The multitalented Justin Tanner doesn't fit the image of an up-and-coming television writer and one of L.A.'s most celebrated playwrights. Presently sporting long scraggly locks for a role in his new hit comedy Oklahomo!, Tanner's looks suggest an archetypal bohemian--the sort who strummed guitars in 1960s coffeehouses, the scent of reefer in the air and Bob Dylan blasting from the juke box. One quickly detects a spirit of spunky activism. He could be a poster boy for all of history's audacious artistes.
As he discusses his career, Tanner speaks with increasing fervor. His voice is soft, but the delivery is frantically paced. Anecdotes frequently interrupt the current topic. Emerging from this diffuse but mesmerizing discourse is a portrait of an intensely driven producer-writer-director-actor who thrives on the highs and lows of his projects as if on a nonstop carnival ride. A man of myriad contradictions, he's a tough taskmaster yet a devoted colleague. He's an opinionated zealot one minute, a shy pussycat the next. He exudes great confidence but is quick to own up to his failures.
Etching out a colorful chapter in L.A. theatre annals, Tanner developed a tight-knit unofficial repertory group that performed in his original plays at Hollywood's Cast Theatre for 11 years (1989â€“2000). It's a place that seems to have creativity in the woodwork, as both Sydney Chaplin and his brother Charlie once worked in this converted grocery store. Citing midlife transition -- the word
"crisis" seems inappropriate -- Tanner recently decided to take a stab at recapturing the creative and personal euphoria he enjoyed during that era. While he continues to accept and field offers for TV writing gigs, he recently launched the 22-member Third Stage Company, including veteran Tanner players and newcomers, at the 50-seat Third Stage venue in Burbank. His ambitious enterprise got off to a rip-roaring start in July with the premiere of his controversial Oklahomo!, now in a holdover run.
The Tanner legend began in Salinas, Calif., in 1965 when Steven Justin Tanner was born, the son of a chief accountant for a produce company and a dressmaker who later became a costume designer. Young Steven wrote poetry and short stories while attending a Catholic school. In 1983 he boarded a Greyhound bus, leaving behind the "salad bowl" community of Salinas and the moniker "Steven." He came south, enrolling in the theatre department at Los Angeles City College, with ambitions of an acting career. There he met Laurel Green, with whom he formed a close friendship, which led to her appearances in all of his plays for years to come. "She was my muse," he remarks. "She will be again, but she now has a kid. She's smart in not dividing her time right now, but I can't wait to get her back."
Several other actors at L.A.C.C.--including Brendan Broms, Jonathan Palmer, and Tony Maggio--also became mainstays in the Tanner acting pool. His relationship with his longtime set designer, co-producer, and occasional co-writer Andy Dailey likewise began at the school. "We all hung around together," says Tanner. "I wrote a play called All You Zombies that they let us do on campus. This led to the first production I did after graduation, a revised version called Changing Channels. It was presented at [Hollywood's] Second Stage Theatre in 1987. That was my first experience with really great reviews. It's about a family addicted to television and what happens when the set suddenly breaks down. It was a hit, but we had no experience in producing, so we closed it." With this play, the template for a Tanner production was formed: directing his own work and surrounding himself with actors he knew and with whom he was comfortable.
The seed for Tanner's triumphs at the Cast was also planted here when the late Ted Schmitt, producer at the Cast, came to see the play and told Diana Gibson, his associate producer, about Tanner. In 1988, Tanner took another script, Red Tide, to Gibson, and she staged a reading. "If there's a script I have hidden in my closet, this is it," Tanner confesses. "It was a play about vampires and AIDS, and it was just awful. As the L.A. Weekly so aptly put it [when the play premiered at the Second Stage], it was 'politically specious AIDS moralizing.' So I kind of quit for a while. I started waiting tables."
During the run of Red Tide, Gibson had made some harsh comments to Tanner that greatly angered him, and for the next year the door seemed closed to his working with Gibson or the Cast. But in 1989, with a new script in hand, he swallowed his pride and took it to Gibson. "We did a reading of Barbie and Ken at Home," he explains. "And Diana loved it." When a full production was staged, Gibson's enthusiasm for Tanner and his work accelerated. Says Tanner, "Even when we at first had only three people in the audience she said, 'This is the best play going on in town.' Things skyrocketed from there. Zombie Attack! premiered, and it was just huge. The L.A. Weekly gave it Pick of the Week, which meant so much to me. After all, I was just out of my teens. It kept running for 10 years [which was possible because the Cast includes two small theatres] and subsidized a lot of my other work. When Happytime Xmas opened before the holidays that same year, that was three shows I had premiered there within a six-month period, and I was on a roll. After that I started a pattern of writing and producing one new play per year, more often than not with favorable reviews."
Next came Tanner's Party Mix (1990), Teen Girl (1992), Bitter Women (1993), Pot Mom (1994), Tent Show (1994), Intervention (1995), Heartbreak Help (1996), and Coyote Woman (1998). He was appointed literary manager, and though the theatre was never designated as a Justin Tanner venue, his constant parade of plays mostly precluded the works of others. Tanner, whose passion for the operation resulted in marathon work hours and hands-on participation--everything from box office to stage managing--developed a simpatico mentor-student relationship with Gibson that he believes was crucial during his early years in the business. For several years during this period, Tanner also held down a lucrative job at Universal TV, developing ideas for new shows. He used his good fortune to help support the Cast's efforts.
Reviewing the Situation
Despite these gravy years and the immense popularity of his plays, Tanner hasn't been the darling of all critics at all times. Some of his premieres have netted Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards and L.A. Weekly Awards and made L.A. Times annual Top 10 lists, and there have been countless rave notices, but he also receives critical brickbats.
His works have a distinctive style that defies traditional notions of the "well-made" play. They tend to be dialogue-and character-driven. He demands that the actors learn all of their lines by rote before they get up on their feet. He's especially noted for his multidimensional comic roles for women and the way his Cast plays tapped in--almost like a fly on the wall--to the culture of late-twentysomethings in 1990s L.A. Many were set in L.A.'s artsy, left-wing Silverlake district, where he lived. His high-strung characters--such as wannabe actors, dysfunctional family members, dopeheads, lonely women, and self-deluded dreamers--work through resonant human conflicts. Even when he's in a horror-spoof mode, such as with Coyote Woman and Zombie Attack!, the central focus is always the empathetic humans inhabiting his idiosyncratic comic landscape.
Tanner's insistence on rapid-fire pacing and overlapping dialogue has caused certain observers to denigrate his works. Some have also expected tidier story construction. But others applaud his mix of a slice-of-life texture with lightning-quick comic barbs. Tanner admits to being annoyed by some reviews but seems well beyond the point of losing sleep over them. He recalls Gibson's advice that if critics are listened to discriminately, they can sometimes provide good guidance. He says, "With some reviewers, it's a matter of falling in love, then being heartbroken, then falling in love again."
F. Kathleen Foley recently bestowed a Critic's Choice on Oklahomo! in the L.A. Times--in biz parlance, a money review--but Tanner remembers a scathing review from her for a rental production at the Cast toward the end of his tenure there. At that time, he and Dailey were floundering in their attempts to run the theatre on their own after irreconcilable differences between Tanner and Gibson resulted in Gibson's departure in 1997. "Foley wrote an incredibly savage review of our really lousy play," he recalls. "I won't mention it, because I don't want to insult the writer, but a bug fell from the lights, and her review said the first thing we ought to do is give up dramaturgy and hire a fumigator."
He continues, "I don't take reviews personally, even though sometimes the critics certainly get personal. I only wrote to a critic once, during my first play [Changing Channels]. It was based in a trailer park. He said it was an autobiographical piece, based on my family, because I obviously had no distance from the story. I wrote to him that my mom has a Ph.D. and my dad had a great job, and he had no idea where I came from." He admits being perturbed by some Oklahomo! reviews that he feels crossed the line into personal slurs. He explains, "The reviews have ranged from absolute raves to absolute loathing to everything in between. Someone called me 'tubby' and said I looked like Bruce Vilanch--which isn't bad in itself, but it was said in a nasty way. Someone else said I only wrote the play so I could paw one actor. Some people haven't been able to distinguish me from the character I play."
Oklahomo!--about a company mounting a gay variation on Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma!--is a sardonic send-up of the L.A. small-theatre scene. It's also a hard-hitting glimpse at gay relationships as the egomaniacal director (Tanner) and his flighty ex-boyfriend, the playwright (Tanner's real-life partner Brian Newkirk), ruin the production with their toxic relationship baggage. There has been flak from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization about possible infringement of copyright, but Tanner insists nothing in his piece oversteps those bounds.
This was not the first time a Tanner play has fallen under this kind of scrutiny. "I had a cease-and-desist order from Mattel Toys during Barbie and Ken at Home," he says. "The graphic design was a really good rendering of a Barbie doll torn to pieces with the title of the play in shattered lettering." He ended up renaming the play Still Life of a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman.
Veteran local director Lisa James, who helms Oklahomo! and once staged a Cast revival of Bitter Women, holds the distinction of being the only person Tanner has ever allowed, other than himself, to direct his locally produced plays. She vehemently disagrees with critics who disparage Tanner's works. She says, "His plays always excite me. He has a completely original voice, and there are so few writers who do. He's terribly funny and underneath always has kind of a deep thought--there's a real poignancy to it." She believes he has a glorious future ahead in television writing. She also says he's a wonderful actor, and she would jump at the chance to direct him again.
During the Cast years, Tanner worked with several actors who either had burgeoning film/TV careers or were about to break into those arenas. Among the most well-known are French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun), Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), and Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me). Metcalf describes the night she met Tanner, when she was already an established celebrity through Roseanne: "I had heard about a play called Pot Mom that was running at the Cast forever, and I finally went to see it. I hung around after the show, and a cast member managed to wrangle him over to me. I told him I thought it was excellent. He was very shy. We made some awkward chit-chat, and I told him if there was ever a role I could fill in for some time for him to please call me. A few months later he did call, casting me in Pot Mom." The duo instantly clicked, and Metcalf periodically returned to the Cast to appear in his plays. As a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf company, Metcalf spearheaded a production of Pot Mom there, in which she appeared. Chicago critics roasted the play, dismissing it as a Southern California sitcom. Nonetheless, it was a box-office hit.
Metcalf's first production with Tanner since the Cast era will be in the upcoming Third Stage premiere of his Voice Lessons, in which she plays a chatty community theatre actor who wants to make it in the big time. Tanner is directing but not acting in it. She mentions, "I wish Justin acted more. He has a real energy onstage. I'd love to see him acting on film or TV. I love contemporary plays, and he has such a handle on young voices. He has a wonderful sense of humor. There's such an edge to his dialogue. I adore working with him."
After Tanner and Dailey closed up shop at the Cast in 1999, Tanner continued to pursue TV work, writing for WB's The Gilmore Girls. He staged a reworked version of Intervention at the Evidence Room in 2002, titled Hot Properties, and spent a couple of years scripting material for=--and performing in--the theatre's zany late-night serial The Strip.
His association with the Third Stage began in 2000 with Big Bear, a rework of Tent Show. His first completely new play in several years premiered at Third Stage last year, the envelope-pushing Wife Swappers, a bawdy satire skewering Orange County conservatism. His residency at Third Stage was officially announced in late spring with an ambitious slate. First was Oklahomo!. Tanner directs the Erskine Caldwell classic Tobacco Road, which opened last week, and there are three more with opening dates still pending. They include the world premiere of Voice Lessons, starring Metcalf and Tom Irwin; Rob Elk and Joe Keyes' perennial holiday favorite, Bob's Holiday Office Party, and a return of Tanner's Happytime Xmas. Tanner says he's now formulating plans for a 2006 roster.
Maile Flanagan, a diminutive pixie who's a master at deadpan delivery, has been working with Tanner during his post-Cast years and is a member of the new troupe. He refers to her as his "new muse." She shares the confidence expressed by James and Metcalf, saying, "He seeks out people who work well with him. There's a real family feel to the company--complete with all the quirks and little histories that go with that. I'm glad to join a group where I know every show I do will be funny--and good. You have to be really flexible, because he does a lot of rewriting, but the effort is always worth it. He tailors the material to the skills of each performer." Though the designation "company" is more formal in Tanner's new regime than it was at the Cast, Tanner clarifies, "There's no dues or anything like that. I ask the people I invite into the group if I can put their names on the company list and assure them my intention is to keep writing for them or casting them." Tanner's hope is that Third Stage eventually grows into a company paying each actor solid wages.
The interviewees all agree that Tanner is entering a rich new phase of his creative growth. Though he frequently stepped into roles when actors were out during the Cast era, he had never written a full-length play with a role for himself prior to Oklahomo!. He's thrilled about playing the juicy character of the fiendishly overbearing director. As an openly gay artist, he notes that he has always wished the gay community had embraced his work more, though he admits the supporting gay characters he wrote at the Cast--as well as his male roles in general--have largely been "lovable nerds or sad sacks or jerks." Oklahomo! is an opportunity for Tanner's work to finally gain the notice of the gay community, though he says it is playing like gangbusters to diverse audiences. Also new to him is the practice of supplementing premieres of his plays with works he greatly admires and has always wanted to stage, such as Tobacco Road.
Tanner adds, "We've all gotten older. I'm not writing for twentysomethings anymore. I'm writing characters in their 30s and 40s." Though he'll always be grateful for everything Gibson did for him, he admits that he came to certain realizations in the five years between the Cast and Third Stage. "I had to retrain myself," he says. "I had been under such tight strictures with Diana. She was a great dramaturg and extremely smart, but it was time for things to change. After I split with her, I sort of wandered around artistically for a few years, and then I felt I was ready to enter the arena again. Partly I was inspired by the statement by Michael Ritchie [Center Theatre Group's new artistic director] that he was interested in seeing what the smaller groups in L.A. were doing and how he might work with them. In a recent interview he was quoted as saying he had never heard of me. Now he certainly must have noticed Kathy Foley's rave review of Oklahomo! on Page 2 of the L.A. Times, with a huge picture next to it. I hope he knows who I am now. Over the next few years, I'm committed to being what I originally wanted to be: a new-play producing machine."
The biggest obstacle Tanner faces is finding the time to rebuild his theatre empire, while great TV opportunities nip at his heels. He says, "There are producers I have met just in the past couple of weeks who I want to develop things with. But I also have all of these shows coming up at the theatre, one right after another. I'll probably be checking into a mental health institution during Thanksgiving. It's wonderful to be sold out 25 performances in advance, but the pressure is almost overwhelming. Still, I just can't walk away from this." BSW