From the Los Angeles Times
Though he's no stranger to the spotlight, Kevin Spacey bristles when news reports on the Olivier Awards focus on his film connections: " 'The Hollywood contingent was represented by Kevin Spacey.' I go, 'What are you talking about? I come to work at this theater every day.' "
The actor, now in his third season leading London's Old Vic, isn't the only celebrity artistic director who has found that fame is a double-edged sword. Following a long tradition of actor-led theaters, numerous companies across the country boast notable television and film stars as artistic or executive directors, among them: LAByrinth Theater Company (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Actors' Gang (Tim Robbins), Purple Rose Theatre Company (Jeff Daniels) and Studio Dante (Michael Imperioli), with Cate Blanchett set to take over as co-artistic director of the Sydney (Australia) Theatre Company in 2008, with her husband, Andrew Upton.
And this spring, three members of the "Hollywood contingent" are starring in plays in New York that were produced by the theater companies they run: Spacey, in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Hoffman in "Jack Goes Boating" and Imperioli in "Chicken."
Few would argue the appeal of an A-list name when it comes to selling tickets, although most of the actors maintain a relatively low profile — their names are no bigger on marquees than those of their fellow company members.
"Our audience wasn't a traditional off-Broadway theatergoing audience. It was 'Sopranos' fans in the beginning," says Imperioli, who founded Studio Dante with his wife and co-artistic director, Victoria, in 2004. It doesn't hurt that he's lured such "Sopranos" costars as Sharon Angela and John Ventimiglia to appear onstage. Still, he says, "Now it's becoming more mixed."
Raising funds, then curtains
EVENTUALLY, of course, the work has to speak for itself. "The novelty of 'Will he be in the lobby tonight?' was good for a year or two," says Daniels. The actor, now appearing in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Blackbird," used his film earnings to found the Purple Rose Theatre Company in 1991. He is still executive director of the theater in Chelsea, Mich., about an hour's drive from Detroit.
Timothy Busfield, who became a household name with "thirtysomething" and now appears in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," says his fame helped him book school groups for B Street Theatre, the Sacramento children's theater that he founded in 1986. He turned the theater over to his brother around 2001.
After booking his first big role on "Trapper John, M.D.," he says, "My first thought was, 'Now I can start my theater. Now I'll have what it takes to get past school secretaries.' That's the single biggest problem for anybody trying to put up children's theater."
Fame can help in unconventional ways. Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's band, and his wife, Maureen — both of whom appear on "The Sopranos" — recently formed a commercial producing company for classic American plays. They hope their Renegade Theatre will benefit from their relationships with big-name actors, allowing them to make deals to film the plays for television.
"Coming from my background, which is music, we're just so used to things being documented," Van Zandt says.
But most of the celebrities running theater companies were stage actors before gaining fame in movies or television. Robbins founded the Actors' Gang in 1981 with fellow students from UCLA. Spacey studied theater at Juilliard. Hoffman received his BFA in drama at NYU. Both Spacey and Hoffman made their names with stellar New York stage credits — each played James Tyrone Jr. in Broadway productions of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Hoffman's status as an actor made him a "cornerstone" in an ensemble company of about 100 members, according to Florencia Lozano, LAByrinth's associate artistic director. "He has oftentimes, whether or not he's directing, come in and is able to artistically really pinpoint what is the question the actor can ask himself," she says. "He has very strong opinions."
LAByrinth member Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") credits Hoffman's productions of Stephen Adly Guirgis' plays such as "Jesus Hopped the A Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street" with turning an ensemble organized around drunken Wednesday-night improv sessions into a major off-Broadway company.
Rockwell says that Hoffman directing him in Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" was a "life-changing experience." When Rockwell was getting laughs in one scene, he says, Hoffman told him that instead, " 'I want the audience to get uncomfortable when you come onstage. You are a danger to yourself and others.' Now, when he said that, it set a standard for me that would propel me every night."
Still, having an Oscar-winning actor around can be tough. "Of course people feel intimidated, and of course people feel a whole variety of things toward him, and that's difficult for him to be such a presence — I think it must be a burden at times," Lozano says. "But he's just a guy, and he likes to laugh at stupid things."
For balance, Lozano says, Hoffman has co-artistic director John Ortiz. "Phil can sometimes be the bad cop, seeming a little bit aggressive or seeming a little bit intimidating," she says, "whereas John will be the guy who's going to make you feel comfortable."
Toni Marie Davis, Studio Dante's managing director, insists her boss is far from a prima donna. Once, she says, a foreign tourist wandered into the theater and Imperioli spent half an hour on the phone with a phone book, trying to find the guy a hostel.
"He could have said, 'Toni, go find this guy a hostel,' but he didn't do that," she says. "This guy had no idea who Michael was."
After leaving the artistic director job in 1996, Robbins returned to Actors' Gang in 2001 to resolve financial issues at the theater. While the board approved his return by a 6-3 vote, some involved thought his takeover upset the collective leadership structure that had been in place in his absence.
"I was asked to come back," he says. "There were some that didn't want that, but the bottom line on it was that the company was not where it should be regarding its financial situation."
Robbins' return sparked a controversy in part because he came with a check for $200,000. But today, he says, the theater is self-sustaining without his support; he now gives only as much as other board members. In addition, he backs occasional projects, such as a theater workshop in which performers work with prisoners.
Spacey says that when he performs at the Old Vic he earns as much as the other actors. But the New York Post recently criticized him for his high (undisclosed) salary for "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
The actor responds that he will be paid "a reasonable amount of money" and adds, "I don't think it's unfair to say, 'Hey, I've been working my ass off for three years, I would at least like to be able to come to New York and be breaking even.' " He says he has put his own money into the show and that advance sales have passed $3 million.
Despite the best intentions …
AFTER a decade of stage work in New York and initial success in films such as "Terms of Endearment," Daniels launched his theater in the Michigan city where he and his wife had grown up. He put $300,000 into renovating a space for the Purple Rose and even helped paint the ceiling.
But when the actor used his name to tout the theater on local radio and television, he was met with a backlash. "Whenever I wrote a play, forget it," he says. "The reviews had already been written."
In addition, some veteran local actors were skeptical, while others in the community accused him of not using his fame enough. "They said, 'Why aren't you bringing your New York actor friends and movie star friends to star in these plays?' ," Daniels recalls. "I said, 'That's not what we're doing. We're building a regional theater company.' "
Perhaps no one's had it harder than Spacey, a film star — and an American one at that — who founded a new company in a revered British theater.
In late 1999, when "American Beauty" was released, the Old Vic was a booking house. As a member of the board, Spacey helped bring together 40 British theater experts to discuss creating an Old Vic company.
Later that night, his mind was racing. He couldn't sleep, and around 2 in the morning he took a cab to the National Theatre, where Laurence Olivier had been the first artistic director.
"I was looking up at the National, I thought about what it means, and what Olivier did, and what it meant to England, and where he was in his career," Spacey recalls. "I walked the five blocks to the Old Vic, and it was like a scene out of a movie where it was lightly raining, and — I kid you not — it hit me like a light bulb going off: 'What … are you doing? It's staring me in the face. Everything I've been doing has been leading to this.' "
It's perhaps this level of ambition that gave critics license to lash out, especially at the Old Vic's first production, "Cloaca," and last year's production of Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues," directed by the late Robert Altman, both of which were box-office flops.
Spacey brushes off the criticism, saying his nine other shows have been financially successful, and the Old Vic's current production of John Osborne's "The Entertainer" is in negotiations to go to Broadway. "Every single theater has been greeted with absolutely dismal reviews and commentary," he says. "I didn't take it personally."
Juggling film or television with artistic director duties can involve some master stagecraft.
Imperioli had long stretches between "Sopranos" seasons and had an assistant director take over his directing projects when he was shooting. Robbins lives in New York but comes to L.A. at least once a month and will stay for months if he's directing.
"It's just a matter of prioritizing," Robbins says. "You just say to your agents, 'I can't work for four months.' "
Spacey carries a BlackBerry and teleconferences via computer and an Apple iSight camera. He'll work in the Old Vic office all day, perform at night and later check in with his film production company, Trigger Street in Los Angeles. On a movie shoot, if he has a 6:45 a.m. call, he'll be teleconferencing with London at 5:30.
Daniels had to drop out of directing a play to shoot the 2002 film "Blood Work." He hasn't directed again, instead writing plays, which he can do from a hotel room.
And he hasn't missed Hollywood.
"I'm not up on what parties to go to, what to do, who to stand next to and all that," he says, "but I was never interested in all that and wouldn't have been good at it anyway."