Daniel Henning,Â founding artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company, tells how it began, “When I did a play at the age of four, that was sort of it. I was bit hard. It was Stone Soup, the folk tale about soldiers in this town where people are starving. I played the soldier who came up with the idea of boiling soup from a stone to feed these people. I’m still sort of trying to coax soup out of a stone all these years later.”
Oakland-born and raised, he continued to pick up other acting jobs because as he says, “When you’re four, they won’t let you direct.” Familial support proved an encouraging enabler for his pursuit. He explains, “My mother was a model and ran her own modeling school for many years so she understood my passion. Her support was so important.”
Her support and his drive culminated in his first two film roles at the age of 11. He remembers, “I did The Black Stallion with Mickey Rooney and Lady of the House with Dyan Cannon and Armand Assante. They came so close together I literally had the same haircut for both projects.
Unfortunately, Lady of the House was just “a walk-on,” he says, and his Black Stallion scenes were almost entirely left on the cutting room floor.Â HeÂ saw The Black Stallion again a few years ago, when a screening was held honoring the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. “I still have a crew T-shirt from the movie so I went to the screening and wore it. Caleb saw me across the room and yelled, “˜Hey, where’d you get that?’ I yelled back, “˜I earned it.’ That was the first time I’d seen Caleb or the movie in a long time.”
When Henning went off to earn his BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — with an internship atÂ Circle in the Square Theatre School — he majored quite naturally in theater but had a minor in politics. He insists the two complement each other along with his personal world view. “I’ve always been interested in politics. I worked with my congressman in high school, joined the Junior Statesmen of America and sat on a panel with eight of Reagan’s cabinet members. My understanding of the world and society is reflected in the work I do. It’s inextricably linked with both politics and theater with a responsibility, I believe, to air differing viewpoints of issues.
“When I say that, I don’t mean a concept of politics where you believe this so you stand over there, but I believe this other thing so I stand over here, and now we get into a huge brawl over our beliefs. I want everybody who comes to my theater to join in a discussion on all aspects of the issues. Then if they want to fight on the way home, they can.”
Henning directed a handful of scenes and a couple of plays while in school and felt confident about the results but didn’t hustle after a directing career straight out of college. The impetus to do so came in an unexpectedly unbidden instance he talks about now with great excitement. “It was a thunderbolt-out-of-the-sky-type realization for me. That’s exactly how I’d describe it. I was at Seattle Rep watching a rehearsal of an adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. Irving is my favorite living author and Cider House is my favorite book of his. I loved the book but I didn’t know why.
“So I’m sitting there watching the scene where the character of Homer Wells, this boy raised in an orphanage and mentored in medicine by his benefactor, makes the decision to perform an abortion for this desperate young girl. She’s frightened that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He reassures her, “˜I’m a doctor. You’re gonna be all right.’ Just like that he accepts his fate after 20 years of denying it. Well, I had my own epiphany right along with the character.
“Immediately after rehearsal I called my mother and said, “˜Mom, I just realized I’m really a director.’ She was the essence of calm. She said, “˜You’ve always been a director. Your babysitter threatened to send you home from day care because you kept annoying all the other kids by trying to direct them in their games all the time.”
THE BEGINNING OF BLANK
From this eureka moment came Henning’s determination to launch his theater company.
As inÂ many start-up enterprises, some adjustments and compromises became necessary in the early going. He outlines his company’s beginning, “Two friends from acting class and I decided to produce [Harold] Pinter’s The Collection. As we began to make arrangements, we learned the Taper was also doing The Collection at approximately the same time. Well we didn’t think it wise to go toe to toe with the Taper, so we hastened to change our plans. I had done some scenes in class from [Michel Tremblay’s] Hosanna. My friends told me, “˜You’re amazing in those scenes. Why don’t we do that play?’ So Hosanna became our first production. It was not my idea to do a play with me in it. In fact I thought it would lead to the speculation of yet another actor starting a company where he always had to be in the forefront of casting.”
That was in 1990. Over the last 20 years Henning has vanquished that notion with his personal emphasis on Shakespeare’s creed of “the play’s the thing,” although unlike Hamlet, Henning is not trying to catch the conscience of the king so much as the allegiance of the audience.
His track record indicates he has succeeded. He has guided 38 mainstage productions, raised thousands of dollars for various charities and collected enough awards to fill a few display cases to overflowing capacity including the 2008 Hollywood Arts Council “Charlie Award” for outstanding contribution to Hollywood and its arts. His production of Amy and David Sedaris’ The Book of Liz ran a year for a total of 172 performances. Clearly he has a knowing finger on the pulse of the public, a quality honed by hard work and vision, not accident or luck.
It started with the christening of his company. “I called it the Blank Theatre Company because I wanted to describe the state of mind I wished for our audiences, not devoid of all knowledge or reasoning ability but empty of preconceived notions before listening to the material we presented.
“Most [sub-100-seat] companies in town are set up along somewhat similar plans. They charge dues. In addition all members pitch in to build sets, clean toilets and so forth with the promise they’ll get on stage at some point to play a role to stretch their talent or showcase their skills to industry insiders. [Besides showcasing] I wanted to create productions with relevant ideas pertaining to the solutions of society’s problems, starting with the material and taking a step further back to the blank page where the material would originate.”
Not long after that, he adopted the policy of presenting mostly original or new-to-Hollywood work. He says, “Our submission process is through our literary manager who asks writers to send in 10 pages. If we like those, then we ask for a full script.”
In conjunction with this penchant for originality, Henning developed two programs to encourage new writing. He talks about both. “For our Living Room Series we do 36 readings a year of original plays on Monday nights from Labor Day to Memorial Day. We give them a performance workshop with about a week of rehearsal. It’s not a cold reading where our actors have their heads buried in the scripts. Hopefully too the playwrights can manage to be in the room during that week to make rewrites based on questions or suggestions from the actors as well as from the fresh ideas to hit them as they hear their words take shape in the air.
“We will take one of these plays and move it on to a major production, but if you’re talking about percentagewise, it would be very low. We develop so many plays through the Series but only stage four main productions a year. The odds don’t favor the majority of those we read but they’re still good plays deserving of a workshop to try out something in them. I want to be surprised when I see them, even when they may not be our cup of tea for production.
“We will do some talkbacks or Q and As with playwrights if they want them. Most have too much fear of them, however. I’ve found the best feedback to any new play comes from the audience when they’re watching it, not by discussing it afterwards. It’s the most honest. Do they laugh at the funny lines? Cry at the sad scenes? Do they yawn? Fidget? Do they fall asleep? Or try to slip out unnoticed? Those observations won’t deceive you.”
YOUTH NOT WASTED
His second project centered on the development of young artists. “What we now advertise as our annual Nationwide Young Playwrights Festival didn’t start as a nationwide search at all but right here in California. We established a forum for playwrights 19 and younger to submit their work to us with about a dozen of the best plays to be mounted in a minimal production. We distributed our rules for submission through the LA Unified School District and to southern California papers. This was in the day when they still had papers. Then in the mid-90s we received some scripts from Texas. Well, we hadn’t specifically said we wouldn’t consider submissions from other states, so we read those too. Now we use Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites to attract entries from across the country. We usually get them from about 25 different states each year. They’re not always the same states but we’ve had participants from nearly everywhere by now.”
When reminded of the George Bernard Shaw quote, “Youth is wasted on the young,” Henning openly scoffs at the idea. “The plays we’ve selected as our winners over the years are so good that if you were not told they were written by teenagers, you’d never suspect it.”
Can he provide examples? “Yes. We had one called Wife and Her Fisherman about a 70-year-old high school principal who is being forced into retirement because of his age. He’s at a double loss because he doesn’t know what to do with himself from this point forward plus his wife is descending into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s befriended by the school janitor who teaches him how to fish. No one could have guessed this play was written by a 14-year-old girl, Kate Herzlin from Rockville Centre, New York. She had undergone treatment for cancer. In her program bio she thanked her oncologist.
“Another one was called This Is for You, My Doll about date rape written by a 16-year-old girl, Lin Ann Ching. She dealt with the topic in so much depth with such sensitivity we all knew she had to have experienced this kind of trauma firsthand. When she attended rehearsals, everybody was so solicitous of her feelings about her experience we went out of our way not to discuss the topic in front of her. But she seemed open about most everything until somebody eventually worked up the courage to ask her if this had happened to her. She very brightly said, “˜Oh no. I thought it would make an interesting story so I researched it and wrote it.’”
When apprised of the axiom that girls mature faster than boys and asked if he could also give an example of a young boy who had submitted a winner, Henning replies, “Yes, in 2002 we got a play called The Widows about two ladies widowed by the World Trade Center attacks who meet for the first time and bond over their loss at a 9/11 memorial service. Three things stood out about that play: nobody had dealt with it before, it was set five years in the future to lend perspective to the event, and it was written by a 13-year-old boy, David Watson of New York City.
“David went on to submit and win again each year up through 2008 when he turned 19 and literally grew himself out of competition. With seven wins he set a record that may never be broken — inÂ fact, can’t be broken unless somebody starts winning at 11 or 12.”
Watson’s other winning entries were The Wall, Castles Made of Sand, Speaks Like Silence, DIZZY: A Cerebral Romp in One Act, The Mole and Quiet Spirits. As impressive as Watson’s seven wins were, he was eclipsed in a fashion in 2000, whenÂ 19-year-old Victor KaufoldÂ became the youngest person in Ovation Awards history to be nominated in the category of best writing for a world premiere for his play The Why after it appeared in the Blank’s Festival.
Many more examples like these four persuaded Henning how wrong Shaw’s observation could be. Instead of decrying the state of youth in America, he champions young writers, and he attests to their importance for the future of his profession.Â “I bring these young playwrights on stage to receive a formal award. Then I joke to the audience, “˜I want to thank each and every one of you for being here tonight. It’s vitally important we support these young people, for without them we in the theater won’t have jobs in 10 years.’ That’s only a half joke really. These are our next generation of artists. If you want to get all metaphorical about it, you can say it’s like paying our rent today to assure ourselves we’ve got a place to live next month.”
So how does Henning ,with his commitment to original work, justify the Blank’s current production of The Cradle Will Rock — Marc Blitzstein’sÂ 1937 musical that the Blank first staged in 1994? He laughs with his admission, “Okay, you got me. But this is our 20th anniversary season so I figured we were due some celebration. This is the one piece I’ve allowed myself the luxury of exploring as a revival””actually the revival of a revival””to see if I could take something old and find some freshness in it.”
First staged by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1937, The Cradle Will Rock was recorded and released on seven 78-rpm discs in 1938 — theÂ first cast albumÂ recording. It became almost instantly identified as an example of agitprop theater or that which combines agitation and propaganda to effect social change. It has been described as a Brechtian allegory of corruption and corporate greed.
Has Henning found the freshness he fancied? “I did. Or rather the world supplied it for me. We think of datedness in drama as dealing with issues which tap into the zeitgeist of the moment instead of the zeitgeist of the universal. Well, first the upheaval in Egypt provided a link between then and now. Then the events in Wisconsin brought it closer to home. So I want to say “˜thank you’ to the governor of Wisconsin for making my production relevant for my audience.
“I also have to say the ensemble of actors put together for The Cradle Will Rock are truly committed to my vision. I’m proud to say that kind of commitment is what I’ve tapped into for 20 years to keep us going and to carry us soon to our next level.”
REALIZING HIS DREAM
The level he refers to would be the mid-size professional tier, Â a dream he hopes toÂ spearhead later this year. He envisions, “We want to have a facility with 300 to 400 seats. It’s preposterous with the amount and level of acting talent we have in this town that Hollywood has never had a [non-profit] regional theater. We want to fix that. We’re arranging our ducks in a row to make it happen. We’re meticulously putting our pieces together to strengthen our connections to the community. There are so many phenomenal artists exclusive to this town it only makes sense to provide them a space to show their stuff.
“We must adjust from the 20th century model of theater to a 21st century operation which is more niche-oriented. We have to reach people with a particular appeal while at the same time realizing a significant portion of theatergoers will not be interested in us or what we’re doing, which is fine.
“It means a lot of work but we’re not averse to that. In the mid-90s we became only the third company in LA to have a website. We don’t do typical safe stuff. We don’t do puff pieces. We always aim for the cutting edge to either improve society or at least to generate a discussion about how to approach our problems.
“When I look back over our 20 years of work, I’m grateful for the support and good wishes not only of the LA theater community but of LA in general. They’ve kept me going for 20 years. The audience keeps coming and that keeps me interested on a daily basis.” All Daniel Henning has to do now is keep filling in the blanks with exciting, provocative original works.
** All production photography by Rick Baumgartner
The Cradle Will Rock, presented by the Blank Theatre Company, continues Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through March 20. Tickets: $30-$34.99. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (second floor), Hollywood; 323.661.9827 or theblank.com.