It was written that Hope Alexander-Willis would have a life in the theatre. It could hardly have been otherwise. "I am a product of the American theatre," she proudly declared.
"My mother, Mara Alexander, was an actress," said Alexander-Willis. "She went into labor with me while she was taking a curtain call. I acted onstage all the time, even when I was pregnant with my son; when he was three weeks old, I was back onstage and I would run backstage between the acts to nurse him. I remember as a child, sitting in my mother's dressing room, watching her put on makeup and knowing that my actress grandmother used to sit putting on makeup in her dressing room in Romania."
Now, armed with impeccable credentials as an award-winning actress, Alexander-Willis is now gaining renown as a versatile director‹especially as a sensitive interpreter of Israel Horovitz's plays. Directed by Alexander-Willis, the Horovitz trilogy Growing Up Jewish will open Oct. 8 as the centerpiece of the Fountain Theatre's Fall Festival. "Its three plays, Today I Am a Fountain Pen, A Rosen by Any Other Name, and The Chopin Playoffs, will be my fourth, fifth, and sixth Horovitz works," Alexander-Willis observed during a recent lunchtime interview across the street from Strasberg Theatre Center, where her third, Unexpected Tenderness, was winding up a successful run.
"That is a play," said Alexander-Willis, "with a special place in Horovitz's heart. Of all his plays, it is the most painful for him to watch, because it deals with his family's heartbreak. His mother gave her special permission for him to do it‹he said if she had wanted it burned he was prepared to light the match.
"I don't know how many directors are crazy enough to direct three full-length plays at the same time," Alexander-Willis continued. "Right now, 25 actors in five plays have my phone number. It's insane, just the scheduling. Can I bring it off? Well, we'll see, won't we?"
One of the five plays she was juggling is Alice Madrid's Shame on the Moon, which closed Aug. 15 at Los Angeles Theatre Center. It heralded the debut of the new lesbian Ivy Theatre Company, and was a lucent example of what this director calls her "ritual theatre" style, one especially suited to the play's mood of magic realism.
"It gave me great joy," she said. "Five wonderful, wonderful actresses and an actor followed me down a road they were afraid to walk, but walked it anyway, and they brought so much love to their performances."
While remarking that "mothers aren't supposed to have favorites," Alexander-Willis admitted that the Horovitz trilogy may be her favorite of his works. "I was raised a first generation Jew after Hitler's Holocaust. These plays take place in 1941, 1943, and 1947; they explore the Jewish culture in a way I find particularly appealing and they resonate with the deep rich voice of Jewish life." It is a culture and a life that, like theatre, are in her blood.
Willis' Russian-born father, Leon Alexander, arrived in New York after graduating from a Berlin university, to become theatre critic for the Marxist People's World. Her mother was once a prot g of the great Russian producer/director Meyerhold. Alexander-Willis recalled, "After her work with the Group and the Fourteenth Street Theatres in New York, she went to Russia, jumped her tour, and stood out half starving in Red Square, asking people, 'Do you speak English?' Finally, one woman did, and she turned out to be Meyerhold's wife. My mother went to live with them and became Meyerhold's prot g ."
At 15, Alexander-Willis apprenticed herself to the San Francisco Actors' Workshop, where she grew up "watching and learning from Erica Yohn, Alan Mandell, Priscilla Pointer, great artists like that. I learned box office, lights, props, and I would watch Bob Symonds rehearsing at night after working days in the produce mart, as actors do now in Equity Waiver. But it wasn't about being seen by casting directors, it was about needing to do it."
Which she contrasts with another need, recently expressed: "A young man asked me about taking a class. When I explained I was teaching privately, one on one, he said, 'Oh, that's not for me. I just want a place where I can hang out and meet people.' That made me laugh, and it made me sad."
Actors like Ben Savage, who played the young Horovitz in Unexpected Tenderness, offset her sadness. Said Alexander-Willis, "He's such a good little actor, isn't he? I think it's wonderful that an actor who has a TV series and doesn't need to do this, does it because he wants to. It gives me hope, balances the guy who is looking for a class to meet girls."
Now, after almost four decades as an actress with great credentials, Alexander-Willis is finding doors closed to her. "I don't think it's any secret that terrible ageism goes on‹it's the new blacklist," she said. "All of a sudden the door slams, and all over town people like me are going 'Hunh?'"
She did "quite, quite well" in her early 30s in Hollywood, but then, against the advice of her agent, she went on the road doing Shakespeare with Michael Redgrave.
"When I came back to town people said, 'Oh yes, she's wonderful but she's‹you know, a classical actress.' A bad thing. So I moved back to the Bay Area and did 10 years of back-to-back shows with world-class actors and directors at A.C.T. and Berkeley Rep, which at the time was the best company I have ever worked with. So, I come back to L.A., I'm 41, and I go in for a meeting with a woman at ABC or CBS, whichever, and she introduces me to a Very Important Person saying, 'This is Hope Alexander-Willis, who just returned to L.A. having not acted for 10 years.' And she had my resum right in front of her. That's the problem you're up against.
"It's a problem for directors, too," she continued. "Look at the seasons, look at American Theatre magazine‹how many women directors do you find? It's shameful, because there are many, many wonderful women directors out there‹why wouldn't there be? Olivia Honegger, Jennie Sullivan, Jessica Kubzansky. Also, both Tony Award-winning directors this year were women. Yet women who are running theatres aren't hiring any more women than the men are. This has to change, and women have to change it."
If doors close, they also open, and Hope Alexander-Willis is doing her best to open them. She is rightfully proud of her directorial triumphs. However, the achievement of which she is most proud, as she emphatically declares, is, "My son!" She named him Thorin, "after Lord of the Rings' dwarf king‹and he's six feet six. I'm so very proud of him. He survived being raised by me, and that's pretty good‹because he was raised, you see, by a single mother who was an alcoholic. Which I was until 10 years ago. It started when I was 15, out of fear, I think, because my mother was dying and I was left alone at 16. Anyway, now I am very grateful for Alcoholics Anonymous and for 10 years of sobriety."
In the best of circumstances, life in the theatre takes strength and courage, to say nothing of determination, as no one knows better than Alexander-Willis. "I so respect the playwrights, directors, actors who work their butts off for free, for the love of it. I have actors right now who are in three different shows at the same time. That's hard work. And I so respect the producers, like Anna Strasberg, who put up their money knowing they'll get little if any of it back.
"As a director, I'm very dedicated, especially now at the end of the 20th century; there's so much confusion, violence, hopelessness going on. I do have hope, though. I have hope because I'm a Jew; you find enormous celebration and hope in a people who have survived slavery and persecution. I explore for plays that give hope, that express the light in the human soul."
That artists like Alexander-Willis are still fighting the good fight for theatre is cause for hope in itself. BSW/D-L