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Actress Brings On-Stage Savvy to Off-Stage Post at Actors Center

July 22, 1988|JIM MACAK | Macak is a Studio City writer. and

The San Fernando Valley is due for another new theater--this one housed in the Actors Center of Los Angeles in Studio City. And the woman searching for new plays to mount there knows plenty about starting such an enterprise.

As an actress, Jeanne Hepple was present at the birth of the National Theatre in England and the Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut. And she is eager to nursemaid another, as she tries to regain a foothold in an industry that she sees is leaving her and other actresses behind.

Hepple is the development director for the new theater wing at the Actors Center, a Studio City facility that offers training and support services for actors. Her major task is to find the right balance of plays for a first season, to begin in October.

She has a personal interest in scripts with strong roles for women and older actors.

"We have got to show that everyone can have fun and adventure and challenges even if they don't look like the gorgeous people of the world," she said.

Hepple was brought in to help organize the new theater wing by Katherine Billings, an instructor at the Actors Center. Billings, asked by Actors Center co-founders Sam Christensen and Michael McCabe to serve as artistic director, agreed to take the position on the condition that she could recruit Jeanne Hepple to share the responsibility.

"Jeanne is the genuine article. She's fiercely talented with an impeccable training experience. Working with her demands that I rise to my highest expectations," Billings said.

Billings, who also has a long list of credits as an actress, writer, director and film maker, met Hepple and studied with her five years ago at an acting workshop. In their new roles as artistic director and development director, both women waived any salary or compensation for the first year of the theater wing.

Hepple, who lives in Woodland Hills, acknowledged that the Valley already has a large number of Equity-waiver theaters, but she feels that the Valley's population is large enough and affluent enough to support another.

"And like anything else in this capitalistic society, if it's good and viable, it will last. If not, it will fade away. But I think Katherine and I have a wonderful sense of what is both artistic and commercial. And we should be able to beat the odds."

Also tipping the odds in their favor is the support of Christensen and McCabe, the center's co-founders. Until the theater wing begins generating sufficient income to pay for itself, Hepple and Billings won't have to worry about rent. Marketing and box office services, as well as technical equipment, will also be provided by the center.

For Hepple, the theater wing offers an additional plus--a chance to rebuild a career.

For many years, Hepple was at the top of her profession, performing in major roles on both sides of the Atlantic. She shared the stage with Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith and Peter O'Toole. And she was wined and dined by Noel Coward.

("For some reason, Noel took a tremendous liking to me. I didn't wear makeup and slopped around in jeans. . . . Noel took it upon himself to try and glamorize me. It was hopeless.")

When Hepple took over a major role in "The Master Builder" on a few days' notice at The National Theater, she won over her co-star, Olivier. In his autobiography, Olivier wrote that Jeanne Hepple was a name "forever engraved upon my grateful heart." She is a "splendid, first-class actress who possessed not only talent, but brilliant efficiency as well."

Hepple went on to other major roles on London's West End and on Broadway. She was the only person to win the Clarence Derwent Award as most promising actress in both London and New York.

In 1967, Rubert Brustein brought her to New Haven, Conn., as a charter member of the Yale Repertory Theatre Company. And when she wasn't performing there with Stacy Keach, Irene Worth and Estelle Parsons, she was teaching students such as Henry Winkler, Talia Shire and Ken Howard at the Yale Drama School.

She put all that on hold for more than 10 years to raise a family. But her marriage to Emmy-winning television director Jeff Bleckner ended two years ago, and she realized she had to start supporting herself again. Even before her divorce, Hepple decided to "strong-arm agents and friends," as she puts it, for acting parts. But she suffered a siege of anxiety and a drop in self-esteem when she realized that her considerable credits in England and New York didn't count for much with L.A. theater companies and the film and television industry.

"I understand that now and accept it," Hepple said. "I have to rebuild my reputation."

What Hepple does have difficulty accepting is the dearth of roles--for other actresses as well as herself.

"The odds of getting a good break are horrendous for women in my age range. I'd go up for a small part with a few lines, and I'd be astounded that other women auditioning for these parts have won Emmys and Tonys. It shocks me.

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