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THEATER

Fill in the Blank

Who turned compensation for a mugging into an award-winning theater? Daniel Henning.

April 12, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

The metal pipe seemed to flash out of nowhere. He felt an explosion in his forehead and, a heartbeat later, crashed to the ground, his face bathed in crimson.

As Daniel Henning describes the awful night he was mugged in Manhattan in 1988, he slips in bits of unexpected humor, referring to the blow as "the bonk" and laughing at his decision to dress for Halloween that year as Frankenstein, adding gory fake stitches to real ones.

Somehow, Henning saw light in that darkness and turned hardship into opportunity. Today, he can point to two very different consequences: a 2 1/2-inch scar at his hairline and the award-winning Blank Theatre Company.

Henning received a $4,000 worker's compensation settlement from the state of New York because he was working when he was attacked. He used most of it to found the Blank in Los Angeles, where his acting career had led him.

"I said, 'I have to do something good with this money. This is blood money.' "

In eight years, the Blank has become one of Los Angeles' most eclectic and most surprising small theater companies. Henning has enticed such stars as Noah Wyle (Dr. John Carter on NBC's "ER"), Ken Page (Broadway's "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Cats") and Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away") to work with him, and the Blank's productions of such shows as "The Fantasticks," "Chess" and "Breaking the Code" have earned critical raves as well as three Ovation and four Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards.

As the 32-year-old artistic director-producer reflects on this history, he is able to sit still for the first time in hours. He is directing the West Coast premiere of the musical "Hello Again," and he has been popping out of his seat all afternoon to coach Susan Egan--who played Belle in the New York and Los Angeles productions of "Beauty and the Beast"--through her scenes.

Wyle, taking a rare afternoon off from his rounds on "ER," dropped by to watch. Though he isn't performing in the show--which opens Friday at the Blank's Hollywood home--he's an integral behind-the-scenes player. As the company's new artistic producer, he's the principal fund-raiser and an all-around trouble-shooter.

Wyle says he's cast his lot with the Blank because of Henning's "passion and enthusiasm and dedication--it's difficult to find an equal to it. He's very smart. He's honest."

Egan echoes those opinions, saying she initially met with Henning to tell him no to "Hello Again," and "an hour later, I'm saying, 'OK, so I'll see you on Monday.'

"He creates this fire, this passion--and it's about doing really great work."

When Wyle and Egan have gone, Henning asks: "So, am I the luckiest man on the face of the planet, or what?" Eyes twinkling behind his chunky black-framed glasses, he adds, "I can't believe I'm working with these people."

Henning pretty much is the Blank Theatre Company, even though he has been assisted by a handful of people through the years. "I keep saying 'our,' but 'our' meaning the royal 'we,' " he jokes.

He has designed sets for most of the shows, and he has costumed them out of thrift stores. He has directed all seven of the last productions, and he's the one who gets on the phone to coax critics to attend on opening night.

He's also the one who has kept a wary eye on the bottom line, trying to ensure that his scrappy nonprofit company--living mostly off of its box-office receipts--didn't overextend itself.

"Producing for the Blank Theatre Company has nothing to do with money," Henning says. "Producing means figuring out how not to spend money."

With Wyle aboard, however, the Blank is entering a new phase.

Wyle, then unknown, performed in the Blank's second production, a 1991 staging of David Mamet's dating comedy "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."

He has stood by the company since then, and last fall, he offered to take on an official role. Nowadays, he leaps into tasks large and small, right down to scouting props.

"Every time I came into some TV money, I tried to let it flow over to the company," Wyle says, though he declines to specify a dollar amount. Recently, he also secured a corporate donation in exchange for his appearance in a community outreach campaign. Again, he declines to specify an amount, other than to say, "This theater will run for the next three years on what they're going to give us."

Consequently, Henning has been able to budget the run of "Hello Again" at about $45,000, compared to the $2,000 to $15,000 of previous Blank productions. In addition, the 49-seat theater has 34 new stage lights, a larger, computerized lighting board, new stage walls, four tiny crystal chandeliers in the house--and new seats are on order.

"Hello Again" is Michael John LaChiusa's musical revamping of Arthur Schnitzler's classic play "La Ronde." It grew out of New York's Lincoln Center Theater and premiered to mixed reviews in 1994.

As in Schnitzler's original, the action progresses through a series of intimate encounters, with one character in each scene moving on to a new partnering in the next.

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