American Theatre of Actors: A Long Run, Little Fanfare

What do Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, Edie Falco, Danny Aiello, Chazz Palminteri, and Kevin Spacey have in common—besides talent and success?

The answer: At early points in their careers, they were all members of the American Theatre of Actors (ATA), a company of writers, directors, and actors whose mission is to provide a place for theatre artists to develop without the pressures of the commercial world. Nobody gets paid—but at the same time, nobody has to pay to belong.

"I don't like paid memberships. They turn me off," asserts ATA's president and artistic director, James Jennings, who launched the theatre, located at 314 West 54th St., 29 years ago. "Actors have enough struggles without having to worry about paying membership dues."

ATA is an unusual operation for many reasons, not least its scale: Over the past three decades, more than 8,000 actors have performed there and over 800 new works have been presented. The plays, both dramatic and comic, reflect an eclectic spectrum of subjects, themes, and styles. Little unifies them, says Jennings, short of their social and ethical concerns.

"Our company consists of 20 playwrights, 50 actors, and 10 directors," he notes. "The ages range from 22 to 75. Some actors are not union members; others are members of Equity, SAG, and AFTRA. The writers' and directors' experience varies as well. One of the things that makes us different from other theatres is that our shows—and we produce 25 each season—may run anywhere from one week to four weeks. We do get reviewed, although we don't invite critics to each play. We also do a play reading series and, occasionally, dance and music concerts. This theatre is about the developmental process."

A savvy businessman, Jennings also rents out space to 10 to 12 theatre companies yearly; "Urinetown" was launched at ATA.

The nondescript six-story building, adjacent to a police station, houses four theatres, including an outdoor space. The largest theatre seats 140, another accommodates 65, while the smallest seats 35. The outdoor space, a garden area behind the building, provides seating for 60. The latter is used in the summer to present Shakespeare and other classics, with each play allotted one month.

With three full-time staffers and an undisclosed budget derived from an array of sources (including ticket sales to an audience that tops 42,000 annually), the nonprofit ATA is a magnet for theatre artists determined to hone their craft.

Consider the numbers: Each year, Jennings says, he receives an average of 850 scripts, some sent by agents (though they don't have to be): "I read them all and from among these I pick between 40 and 50, which I then pass on to the directors, who select the ones they want to direct. The directors who want to work at ATA will send me their resumes," Jennings says. "I will interview between 50 and 60 directors and then choose eight to ten.

"Each season, more than 250 actors audition for me at either my two large open auditions or at my Thursday-morning open auditions between 9:30 and 11:30. The actors should be prepared to do two one-minute monologues—one contemporary, one classical. From these actors, I will select 40 or 50 to join the company. But again, it's up to the directors to decide which actors they want for each play."

Asked what he looks for in an actor, Jennings talks about "talent and dedication," along with some intangibles. "When I saw Harvey Keitel from the back of his head and shoulders, I said to myself, 'This guy has talent,' " Jennings recalls. "I don't know exactly what it was that I sensed about him. Perhaps it was a sensuality, a vulnerability."

Althugh Keitel never appeared at ATA,.he was directed by Jennings in a production of "The Funeral." Jennings is a veteran director and playwright. Indeed, he has written over 25 plays and won the TOR Award for best director for Off-Broadway's "The Holy Junkie" and won the Jean Dalrymple Award for best director for the play "Blood Money." A member of the Actors Studio's playwrights/directors unit, he has worked with such notables as Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, and Harold Clurman.

Jennings says the challenges he faces now are the same as they've always been: "Finding good plays, good directors, and good actors." Fundraising, of course, is more problematic given the current economic climate, he points out. Still, as theatres have come and gone over the years, somehow ATA has managed to continue strong.

"I don't overextend my budget," he explains pragmatically. "I don't overspend."

Tribute Both Ways

ATA does not yet have a website, an omission that actor-writer Barry Primus describes as "a revolt against slickness." Primus, whose play "Wonder Comes the 7th Day" was staged recently at the theatre, praises the institution in general and Jennings in particular.

"I tried to get other people to do my play, and while they liked it, they felt there wouldn't be too much of an audience for it," he recalls. "Jim doesn't care if there are two people in the audience or 100. If he likes something, he will do it."

Having just received the Jean Dalrymple Award for lifetime achievement (which is given by ATA), Primus further notes, "Jim and his wife and daughter are the first family of alternative theatre. They're there all the time and Jim does everything—from collecting tickets to lighting to directing to giving notes to coming back the next morning in order to answer thousands of calls and read an endless number of plays. I've never seen energy like it."

Laughing, he adds, "I've never seen an office like his, either. It resembles the desk in Beckett's 'Krapp's Last Tape,' only Krapp's desk is neater and more organized. But Jim knows exactly where everything is. He is also a Shakespearean scholar and totally accessible. Jean Dalrymple loved what he was doing and I don't think it's an accident that she chose him to give out the yearly award in her name.

"We have so little encouragement in the theatre," Primus continues. "We're constantly struggling to find meaning. Jim's place is a form of encouragement. To be part of ATA is to find encouragement!"

Any actor interested in becoming an ATA member can attend one of the theatre's open auditions or send a headshot and resume to the American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th St., New York, NY 10019. Writers and directors can also send materials to that address.