Oct. 06, 1998




Los Angeles theater as a launching pad for actorsÕ film/TV careers.



by Rob Kendt


Kelly Foran left his native Los Angeles to study acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Returning home, he found the competition stiff and the parts scarce in Hollywood. So he did what thousands of other young actors do: join a theater company and hope someone with the right connections might see their work onstage.


Foran's strategy paid off almost immediately. In his first play last year at the Colony Studio Theatre in the Silver Lake neighborhood, a one-act called "Starry Night," he was seen by Rachel Shapiro, an agent at William Morris, who "hip-pocketed" him--that is, represented him on an informal basis without a signed contract.


Eventually, Foran was signed to the agency's television department. And while he isn't appearing on any of this fall's new youth-oriented TV dramas or sitcoms, he's hoping for an agency push in this winter's coming pilot season.


"It's all chance in this business," Foran, 26, said of his theater experience. "Any time you can get up and work, it's a bonus--and if casting directors or agents come and see you, sometimes you luck out." (Shapiro did not return calls for comment.)


Autumn means another season of plays and musicals on and off Broadway. But in Los Angeles, where the theater scene is smaller, more fragmented and ungainly, the season runs more or less year-round. And so do actors' hopes that doing a local show might mean a big career break in Hollywood.


Such dreams may not be so far-fetched these days. Sources say L.A. theater--disdained and perennially underfunded compared with its cousins in London, New York, Chicago and elsewhere--is turning into an increasingly important launching pad for actors on the big and small screens.


Take, for instance, the NBC sitcom "Frasier." A number of L.A. stage veterans have made appearances on the hit show, including Cindy Katz, Robert Prosky and Nick DeGruccio. That's partly because Jeff Greenberg, a former stage actor who casts the L.A.-based show for Paramount, says he genuinely enjoys going to local theater.


"In New York, going to theater is like an actor hunting trip," Greenberg says. "Here it's more of a lifestyle ... I go for pleasure, but there's also the work aspect."


A recent study by the League of American Theatres ranked Southern California as the third-largest North American market for commercial theater, after New York and Toronto. While the league's figures take into account a large helping of tours and co-productions, indigenous L.A. theater production has come to resemble the size and vitality of theater scenes in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco--except, perhaps, when it comes to respect and media attention.


Between 700 and 1,000 new productions are mounted annually in Los Angeles, most of them performed in converted storefronts, warehouses and black-box spaces by ambitious young actors such as Foran. In addition to big regional or commercial stages such as the Shubert, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse, there are a number of smaller L.A. companies doing acclaimed work: Actors' Gang (founded by actor-director Tim Robbins), the Blank Theatre Company (bankrolled by "ER" star Noah Wyle), the Groundlings (which trained comic actors such as Lisa Kudrow, Pee-wee Herman and the late Phil Hartman) and Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.


There are several factors underlying the perceived growing importance of L.A. theater.


Proliferating cable and broadcast networks in recent years need new programming, which in turn has sparked a huge demand for fresh talent. For instance, there are now 164 national cable networks, compared to 139 at the end of 1995, according to the National Cable Television Assn. Producers of new TV shows often discover local theater as a source of cheap new talent.


What's more, Hollywood is investing in L.A. theater, albeit somewhat haphazardly. Some money comes in the form of charity--for instance, David Geffen's $5 million gift to the historic Westwood Playhouse, since renamed the Geffen Playhouse.


But the industry is more likely to support theater as a way to develop on-air material. The Showtime network has mounted one-act play festivals expressly for that purpose, and the HBO Workspace off Melrose has become a sort of in-house showcase for writers, actors and comics in whom the cable network has an interest. Sitcom guru Garry Marshall earlier this year started the Falcon Theatre in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Toluca Lake.


Casting directors for major films and TV shows have long hunted for talent in Los Angeles' legit theaters.


"I personally find a lot of new talent through small theater," said Marc Hirschfeld, who with partner Meg Liberman runs Liberman/Hirschfeld Casting, which has done work on such shows as "Seinfeld," "3rd Rock From the Sun," "That '70s Show" and "From the Earth to the Moon."


"I like films a lot, but if you see someone in the theater that you really like, you're seeing them do an extended piece of work," explains David Bloch, who has done casting for the film "Godzilla" and the TV series "The Nanny."


"You don't have to think about what editing might have done to their performance; you really see what they do," Bloch adds.


For John Levey, the Warner Bros. casting director for NBC's "ER," theater was a first love. Before his casting career, he directed plays at the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory.


"I tend to go to things that interest me and try to enjoy the performances," Levey said. But he does hire from the local talent pool: Seattle-based actor John Aylward landed a recurring role on "ER" after appearing in the Taper's run of "Psychopathia Sexualis" in 1996, and Daniel T. Parker landed a small role on the show after Levey saw him in the Actors' Gang production of "Euphoria" that same year.


Anthony Barnao, who casts "Profiler," even runs his own company, Blue Sphere Alliance.


The L.A. theater scene will be displayed in all its scattershot glory next month, when Nathan Lane hosts the eighth annual Ovation Awards at Century City's Shubert Theatre, one of the region's few large-scale commercial houses. The awards are sponsored by Theatre L.A., a nonprofit support group designed to raise the profile of local theater.


But the big question is whether L.A. theater is ready for its closeup. Even supporters criticize theater in Los Angeles for its unevenness, lack of professionalism and frequently shoddy production values.


"My big beef with L.A. theater is that the majority of it is not theater for theater's sake but showcase theater," says Hirschfeld, who goes to shows several times a week. "The stuff is poorly mounted, it's not engaging, not well-rehearsed. That's the big difference with the New York theater scene: There, they're doing the work for the sake of the work, and hey, if a casting director comes, even better. But the primary motive in L.A. is, 'I need someplace to stick my face and be seen.'


"You go to see 50 shows, and maybe you see three that are really special," he adds. "I expect it to be bad when I go--if it's good I'm very happy."


That perception may explain why many in the industry are loath to go to the trouble of visiting local productions.


"Actors say it's very difficult to get casting directors and agents out to see theater, even when you're a client," says Deborah Barylski, who casts "Home Improvement" and recently took two months off to direct a new play by Jake Jay Clark, "Solace," at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.


"And it is hard," she says. "A lot of my industry friends did come [to 'Solace'], but two out of three actors in the show could really have benefited from having more agents at the shows."


Much of the scattershot nature of L.A. theater is due to union rules.


In New York's competitive theater scene, Actors Equity rules strictly mandate pay scales for professional productions. The only exceptions are "showcase" productions with limited runs, which are often designed to provide exposure and training for neophyte actors or playwrights.


But in Los Angeles, the distinction between showcase and professional theater is almost completely blurred. Dozens of professional theaters with fewer than 100 seats stage plays without paying wages to actors.


Actors Equity offers producers a generous arrangement--the so-called 99-seat Plan--that only requires union performers be paid a "reimbursement" of $5 to $14 per performance. Some theaters require performers to work as outright volunteers or even pay monthly "dues." Shows may run for up to 80 performances before producers are even required to contribute to performers' health and retirement funds.


The "poor stepchild" association may not help theater attract attention in Hollywood.


After casting director April Webster saw the recent production of Jean Cocteau's "Indiscretions" at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice--a staging she called "as good as anything I've seen Off-Broadway"--she and a colleague, Ronnie Yeskel, tried to help one of the play's unrepresented actors, Michael Rodgers, find an agent--thus far, to no avail.


"Even with casting directors behind you, you'd be amazed how difficult it is to get agents out to see a play," says Rodgers.


Even so, Webster--a former casting director for the Taper and New York's Public Theatre--insists that local theater is vibrant.


"There is a strong core of a real, honest-to-God theater people here who take it seriously, who have a strong commitment," she says.


Barylski agrees, noting that getting representation or work as a result of stage time is merely "great gravy" for theater actors. "You've got to do the work for the work," she says.


Taking that to heart, Foran, when not acting in shows at the Colony, also volunteers as an usher, house manager and other jobs.


Until, of course, he gets his big break.


Rob Kendt is the editor of Back Stage West/Drama-Logue, a BPI publication.