Legit no longer medium rare for thesps

Stanley Soble, casting director for the Los Angeles-based Center Theatre Group (CTG), likes to relate one of his first experiences in dealing with the agent of an actor he cast in a CTG stage production. When informed that his client would have to commit to rehearsals and the subsequent run of the play, the agent wailed, “But what if he gets a real job?”

Soble, whose early experiences in casting had been with the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, laughs about the incident now. After 10 years with CTG, he knows too well that actors who choose to live and work in Los Angeles are here to establish their careers in film and television. That’s also the prime motivation for the agents and managers who represent them.

Yet, the two CTG theaters, the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson, have enjoyed the talents of a plethora of established film and television stars over the years.

Currently running at the Mark Taper Forum is the Stephen Sondheim musical review “Putting It Together,” starring TV legend Carol Burnett, John McCook (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) and Bronson Pinchot (“Perfect Strangers,” “Beverly Hills Cop”). Later this season, Diane Venora (“Heat”) will be co-starring with Tony Award winner Cherry Jones (“The Heiress”) in the premiere at the Taper of Ellen McLaughlin’s “Tongue of a Bird,” scheduled to open Jan. 14.

Concerning CTG’s success at mining Hollywood for high-caliber and high-profile talent, Soble is realistic. “I work within the system,” he admits. “And the truth of the matter is, in Los Angeles, the best stage talent is quite often right up there on your film and television screens.”

Talent agent Gabrielle Krengel of Susan Smith & Associates sums up the problem of TV and film actors crossing over to the stage. “The difficulty for an agency is that we’re trying to get the profitable TV and film work for our clients, and when they go off to do a play it is such a big commitment of their time,” Krengel says. “Yet, we believe that if they truly desire it, working in the theater is good for the actor. It’s good for their sense of well-being and accomplishment. Therefore, in the long run, it is good for their careers.”

Krengel readily admits that, if an actor’s primary goal is to become established on television, there are certain times of the year (such as TV pilot season) when it would be better that he not to be tied down to an extensive stage commitment. “But again, that is really up to the actor,” she says. “If he or she feels really passionate about a project, we are not going to try to forbid them from doing the play.”

The balancing act between the two mediums can be anxiety-inducing. When John Glover paired with Laurie Metcalf (Emmy winner for “Roseanne”) in the limited two-week revival of Justin Tanner’s “Party Mix” at the 99-seat Cast Theatre in Hollywood, he had to figure out how he would work it in amidst his series regular chores on the new Fox TV series “Brimstone,” which premiered last month.

“I play the devil in the series, so I would be sorely missed if I weren’t there,” Glover remarks dryly. “But I have been a fan of Justin Tanner and his works at the Cast Theatre for many years. When I was invited to be in this production, I jumped at the chance.”

Unfortunately, on the opening night of “Party Mix,” Glover was taping the TV series and couldn’t guarantee he’d make it to the Cast before 8 p.m. “The crew of ‘Brimstone’ literally bent over backward for me to make it on time,” he recalls. “I got to the theater with 15 minutes to spare. But I got there.”

Glove adds, “More and more actors and directors who finally make it to the screen are not leaving the stage behind. That’s as it should be. I know for me, artistically, one just enhances the other.”

Of course, there also are less aesthetic reasons that established actors are striving to work in theater. For one thing, gainful employment in film and TV is getting harder to come by. “Currently, there is more of an emphasis on large, self-contained ensemble regulars in episodic television,” says casting director April Webster. “That’s great for the series regular, but it means there are fewer guest roles being cast. And though there are a number of feature films being made, there are less big-budget projects out there. Low-budget films are not a great source of income.”

Agents and casting directors alike, however, affirm the cyclical nature of the business, agreeing that any actor who truly wants a film or TV career would be foolish to disappear into a long-running play for six months or more. One agent states flatly, “You have to be here and you have to be free.”

One enterprising, theater producer, Marcia Seligson, has come up with a nifty solution to the dilemma. Now in its second season, Seligson’s “Reprise! Broadway’s Best in Concert” presents limited-run, semi-staged productions of rarely performed classic musicals at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus in Westwood.

“Each production has one week of rehearsals and a two-week run,” she explains. In 1997, the company’s first season, Reprise! opened with “Promises, Promises,” starring Jason Alexander, Jean Smart, Alan Thicke and Linda Hart. The highlight of this current season should be the March ’99 production of “Sweeney Todd,” starring Kelsey Grammer and featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Dale Kristien, Melissa Manchester and Davis Gaines.

Seligson makes no secret of how she lands TV stars. “The commitment is only for three weeks,” she says. Alexander was on hiatus from “Seinfeld” when he committed to do “Promises” for about $600 a week.

“If you could scan the resumes of all the actors who are working as series regulars on television, you would be amazed at the theater credits these people possess,” Seligson says. “All the big money may be in television and film, but in the heart of the talent who feed these industries, L.A. is a theater town.”

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