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THEATER : Hometown Boy Makes Waves : After a three-year absence in New York to helm TV's 'Law & Order,' producer Joe Stern has returned to his roots and his first love, the L.A. theater scene, to work with 'the greatest talent pool of actors in the world'

January 09, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Joseph Stern is back and he's mad as hell and not going to let us take it anymore.

"The actor is an endangered species," producer Stern is saying, standing on the deck of his Pacific Palisades home. "Between the economy, the lack of funding, and its effect on our standards, actors are not practicing their art. They're not doing something else. They're not directing, or writing their memoirs. They're just waiting for the next gig."

Stern lists actors who quit the profession. He mentions stars who live in Los Angeles, yet never work on local stages. He speaks rapid-fire, sounding more adolescent than middle-aged, despite his 53 years.

After a three-year absence while working as co-executive and executive producer of the New York-based NBC-TV series "Law & Order," Stern has returned to his hometown and his first love, the theater, specifically, his own theater, the Matrix, at 7657 Melrose Ave., where he's currently producing a critically acclaimed revival of George M. Cohan's 1920 melodrama "The Tavern." (The show continues through Feb. 13.)

Despite two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for "Law & Order," Stern left the show feeling he had "done all I could, and I didn't feel we had the same goals anymore." Among the very few theater producers who straddle stage and screen, Stern continues to balance both arenas more effectively than any other theater producer in Los Angeles. Last fall, while preparing to mount "The Tavern" at the Matrix, Stern simultaneously produced the controversial "Other Mothers," the "CBS Schoolbreak Special" about lesbians parenting a high school boy.

A key mover and shaker during the phenomenal 1980s boom in Southern California theater, Stern was at that time both a leader and a rebel.

While mounting stage productions under his Actors for Themselves banner that earned 19 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, including the prestigious Margaret Harford Award for lifetime achievement, Stern accused Actors' Equity of not supporting Southern California theater producers, publicly dueled with Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson (claiming that the Taper was not, at the time, using enough local talent), and demanded better working conditions for actors. Always, if there was a panel discussion, Stern was on it; call a debate, and he led the argument. Ask for a provocative statement, and he wrote the newspaper a letter. Stern could always be counted on to name names.

He has been missed here. "I've been told there's a tightening of the belt (in L.A.) because of the economy," Stern says. "Colleagues date it back to the riots, for whatever reason, and they feel the audience has seen too much bad theater. The audience is smaller. It's not just the economy. It may be trust in the product. They've been burned too many times.

"But the greatest talent pool (of actors) in the world is right here in Los Angeles," Stern declares with rising emphasis. "It certainly isn't in New York. While living there for the last three years, I saw some 70 shows, and talked to a number of people, and auditioned some 6,000 actors. You can't tell me the work is better there than in Los Angeles. This is where the talent pool is. . . . How do we get them back on stage?"

Stern's solution was to form the Matrix Theatre Company, a repertory company of industry actors who, thanks to lucrative television and movie salaries, can afford to work in the theater for free. His model for this is Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in London, a core resident company that enlists movie actors for various projects. But the problem, of course, is that in-demand performers frequently leave shows for paying industry jobs.

Stern solved this problem by double-casting "The Tavern." That meant finding not just 15 actors, but 30. Each role has a minimum of two actors in alternating performances. When one actor's agent calls with a job, another actor steps in. But if you cast actors the level of Marian Mercer ("It's a Living") and David Dukes ("The Mommies"), their alternates must be equal in talent. Such casting would be the envy of any theater in the world, let alone a not-for-profit 99-seat house.

"I knew double-casting was the only hope if I was going to get a great company of actors," Stern remembers. "That way, they're not missing a job. During the rehearsal period, some 15 or 20 jobs came up. Half of (the actors) were out at one point. Jim Haynie, Mitch Ryan--each had one or two jobs where they left for a few days. Talia Balsam missed the first week of previews. Charles Hallahan is in 'Grace Under Fire.' "

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