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Acting coach Larry Moss gains acclaim -- and an invitation to a Swiss festival -- for his shepherding of "The Syringa Tree"

September 29, 2002|VALERIE GLADSTONE

Los Angeles acting teacher Larry Moss hasn't been the same since 1997, the year his trusted astrologer suggested he be more creative. Though he was already successful, she thought he should realize his dream of directing. Because only the lack of engaging material held him back, she told him to create it himself.

"I realized it didn't make any sense to sit around and complain about the lack of good scripts when I could help create them," says the 58-year-old teacher, a tall, lanky man with a warm presence and a penchant for baseball caps. No one--except maybe his astrologer--could have foreseen the consequences.

Shortly thereafter, actress Pamela Gien showed up for a class. She performed a 20-minute sketch, playing herself as a child in her native South Africa. "I was overwhelmed by her portrayal of a girl living in unbelievably dangerous circumstances and flying into fantasies to protect herself from the reality of apartheid," he says. "I knew it could be a great play because it's a universal story--we all live in a world in violent turmoil."

It took Moss and Gien three years to develop "The Syringa Tree," which had its premiere at Seattle's ACT Theatre in 2000. She eventually wrote 22 characters into the play, including her parents, the family maid, friends and various villagers, all of whom she portrayed. In New York, "The Syringa Tree" was awarded an Obie for best play of 2001, the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding solo performance.

And its life didn't stop there: Moss directed a television film of the play, distributed by Trio, and will direct the play again at Theaterworks in Palo Alto, Calif., (Oct. 12 to Nov. 3), at the Pasadena Playhouse (Nov. 3 to Dec. 1) and at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills (Dec. 2-Jan. 12). He and Gien will collaborate again on her film "The Lilly Field," which begins production in the spring.

After Moss began working on "The Syringa Tree," actor Bo Eason arrived at the Larry Moss Studio in Santa Monica with his story, what he envisioned as a supposedly comic sketch based on his NFL career. Moss saw tragedy instead--and the potential for gripping theater. Moss began pulling details out of Eason until, one day, the former athlete collapsed in tears.

Eason played with the Houston Oilers for several years in the mid-'80s until knee problems forced him out. Like the hero of his play, Eason has a more talented brother and a domineering father who pushed him to compete. Most of the show takes place just before an important NFL game in which he will face his brother, the quarterback for the opposing team. Until he began working with Moss, Eason had not faced up to the hardships of gaining parental approval nor to the approved brutality of football, and how they almost destroyed his life.

Last winter, Eason's story "The Runt of the Litter," which Moss directed, had a brief run off-Broadway. Late next year, Castle Rock is scheduled to release through Warner Bros. a film based on the play.

Moss expects actors to establish a deep connection with the characters they'll portray. "They can't do that until they know who they are," he says, showing the influence of his 35 years in psychotherapy. One way there, he says, is to have them do "relaxation exercises," during which they recall an event through their senses and relive it emotionally.

His unwavering dedication to his craft has made him one of the most influential acting coaches today. Directors as well as actors vie for his time, with students sometimes waiting a year to attend classes. Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw put up the original money for the Edgemar Center for the Arts, an arts complex opening in October in Santa Monica, to which Moss will relocate his studio.

His stature also earned him a six-figure advance from Bantam/Dell for "The Intent to Live," a book on acting, and a chance to play himself--an acting coach--in the Belgian film "Michael Blanco," scheduled for release this winter. And it was his talent for creating first-rate theater that won him an invitation to the prestigious Verbier Festival in Switzerland, best known for world-class musical performances.

Until the success of "The Syringa Tree" and "The Runt of the Litter," Moss' reputation rested largely on his film work. After all, there's nothing quite like having Helen Hunt ("As Good as It Gets") and Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") thank you for helping them win Academy Awards, or having actors like Michael Clarke Duncan, Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria and Jim Carrey rave about your talents. "But theater gave me my life," Moss says, and it was his love of theater that prompted his most recent endeavor, a workshop in July hosted by the Verbier Festival.

"After I saw 'The Syringa Tree,' " says Verbier founder Martin Engstroem, "I knew we wanted to have him here. He represents the kind of innovation we strive for. He inspires people."

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