Among the many local colleges and universities that teach acting or have full-fledged theater programs are UCLA, USC, Cal State L.A., Cal State Fullerton, CalArts, UC Irvine and UC San Diego. But their individual strengths and emphases vary widely, from musical theater to avant-garde theater and post-modern performance art.
Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps says he'd like to restore some type of in-house training institute, probably a conservatory similar to ACT's. A "huge part" of this training, he says, would come "not from what you learn in classes, but from the experience of working with other great actors."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 19, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles theater--A story in the Aug. 12 Sunday Calendar incorrectly identified the location of the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre. It is in Claremont.
"It would allow us to do some productions of greater scale and scope just in terms of the number of people involved," Epps continues. The Taper's Davidson says he considered developing an actor-training program, probably joined to a repertory company, when the theater was founded in the 1960s.
"My first instinct was, 'Of course we're going to create a company,' because that's what was being done at the Guthrie and elsewhere," Davidson says, referring to the acclaimed Minneapolis theater. "I found I didn't have the wherewithal, the budget, to sustain it. And especially it was going to be hard to get senior actors."
Davidson recalls having a conversation with actor Jason Robards many years ago. "I said, 'What would it take, Jay, to have you come and do a couple of seasons [with us]?' And he said, '$500 a week.' In other words, $25,000 a year. So, 10 actors--that's $250,000." Such a cost, at the time, would've been prohibitive, Davidson says.
The shortage of institutional training programs may help explain why Los Angeles theater has had trouble attracting and retaining dedicated stage actors over the years. A handful of well-regarded actor-driven theater companies, including the Matrix, Actors' Gang, A Noise Within and Antaeus Company, have partly filled the gap.
Antaeus' Matthews says one of his aims has been "to keep a first-class company together and yet not punish them for a career in TV and film."
"You can't want to have people who have film and television credits in your stage productions, and then penalize stage people who want to go do film and television," he says.
Besides the industry's historic indifference to L.A. stage credentials, some say there's also a theater-world bias in favor of actors from east of the Hudson River versus those from south of the San Gabriels. "I think they'd rather you were a New York actor," Hawkins says.
But Gunhus, Broadway's singing Nazi, challenges that notion. He estimates, for instance, that at some point in their careers at least half "The Producers" cast have worked in Los Angeles, including Tony winner Gary Beach, who played Lumiere in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at the Schubert in 1995.
When Gunhus started out in L.A. theater, he says, he often was told that "there isn't enough work in L.A. to sustain a career, that it's a nice hobby but it isn't something you can do full time."
But by the time he was cast in the national tour of "Ragtime," Gunhus was working 42 of 52 weeks a year. Many New York and Chicago actors would think themselves lucky to work half that much.
The Taper's Davidson says the majority of actors he casts are L.A.-based. "People may have other perceptions of that," he says "but it's true."
Many of these actors, he says, are stage-trained performers "who've somehow managed to juggle their lives such that they keep a hand in the theater, and they make a living in film and television."
That pretty well describes Whitford, who's well aware of the added cachet his name has in New York now that he's on a hit TV series. "I'm the same actor I was five years ago," he says, "but now if I wanted to do a play in New York, I'm sure I could do it. I'm sure if Jane said she wanted to do a play in New York, she could do it. And that's true to a certain extent here."
Mariette Hartley says she "really recommitted" to doing theater about seven years ago and has been working there steadily ever since. She was last seen locally in a staged reading of A.R. Gurney's "Ancestral Voices" at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
This summer, she starred in the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival production of Gurney's "Buffalo Gal," about an actress of a certain age who's debating doing "The Cherry Orchard" in Buffalo or accepting a role in a cheesy new sitcom. In the fall, she'll play opposite Len Cariou in the L.A. premiere of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" at the Wilshire Theatre.
"This is about really learning my craft. This is about not faking it. This separates the men from the boys, at some level," the 61-year-old Hartley says of stage acting. "Who would've thought I'd be doing regional theater at my age and loving it?"
But whether you're an understudy in a 99-seat production or a Hollywood star, theater often conflicts with better-paying jobs, with kids' soccer practices and spouses' work schedules, with having an actual life.