Whenever Stacy Keach feels he needs to flex his acting muscles, he knows he can always get a good workout doing a radio play for L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Play’s the Thing” series. Keach, a founder of the radio theater company who describes himself as one of its “long-tooth” members, has strutted his thespian stuff in several of the group’s productions during the past 14 years, including “The Crucible” and “The Country Girl.”
“You get to sort of dip your foot in the water of great theatrical art,” the actor says. “You get to wade in the pool. Most working actors in Los Angeles have other lives. They have a series or are doing a movie and they don’t have the time to devote [to a traditional theatrical production].”
“It gives us a chance to do stuff that you don’t get to do in front of the camera,” says fellow founding member Hector Elizondo, who recently performed in the company’s production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
It’s also doable, says Elizondo, who performed on radio as a child actor. “It doesn’t take 150 people. You don’t have to have makeup on. You don’t have to get up at 4 in the morning like a ditch digger. I prefer working in front of a microphone. What happened is that we turned out to be the Mercury Theater of the Air,” he said, referring to Orson Welles’ legendary radio company of the 1930s. “We resuscitated and revitalized a wonderful art form--radio drama.”
The recordings are done over a five-performance engagement in front of a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center, and until the program was dropped last summer, they could be heard on “KCRW Playhouse.” Santa Monica-based KCRW-FM’s loss has been the gain of Pasadena public radio station KPCC-FM (89.3). The station began airing the company’s productions on March 2. Whereas the company was just one of the components of “KCRW Playhouse,” KPCC has given it a weekly showcase, at 8 p.m. Saturdays.
That L.A. Theatre Works has become an award-winning company, which has recorded more than 300 works since 1988, is something of a fortunate accident. “It started out to be Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works,” Elizondo says. “Our mission was to create a theater of actors, funded by actors for actors. These would be folks who came from the theater who don’t get a chance to do theater much anymore because of their filming schedules and TV. That was a utopian idea. Fortunately, most of the people in it [including Richard Dreyfuss, John Lithgow and Marsha Mason], in accounting terms, were liquid. So we were able to fund the project.”
But they couldn’t find one, Elizondo says. “It was difficult to get people to decide on what project to do. At some critical point, we had to raise more money and I think it was Richard Dreyfuss who said, ‘Why don’t we record something for radio and we can raise some money?’”
Susan Albert Loewenberg, the company’s producing director, contacted general manager Ruth Seymour at KCRW (89.9) to see if they would be interested in broadcasting the production. “That is the way it started,” Loewenberg says. “We decided on doing a novel, Sinclair Lewis’ ‘Babbitt.’ I insisted that we use all 34 original members of this group, which included Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Asner, Marsha Mason, Helen Hunt and Julie Harris--an incredible group of people. It put us on the map.”
Since “Babbitt,” the company’s roster has swelled to 1,500 members. Over the years, actors from Nathan Lane to Amy Irving, Alan Alda, Alfred Molina, Anthony LaPaglia and Charlayne Woodard have participated. (The recordings are available for purchase through the company’s Web site at www.latw.org.)
Rehearsals for each “The Play’s the Thing” begin just two days before the first performance. They were relaxed and playful for “Middle of the Night,” which opened the company’s 14th season on March 20. The rarely seen Paddy Chayefsky comedy from the late ‘50s--recommended to Loewenberg by an actor--chronicles a May-December romance between a 53-year-old widower and his 24-year-old receptionist.
In a small conference room at the Skirball, the cast--including Elliott Gould and Sally Kellerman--stood in front of paper plates being used as points of reference for microphones. Stuart K. Robinson, who has directed four L.A. Theatre Works projects, listened intently as the actors read from their scripts.
The group cracked up when Gould accidentally said the line “pools of blood” instead of “pools of water.” When actress Christina Haag asked Robinson if her character and Gould’s had consummated their relationship in a certain scene, Gould piped in: “I’d like to see what the reporter from The Times thinks.”
“Middle of the Night” was Gould’s first appearance with L.A. Theatre Works. “I knew Paddy Chayefsky and I have had an instinct about this piece of material for quite a long time,” said Gould, who grew up listening to the radio. “Most people wouldn’t think of me for this, and I know in my heart and soul that I am right for it.”
Kellerman, who played Gould’s self-absorbed sister, said that like Gould, “this is a part I would never play in real life if you were looking at me, but it’s fun.” Kellerman was brought in at the last moment to replace Carol Kane, who dropped out of the production.
“They called me up a couple of days ago and said Elliott was doing this and it was written by Paddy Chayefsky,” said Kellerman, who co-starred with Gould in “MASH” in 1970. “I didn’t know what the role was. But I said ‘Chayefsky. Gould. I’ve got to do it.’”
Loewenberg says it is both easy and hard to get actors to do the shows. “I think when you are working with actors of that quality, they are very busy,” she says. “If they don’t know you, it’s hard to get their attention. But I will say this, once people commit, 95% of the time they come back and they want to do more, which is wonderful. We try to make it an experience that people want to repeat.
“Of course, from my point of view, whenever they are famous or great working actors, since I have just one week to put this together, I need to work with people who are absolutely tops. When I am working with a group of highly paid actors, you know why they are getting all of that money. I mean there is something about watching a Julie Harris or a Kathleen Chalfant attack the work that is just remarkable.”
Who else is appearing in the production often influences actors’ decision to join the project. “That is part of the attraction for them. The opportunity to work with someone they know, whose work they love, or to work with someone they have never worked with before. I would say that a lot of friendships and working alliances have come out of this. I know people who have gone on to do projects together having met while doing these plays. That’s exciting for me.”
Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank and husband Chad Lowe will be making their L.A. Theatre Works debut June 26 in the West Coast premiere of Keith Bunin’s drama “The Credeaux Canvas.”
Swank’s name came up when Loewenberg asked the author whom he’d like to see in the play. “We’ll often try to reconstitute the original cast, but sometimes we feel we can improve on it. He said to me, ‘Hilary Swank.’ I think she had done a reading of the play.”
In another production, the original off-Broadway cast is reuniting for “Dinah Was,” a musical drama about Dinah Washington that begins May 8.
“I saw ‘Dinah Was’ at the Arena Stage in Washington,” Loewenberg says. “Gordon Hunt, who directs lots and lots of things for me, called me one day and said, ‘You know, there is this terrific piece I think you should consider, “Dinah Was.”’"
Hunt is a friend of the author, and as it turned out, Yvette Freeman, who starred in it originally and took it to New York, lives in L.A. A regular on NBC’s “ER,” Freeman says she wants everyone to hear “Dinah.”
“I am going to sing live, the whole thing. Doing a radio play is using a different muscle than doing film or theater. You have to tell the whole story with your voice because no one can see your body. I am excited about doing that.”
“Spinning Into Butter,” the next production of L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Play’s the Thing” series, is scheduled for April 10-12, 8 p.m.; April 14, 4 p.m.; April 14, 7:30 p.m. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Productions this season include “Dinah Was,” May 8-12; “Orson’s Shadow,” June 12-16; and “The Credeaux Canvas,” June 26-30. Admission is $10-$42. For information, call (310) 827-0889. “The Play’s the Thing” can be heard on KPCC-FM (89.3) Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Susan King is a Times staff writer.