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A Matrix of Creativity

Joseph Stern's Melrose company has been a local innovator for five years. It moves ahead again as it stages its first new plays.

April 19, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

With 20 years of acting and 20 years of producing both theater and television to his credit, Joseph Stern has played a lot of parts. But to hear him tell it, he seems at last to have found the role of his life--as the man who made double casting a term of art.

A longtime force on the Los Angeles theater scene, Stern, 57, has been putting on plays at the Matrix Theatre since 1980. Following a three-year stint in New York producing the NBC-TV series "Law & Order," he relaunched the Matrix company in 1993. But this time he had a new tactic.

Stern's twist was to cast two actors in each part, and to shuffle the schedule so the ensemble could change with each performance. That way he figured he'd be able to attract the kind of high-caliber performers who normally wouldn't commit to a play for fear of having to pass up the TV or film work that might come along.

The system has worked, or so the awards the company has been collecting would suggest. From the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle alone, the group has received: outstanding production 1993 ("The Tavern"), '94 ("The Seagull") and '95 ("The Homecoming"), as well as best ensemble for 1996's "Mad Forest."

Currently, the Matrix company is preparing to open what may be its most ambitious effort yet: a season of two new American plays in repertory. The West Coast premiere of Wendy MacLeod's "The Water Children," directed by Lisa James, opens on Saturday and next Sunday and the premiere run of Larry Atlas' "Yield of the Long Bond," directed by Andrew J. Robinson, opens on May 14 and 15.

That the company is now able to tackle putting on two new plays in repertory suggests just how successful Stern has been. In fact, the company has thrived in ways even he didn't anticipate.

"This double casting started five years ago as a stunt to facilitate people to have jobs," says the amiable and outgoing Stern. "But what's happened here is that in this five years this environment has encouraged people to be better because they feel safe. Something happened that eliminated all the competitiveness. It allowed people to get rid of their agendas and just trust the situation.

"I believe that this is the healthiest, safest environment that I've ever been involved in, as a producer or actor, and that it is directly related to this paradigm of [the] double cast," he continues. "I believe that with my whole heart. I know it sounds like religious fervor, but I tell you, it's been remarkable."

He is seated, with a large takeout cup of coffee in hand, in a rolling desk chair on the polished wood floor of the empty set where "The Water Children" and "Yield of the Long Bond" will play.

Stern had wanted to do new plays when he first relaunched the Matrix, but was persuaded against it by the difficulty they can pose at the box office. "New plays are very risky, and you don't always know if they're going to work," he says. "There's a finite amount of money to run this theater: There are no grants, no dues, nothing. The plays have to succeed, to a certain extent."

He was also concerned about the suitability of the Matrix process to a new work. "With this process, I began to feel that it was hard to do a new play, because the writer and the director are denied the continuity of the same actors day after day," says Stern. "Also, when you get to perform here, they're one on, one off: You can't give a note that night and come back the next night and do it. So you need very skillful actors to do this."

Years of watching the development of the ensemble, which includes a core group of more than a dozen Matrix regulars, however, have persuaded him otherwise. And yet Stern knows he's chosen challenging material.

"The Water Children," which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York last year, is about no less an incendiary topic than abortion. "It's about one woman's experience, and then it moves to a spiritual place," says Stern. "I never thought about the spiritual middle ground, which is what this play deals with--that there are spiritual issues beyond being for or against abortion, and that it is possible to be pro-choice and still deal with abortion as a spiritual experience."

Likewise, "Yield of the Long Bond," which is receiving its first staging ever here, tackles issues that are both philosophical and personal. "To oversimplify, it is about religion and money and how it stops us, perhaps, from intimacy and what goes on in our relationships," says Stern. "It deals with the strongest themes in our life."

But the Matrix actors and directors whom Stern consulted expressed enthusiasm for the scripts, and that was good enough for him. That kind of unpretentious attitude is, in fact, characteristic of Stern.

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