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Bouncing Back to the Boards

Gwen Arner has had a successful career directing TV dramas, but the stage keeps pulling her back, especially the Taper. This time: 'Molly Sweeney.'

November 10, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Gwen Arner has accomplished what few women in her generation--or any generation, for that matter--have. At 59, she's had a successful directing career in both theater and television for more than 20 years.

She has directed works on the main stage and second stages of the Mark Taper Forum, as well as at well-regarded theaters in cities such as Chicago and Seattle. Her directing efforts also have been seen on all of the major television networks, including Fox and PBS, and have been exhibited at film festivals in the United States and Europe.

Yet for all her success, Arner is well aware that she's one of too few women who have been able to break into what's long been regarded as a boys' club biz.

"It's opened up a lot now, but it's still not as good as it should be," says Arner of the prospects for female directors in both film and theater. "It just doesn't make sense statistically.

"When you go into a university and [you see a] 50-50 [gender ratio] in all your creative classes and then you get out into the profession and the ratio drops dramatically, you know there's something wrong," she continues. "It doesn't have to do with a person's talent or abilities."

Arner's talent and abilities are about to go on display at the Taper, where she's directing Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Molly Sweeney," opening Thursday. The three-character play, which played off-Broadway last season, tells the story of a woman who has been blind since the age of 10 months, then suddenly regains her sight after an operation.

Although it has been 12 years since Arner staged a play in Los Angeles--"Passion Play," at the Taper in 1984--she is happy to be back with this project. Arner and her husband, actor Donald Moffat, seen here recently in "The Heiress" at the Ahmanson, are based in New York and have been splitting their time between coasts for the last 10 years.

"I managed to get to the place where I can be more choosy and not have to feel like I have to do everything," says Arner, who has, in recent years, given up most of her work on episodic television, where her directing efforts have included "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Arner has been concentrating instead on made-for-TV movies that, unlike episodic work, don't require her to live year-round in L.A. Recently, for example, she completed "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," starring Connie Sellecca and Twiggy, for CBS.

But it's her work in the theater, although infrequent during the last decade, that she finds most fulfilling. "Sometimes I neglect the theater," she continues. "But I have to try not to drop the theater ultimately, because it is my creative birthplace and I like to keep in touch with that."

Arner exudes an assured competence as she sits for an interview in a Taper office during rehearsals for "Molly Sweeney." Her manner is quiet, like the tasteful whites and off-whites of the outfit she's wearing.

She is aware, as well, of a satisfying circularity to the assignment. This, after all, is the theater where she landed her first acting job upon moving to Los Angeles at the tail end of the '60s.

It wasn't the kind of gig one soon forgets. Arner played Maryknoll nun Marjorie Melville in the Taper's 1970 production of "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." "It was a fantastic, wonderful experience," she says of her role in the landmark documentary theater work written by the then-underground activist Daniel Berrigan.

Throughout the years that followed, Arner returned to the Taper to produce and direct. In 1979, she produced a series called "Playworks" for the theater's erstwhile New Theatre for Now program, directed for the second stage project formerly known as the Taper Lab and also staged one piece--Peter Nichols' "Passion Play" in 1984--for the main stage.

Working at places like the Taper over several decades has, in fact, fulfilled a dream that goes back to Arner's adolescence.

Born and raised in Omaha, Neb., Arner discovered her love of acting in high school. So when she entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1956, she already knew that she wanted to study theater.

Her view of the world, however, was still fairly limited. "When I went to the University of Michigan, I thought I was going east to school," she says. "I'd barely been out of Nebraska."

Arner studied both acting and directing and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in theater, both at Michigan, in the early 1960s. Soon after that, she married and began raising a family.

Toward the end of the '60s, however, Arner felt the pull of academia once again. She returned to the University of Michigan to work on a doctorate, although it wasn't long before she abandoned that course to pursue a professional theater career.

The decision paid off. Soon after Arner moved to California in 1969, she landed the Taper job. And with a first job like that, it was relatively easy to find her place among the local creative community.

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