Speaking to Jeff Murray and his wife Nicolette Chaffey, co-founders of Theatre/Theater, is like conversing with a single voice that flows from baritone to alto and back again.
While discussing the U.S. premiere of The Motor Trade (opening March 18) by Canada-based playwright Norm Foster, the Murray/Chaffey duo achieve a zesty synergy that exudes their lifelong love of theater and their ongoing commitment to provide opportunities for new works in their space.
“ I read plays all the time,” Murray confides, “and I just happened to discover Norm Foster’ s play, which happened to coincide with my desire to work with a couple of specific actors.”
“We have had readings of two of Foster’s other plays,” Chaffey interjects. “One was a backstage comedy, which we came very close to producing.” Foster was a 1988 Drama-Logue Award-winner for his play, The Melville Boys.
“He is one of the most produced Canadian writers in the country,” says Murray. “I was amazed to discover he has over 40 produced plays. The Motor Trade isn’t one of Foster’s more popular stage works but I felt my guys, Alex Morris and Dan Martin, could do it very well. So, away we go.”
From 1982, when Murray and Chaffey created the original 24-seat Theatre/Theater space on Melrose Avenue, their creative mandate has been clear, beginning with their initial staging of Creeps, helmed by Murray, produced by Chaffey, garneringÂ acclaim from the Los Angeles Times, the Herald Examiner, LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.
“Since then, we have been through seven buildings, and over 400 productions,” says
Chaffey, “most of them in the heart of Hollywood.” Along the way, Murray and Chaffey have provided a home to such notable stage works as Del Shores’ award-winning Daddy’ s Dyin’ Who’s Got the Will? (1987), as well as such Murray-helmed productions as Bullpen, Buffalo Soldier, Be Bop a Lu La and the late James McClure’s Ghostworld. Murray is recipient of the 2007 LA Weekly Career Achievement Award as well as other awards from LADCC and Drama-Logue.
Chaffey received producing honors for Daddy’s Dyin’ as well as guiding such notable works as Two Idiots in Hollywood, The Nonsense, Judy Carter: Goddess of Mystery, the Mel Green/Sandra Tsing Loh performance series Freeway Home Companion and from Australia, Los Trios Ringbarkus.
The current Theatre/Theater project, The Motor Trade, focuses on the deceivingly comical interplay of Phil Moss (Morris) and Dan Torelli (Martin), co-owners and operators of Doral Valley Motors, during one Saturday winter morning in Buffalo.
Interjecting themselves into the action are two women with their own specific agendas, played by Michele Harrell and Delaina Mitchell. They are brief distractions from the main event — theÂ suddenly evolving relationship of the two central protagonists who have been associates for over 21 years.
“Alex was one of the daddies in Daddy’s Dyin’ when we produced it with an all African-American cast about a year and a half ago,” says Chaffey. “We have been trying to find a project to do with both Alex and Dan ever since. They are both so right for this play.”
“We are deep in the trenches of the rehearsal process now,” Murray affirms. “It’s a surprising work. The last bunch of plays I’ve done have all had heavy messages. I was really looking for a piece of writing that was character-driven rather than one with a big political message. But then this is a comedy about class, so I guess there is politics in it.
“Actually, it is interesting the places this play goes. When we started rehearsals, we thought it was one kind of play and then it turned into something completely different. It keeps getting deeper and deeper. The process of discovery has been a great deal of fun to work out.”
Chaffey chuckles, “As far as the rehearsal process goes, it would be hard to separate where Jeff ends and I begin or vice versa, after all these years. We work completely as a team. We are joined at the hip during rehearsals. I act here as well, but I guess I haven’t done it in quite a while. I always seem to have another job to do, which is whatever is needed at the theater when we are working together.
“I also direct. The last piece I did here was Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Jeff playing the lead, which was interesting. That was a first for me and it was probably the best thing I have ever done.”
Murray and Chaffey share their Pico Boulevard space with Rogue Machine, led by artistic director John Perrin Flynn. “Theatre/Theater moved here in 2005,” says Murray. “We took on the space just on the basis of wanting to survive and to see where it took us. Two or three years into it, we decided we needed to share that space.”
Chaffey interjects, “We have known John for quite a while and he let us know he was interested in bringing Rogue into the house. It all works because they have such a strong identity and don’t need us to be creatively involved in their work. We co-exist, are mutually supportive and we each follow our own muse.”
“Theatre/Theater is now what it has always been,” adds Murray. “We do new work or work that’s new to LA. Coincidentally, all on their own, that is also the general philosophy of Rogue Machine. So, the dynamic within the space is to continue putting new work into LA and seeing what happens.”
The Motor Trade, produced by Nicolette Chaffey, opens March 18; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through April 24. Tickets: $20-$25. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 323.850.6344 or theatretheater.net.