In fact, the postage stamp stage at the Hart space required unparalleled feats of elasticity. With 23 people in the cast of "Counsellor-at-Law," just getting them all on stage was an accomplishment.

McIntyre, who received Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Ovation awards for her performance in that production, recalls the controlled chaos backstage. "You know when the circus clowns come out of the Volkswagen Beetle? Well, that's what it felt like at the curtain call of 'Counsellor-at-Law'--the only time when everyone in the cast was on stage at once," she says. "I'm sure people in the audience were thinking 'Oh, my God! They're still coming out!"'

John Rubinstein, who directed and starred in "Counsellor," and whose other Interact directing credits include the long-running "Into the Woods," finessed his way around the spatial limitations of the old theater on more than one occasion. Now, Rubinstein helms "Night Music" at the new facility, which, though more spacious, presents its own set of challenges.

"The new space is still in the very early stages of development," says Rubinstein, who won a best actor Tony award in 1980 for "Children of a Lesser God." "We are in a giant fund-raising drive to try and raise the funds to build a state-of-the-art theater. But it does have a wide open expanse of stage, which we didn't have at the old theater. For 'A Little Night Music,' it gives some air and breadth, and that in and of itself is a great aid. But the acoustics in the old place were better, because it was much smaller and more confined. Here, our ceiling is much higher, so we've had to do a lot of work balancing the accompaniment with the vocals. I think it's now at a point where it works very well."

In pursuit of better acoustics, expensive modifications were recently made to the structure. "Noise was a real factor," Harper says. "Street noise, but also interior noise, because it's such a big, open space. But we have made some changes. We got rid of a huge corrugated door. It would heat up to the point you could fry eggs on it. And on a cold day, the wind would blow and bang right through it. And the dressing rooms are now located, temporarily, behind the building. A lot of major changes have all been accomplished in the last week or so."

Big financial changes are also under way, and as Harper candidly admits, mounting expenses could add up to real trouble. "I will be blunt," he says. "We are in dire financial straits. The location of the space is fantastic, there's no question about it. But our monthly nut jumped from $2,200 a month, including rent and utilities, to an average of $6,000."

That's a daunting figure for any nonprofit theater, and certainly a far cry from the cost of the company's very first space--a pirated three-bedroom apartment. Operating expenses: zero.

"It all started when about 15 of us gathered to read a play in 1990," recalls Harper. "We all knew each other from New York, and had long histories in the theater. That grew into this weekly reading group. We were meeting in this empty apartment. Actually, one person in the group was managing the building, and he kept that apartment empty for us."

"It's the ultimate actor's story," McIntyre says with a laugh. "Sneaking in like that. And it just so happened that the electricity in the master bedroom was connected to the rest of the building, so there could be light in that room. But we had a candle in the bathroom."

By the time the building's owner got wise to the arrangement, the group had swelled to 60. From those ranks, 30 agreed to form an actors' collective, pay $25 a month in dues, and rent a permanent space--the old Theatre Exchange building on Hart, their home for the next decade.

It's been a long and fruitful tenure for McIntyre, who is also a member of the Matrix Theatre Company, but refers to Interact as her creative home.

"There's been a level of commitment and discipline and creative integrity that has kept me involved," McIntyre says. "To be able to stay here in Los Angeles, and do the film and television work to pay the bills, and still be able to do this level of work with such wonderful actors, I feel blessed for that reason."

Founding member Steven Hack, who plays Bertrand, one of the ensemble singers in "Night Music," has also been with the company since its inception. Another New York transplant, Hack found the piecemeal nature of Hollywood frustrating after his lengthy gigs on Broadway, which included five years in "Cats" and two in "A Chorus Line."

"We were all working actors from New York who were used to doing plays and reading the entire script at one sitting," Hack says. "When you're in a play, you do eight shows a week. In Hollywood, even if you get a really good job on a sitcom, you only work a week. And in film, you never get to meet the other people or read the whole work at once. Interact gave us a chance to work with like-minded people, actors with theater backgrounds."

Hack soon brought his friend Jane Lanier, a prominent Broadway dancer, on board. In turn, Lanier, who choreographs "Night Music," got her husband, Rubinstein, involved.

Interact has several high-profile members like Rubinstein in its ranks, but according to Harper, all company members enjoy the same rights and privileges, and all productions are the result of a painstaking "step process" open to all.

"We have boards and committees, but ultimately decisions are still in the hands of the membership," Harper says. "In play selection, primarily all projects still come from the membership, that is, from a specific member sponsoring the play."

Productions typically originate either in the group's weekly Monday Night Reading Series, a cold-reading workshop for both new and established plays, or in its Play Development Lab, which is devoted to honing new works. Potential productions are further tested in the yearly Interactivity Festival, an annual laboratory in which company members present their pet projects. The offerings, which are performed over several weekends, range from rehearsed readings to full-blown stagings. (This year's festival was suspended because of the move, but will resume in spring 2002.)

The company also hopes to further expand Interplay, its summer children's theater workshop, which has received grants from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.

However, the future depends largely on the success of "Night Music," which the beleaguered company hopes will run long and prosper. "We weren't founded because the company wanted to make money," Harper says. "But that's changed, if for no other reason than because of our current financial situation. This show will probably either make us or it could break us. But we have to stop worrying about it. To paraphrase from 'Field of Dreams,' 'If you do good work, they will come.' "

*

"A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC," Interact Theatre Company, 5215 Bakman Ave., North Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 1. Price: $25. Phone: (818) 773-7862.

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