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TV? Movies? That’s Old Hat

Irene Lacher

September 29, 2002

Article taken from Los Angeles Times

Most of the actors in the young LA Stage & Film company have already made it to Hollywood. What they really want to do is perform onstage.

Either the place was a destination for the hungry hordes or a waiting room for heaven. The room Mary McDonnell is sitting in is blizzard-white, and it’s lined with countertops covered by various coffee makers. But alas, the coffeepots are empty and the bare countertops aren’t any more promising. There’s no trace of the elaborate feasts laid out at production breaks by the filmmakers with whom McDonnell is used to working.

More likely, the room really is paradise adjacent, located as it is on the second floor of a simple Methodist church in West Hollywood that sometimes doubles as a meeting place for AA.

Buddy, can you spare a rehearsal space?

Next door to the church kitchen, McDonnell’s colleagues in the nascent theater company LA Stage & Film are rehearsing Max Mayer’s new play “James and the Handless Maiden” under the direction of McDonnell’s husband, actor Randle Mell. Clearly, even though most people in the company work in film and/or television, the scene is nothing like Hollywood, certainly not the salaries, because there are none. If the choice is love or money, well, you do the math.

McDonnell is explaining how the return to her roots on the stage isn’t about the cash, not that she would turn it down if it were offered. “I’m no purist,” she says with a wry smile. The actress is talking about how she hungered to play a part far more demanding than the ones she’s usually offered, that of “a dangerous woman” who has just emerged from a psychiatric institution, committed after stabbing her husband. All this before the curtain even goes up.

At a graceful 50, McDonnell is just getting past that funny age for women–the invisible 40s–when she was too old for “the girl” roles and too young to play older women. And of course, juicy parts for older women are far more common on the stage than in Hollywood’s youth culture.

“Part of why I’m getting drawn back in is, I’m starting to get old enough for some of the roles,” she says, her perfectly manicured hands sweeping the air as she talks. “On the set of ‘ER’ last year, Noah Wyle and I were talking, and I said, ‘We really should do a reading of “The Glass Menagerie” because I’ve been waiting to play Amanda, the mother, my whole life, but I wasn’t old enough.’ And he just started laughing, and he said, ‘You know, you are old enough now.’ And I said, ‘Noooooooooo,’ ” she recalls and laughs.

McDonnell is in good company, specifically the West Coast spinoff of the accomplished not-for-profit New York Stage & Film. LA Stage’s 20-year-old counterpart produces new plays by established playwrights and talented newcomers on Vassar College’s bucolic campus in upstate New York and has attracted numerous marquee names such as John Patrick Shanley, Beth Henley, Richard Greenberg, Edie Falco and Christian Slater.

Several of New York Stage’s plays have moved on to commercial venues off-Broadway as well as on, such as “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which opens in November at the Minetta Lane Theatre. (The company’s name refers to its initial mission, which included producing short films, a goal it dropped because movies were consuming the bulk of its resources.)

Shanley, who has had four plays mounted by New York Stage & Film, says he’s impressed by the caliber of talent there. “It’s a terrific company,” he says. “They have a very good assessment of people’s gifts, and they’re artist-friendly. They get what artists do, so it isn’t a battle. And they have very good taste in material. If you’re doing a new play, it’s always the most fun to be doing it with other writers whose work you respect.”

That holds true for the members of LA Stage & Film, half of whom are alumni of the New York company. For them, the essence of their new venture is the company they keep.

Consider McDonnell and Mell, whose connection goes back to 1986, when Shanley recruited them for New York Stage’s 1986 production of his play “Savage in Limbo.” The couple is close to “Handless Maiden” playwright Mayer, a co-founder and producing director of New York Stage who brought a pink teddy bear to the hospital when their 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, was born. McDonnell is the godmother of producer Terry Urdang’s son Parker, and she met Roxanne Hart in a midwives’ office before Olivia was born, a day before the arrival of Hart’s son, Alexander.

Now Hart is starring in LA Stage’s production of Craig Wright’s play “Orange Flower Water,” which will alternate with McDonnell’s play during the company’s inaugural run at the Gascon Center Theatre in Culver City through Nov. 3.

“LA Stage & Film has evolved mostly out of a desire for a theatrical community like a lot of these people experience in New York,” Mayer says.

Hart, who was nominated for a Tony for “Passion,” has appeared in two plays at the Mark Taper Forum. She’s also done staged readings for National Public Radio at the Skirball Center. But it took the opportunity to work with such longtime friends and colleagues to entice her onto a smaller L.A. stage for the first time in her nine years here.

“When you’re doing something that’s just about love, and there’s absolutely no money involved, it’s about trusting the individuals that you work with that they’re as committed as you are,” Hart says. “Sometimes when you work in plays like this, you feel that people are just doing it until they can find something else.

“A couple of people are doing other money jobs, but their heart is in this play. It’s the opposite dynamic of what I’ve experienced, even working at the Taper, that people wanted people to see the work so they could get other work. The play was not the end.”

For many of the two dozen people who’ve lent their names to the company’s letterhead, among them actors Greg Germann (“Ally McBeal”) and Philip Casnoff (“Strong Medicine”) as well as director Barnett Kellman (“Murphy Brown”), the professional food chain shifts into reverse. Many are already working in Hollywood, and now they’re seeking a different sort of sustenance.

“Actors who are here are here to do film and television, so I think it takes a while for people to become thirsty to do theater again,” Mayer says. “But I think that does happen, and I think people have a desire to do work that they’re more in control of, essentially, and that isn’t bottom-line-oriented.

“For the actors and writers especially, theater is a verbal medium in a way that film isn’t. And it’s an actor’s medium. Finally, the actors are up there with the audience over a long arc–over a two-hour arc rather than a two- or three-minute scene. I think that actors are usually thrilled as well as terrified by that prospect.”

Mell says his needs have changed since he and McDonnell moved to L.A. a decade ago when her career in Hollywood was heating up. He’d done a lot of theater in New York, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he returned to the stage to play Starbuck in “The Rainmaker” on Broadway. Two years ago he starred in the Taper production of “Closer.”

“When I came here, I was pretty focused on making money and on doing film and television, the story of probably most actors who are here,” he says. “I was never that interested in Hollywood, frankly. I was interested in making money and in trying to achieve some fame because fame translates into power.

“But there was a void for us, the individuals who make up LA Stage & Film. We felt the need to stay creative, and many times we don’t feel creative enough or used enough in film and television. And there’s nothing like doing plays to use all of yourself and make you feel like you are completely engulfed in a process.”

The idea for LA Stage was first hatched by Urdang, whose sister Leslie, an independent film producer, is a co-founder of the New York company. In 1994, Terry Urdang helped organize a reading series, but members’ professional and personal lives interfered, so it wasn’t until recently that LA Stage began to have a consistent presence.

Last year, the group held a series of readings of new plays from New York Stage’s trove at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. The group was so taken with two of them that it decided to give them full productions. Both coincidentally deal with infidelity.

The West Coast premiere of “Orange Flower Water” by Wright, a writer for HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” is directed by Meryl Friedman. It features Michael Mantell, Brian Cousins and Urdang along with Hart in a play exploring the fallout of an extramarital affair that shatters the lives of two small-town families. Joining McDonnell in Mayer’s “James and the Handless Maiden” are Kevin Kilner, David Starzyk and Catherine Corpeny, Mayer’s actress-spouse.

“We just all had the impulse,” Urdang says. “We all committed to it and said, ‘Now or never.’ ”

Company members hadn’t had much experience with theater on a shoestring. They wrote fund-raising letters to friends and colleagues, cobbling together enough to pay the rent on the theater. The largest donor was the Burke Williams spa, which gave $1,500. For the rest, they mainly relied on donations of time, space and materials.

“We’ve taken a huge leap forward by seriously committing to doing two pieces of theater and not really knowing how to do it,” Mell says. “We had to find a place to rehearse, we had to find lumber for the set. We had to create it from scratch. Before, I didn’t have to sit in a living room with a bunch of friends and say, ‘Let’s put on a play. Where do we begin?’ I was always hired by a company.”

As romantic as the artist-in-a-garret scenario might be, it poses logistical problems–namely, real life. Although people committed to a three-week rehearsal schedule of four hours a day–which is still fairly minimal–as well as the six-week run, there’s always the possibility someone will get a lucrative offer he or she can’t refuse.

If that happens, there are no understudies to step in. “Who’s going to understudy for free, do all that work for no money and little expectation of going on?” Mell says. Plan B is to substitute plays if an actor can’t make it.

Indeed, while bottom-line concerns can interfere with artistic vision, money is also the glue that keeps such ventures together. Without it, LA Stage’s future is uncertain.

“That’s always the dilemma,” Mell says. “We all have to make a living. So it’s great to have goals, but to say we’re going to do two plays every season might be well and good in theater, but it takes a great deal of commitment to make that happen, and we’re flying by the seat of our pants here.”

But if company members are grappling with new problems, there are also new possibilities. Mell is directing for the first time because the playwright asked him to, and the play is the first he and McDonnell have done together in 15 years.

Although this is Mell’s first chance to direct his wife, they say the dynamic between them is hardly new. “I tell her what to do all the time at home, but here it actually has an effect,” he says with a basso profundo laugh.

For McDonnell, LA Stage offers the safe haven she needs to grow as an artist.

“This role is a huge leap for me because it calls on very different things than I’m used to,” she says. “I’ve played people who were close to the edge, but nobody who was quite like this. I don’t know if I’d be as comfortable doing it if I weren’t doing it with Randy. The playwright and the director are two men I deeply love and trust, so it’s easier to risk it.”