In 1977, the lot across from the building about to house a theatre was just a dirt trucking company lot. At that time, Melrose Avenue was occupied by craftspeople and antique shops, but not resembling the vibrant scene it would soon offer. Consequently, property was affordable. Joseph Stern, who was born just two blocks away, purchased 7657 to open an actor-focused theatre that would, nearly forty years later, be one of the longest-standing businesses on the Avenue.
After graduating from UCLA, Joseph moved to New York City t o develop a healthy professional acting career. He got his Equity card working with Joe Papp’s public-minded New York Shakespeare Festival in 1964, and acted in dozens of plays. Strong business acumen was something that Joseph developed in himself and he thought it very important for actors (seen as “second class citizens” then) to “take charge of their own lives,” he said. Actors for Themselves was born from this conviction. The independent company attracted the best east coast talent with its collaborative and focused determination. In 1969, he co-produced “A Whistle in the Dark” with long-time associate William Devane.
Joseph moved back to Los Angeles in 1974, and booked substantial film and TV work (“The Rockford Files,” “M*A*S*H*,” “Kojak”). But his soul remained with the stage. He rented space in order to produce shows with the now west coast Actors for Themselves company. One of those productions, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…?” (based on testimony from House Un-American Activities Committee hearings) earned national attention and ran for 14 months.
His production eye had shifted to television and the popular medium of made-for-TV movies. His hometown was proving a good place for Joseph to develop his exacting, thoughtful skills behind-the-scenes. In 1977, he bought the one stage, 99-seat Matrix Theatre on Melrose, and operated it as a rental venue. By 1980, he extensively remodeled and took over as Producing Artistic Director at the space.
While it wasn’t a formally stated mission, Joseph gravitated toward plays with a dialogue about social issues. He said, “I let the work speak for itself but the material that I choose reflects who I am, I think. I try to stimulate the audience and try to make them a little uncomfortable.” Filicide, unfaithfulness, warring siblings, starting over, disappearing…heavy topics, but as with the beauty of theatre, explored through characters and situations that allow the audience in. Particularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Joseph’s TV productions mirrored the weight of play choices. “I produced the first three years of “Law & Order” and I’ve produced movies about abortion and a movie about a lesbian couple raising a straight child (the Emmy Award-winning “Other Mothers” in 1993).” He produced two notable female-led series, “Cagney & Lacey” and “Judging Amy,” and a pre-MTV serious look at teen pregnancy, “I Think I’m Having a Baby” (1981).
Tweaking the audience consciousness can’t be done by theme alone; the players have to be equal to the task. The foundation was “actor oriented, to stretch the actors. If I didn’t have the right actor, I didn’t do the play.” Bruce Davison, Judith Ivey, Paul Michael Glaser, Ian McShane, Tyne Daly, Eric Bogosian Anna Gunn, Lindsay Crouse, Sharon Lawrence, Philip Baker Hall, and Susan Sullivan were part of the first twenty years of productions on Melrose. In 1993, Joseph developed the concept of “double-casting” with every production. Having two people ready for each role gave local actors the flexibility to do other work during the run. This was the same year that The Matrix Theatre Company was formally established.
Tenacity, patience, and credibility led to opportunities to world premieres, like Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans” which went off-Broadway and to film, to US premieres like Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit” which also went off-Broadway. In between, “a lot of Pinter, my favorite playwright” and Pinter-esques, as well as new voices from around the world.
The amount of awards Joseph and The Matrix Theatre Company has earned is staggering: numerous Ovations, L.A. Weekly (39), Drama-Logue and Backstage Garland (130), L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards (44), and NAACP Awards (8).
In 2009, Joseph made another rather bold move for an established small theatre
in a stressed economy. “I wanted to change the audience from all white to mixed. I wanted the actors to be multi-ethnic.” So he changed the programming to material dealing only with race. “I see it as kind of a healing act. Our audience has changed completely, and 75% of our actors are people of color. It always takes revolution to make change.”
The 2010 west coast premiere of “Neighbors” was widely regarded as a daringly provocative and challenging look at “post-racial” blackness. “All My Sons” cast four different ethnicities. The 2013 production of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915” explored a past genocide and current potential for brutality.
This is what small theatre can do, and retaining that ability is again under fire. Joseph is an outspoken, unstoppable advocate for 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles (see ilove99.org). And for his more than forty years of service to the community, he was honored, along with August Wilson, at the Ovation Awards by receiving the first James A. Dolittle Award for Leadership in Los Angeles theatre.
In February 2016, The Matrix will present the Los Angeles premiere of “The Mountaintop,” a gripping re-imagination of events the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 3, 1968, after delivering one of his most memorable speeches, Dr. King retires to his room where a mysterious hotel maid brings him a cup of coffee and prompts him to confront his life, his past, his legacy and the plight and future of his people.
The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Phone: (323) 852-1445