Matt Shakman isn’t interested in being a “cork in someone else’s river.”
That’s why he stopped being an actor years ago and turned his attention to directing.
The term “cork in someone else’s river” was uttered by Austin Pendleton, an actor who wrote Orson’s Shadow, the inaugural play staged at Shakman’s Black Dahlia Theatre in 2001.
“I remember him telling me that,” says Shakman, who first gained fame as a teen actor on the sitcom Just The Ten Of Us (1988–1990). “I never forgot it. I always thought that was a good way to think about it. You’re just bobbing along, and other people are telling you which way the river is going to turn and where you’re going to head in your life. I think he used that metaphor to describe why he became a playwright and a director and teacher.”
Shakman, the founder and artistic director of the Black Dahlia, says he took Pendleton’s words to heart. In the process he has become a seasoned and respected theatrical and television director.
This week begins previews for the West Coast premiere of his staging of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, set to open April 11, in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. Geffen audiences saw Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole in 2006.
About an hour before his noon rehearsal, a bearded and smiling Shakman — donned in jeans, black kicks, a black t-shirt, checkered shirt and black jacket — looks younger than his 36 years as he stands in the Geffen, just outside the Gil Cates Theater.
“This is going very well,” he says. “This is a good show.”
That’s about as much gushing as we’re going to get. Only moments into the interview, it’s clear that he would prefer others talk about whether his work has any merit. In fact, trying to get him to boast about his talent or his previous works is an exercise in futility.
Are you a good director?
“I certainly hope so,” he says.
“Why are you the best director for this show?
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask someone else why I was chosen,” says Shakman, who seems to weigh his answers before speaking.
Are you happy with your previous efforts?
“I don’t know if everything I’ve ever done is good,” he says. “I can always do better. You’d have to ask someone else.”
It’s clear he’d rather have his works speak for themselves.
His version of Good People features Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), Jon Tenney (The Closer), Cherise Boothe (original cast of Ruined), Sara Botsford (Broadway’s The Real Thing), Marylouise Burke (who originated the title role in the premiere of Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo at South Coast Repertory in 2001) and Brad Fleischer (Center Theatre Group’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo).
The play itself has received numerous accolades. Commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, where it had its premiere in the spring of 2011, it was nominated for a 2011 Tony Award for best play and was named best play of the 2010-11 season by the New York Drama Critics Circle.
Shakman describes it as a “simple play.” It’s about everyday people who live in South Boston, trying to make their own way in the world.
Describing the leading character, Shakman explains, “All she wants is a job. She has hit bottom economically. It’s about a world that is offering her nothing. She goes about trying to provide for herself and her child in the simplest, most direct way possible.”
“It’s an extraordinary show,” he says. “I find that Lindsay-Abaire and August Wilson, playwrights of the recent past who I admire the most, can write big, fabulous, intelligent, smart plays that are full of subtext. You can compare these plays with those of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.” (Besides Rabbit Hole and Kimberly Akimbo, some of Lindsay-Abaire’s other works include Fuddy Meers, Wonder of the World, A Devil Inside, the book of the High Fidelity musical and the book and lyrics of Shrek the Musical).
Shakman says there aren’t a lot of playwrights doing that kind of writing. “When I read Good People and his other plays, I’ve been impressed that he figured out what Shakespeare figured out at the end of his career,” explains Shakman. “He spent the beginning doing comedy and then drama and tragedies. By the time he got to the end of his life, he realized, ‘Um, maybe I should write plays about all those things,’ you know, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, plays that are as funny as they are moving and as suspenseful as they are dramatic.”
As far as Shakman is concerned, Good People has some of those same qualities.
“In charting that simple story, Lindsay-Abaire showed us South Boston and other suburban Boston communities and used it as a way to talk about our nation as a whole,” surmises Shakman. “He also tells a human story about what we’re forced to do to make ends meet.”
After the initial read of Good People and the subsequent reads thereafter, Shakman came away with an array of questions.
“The central question is, does this woman, Margie, even have choices?” he asks. “Is there flexibility and free will on how her life would go? How much of our success is hard work and how much is luck? This show speaks to our lives. Can you make your own luck?”
Margie is played by Kaczmarek, who speaks highly of Shakman as a director.
“Matt is very smart and very specific in his direction and he sets a very high bar,” says Kaczmarek. “He is a joyful director but cracks his whip and lets his great expectations be known. We all feel we are doing our most creative work in years.”
Shakman has nothing but praise for his lead actress.
“Working with Jane is great,” he says. “She’s an amazing actress. She’s one of a few people who can play this part. She understands all the dramatic stakes.”
Story, Story, Story
What attracted Shakman to Good People is the story. That’s what drives him to become involved in any project.
“To bring the play to life, you need to be digging as much as possible,” says Shakman, who didn’t see the show during its run in New York. “You’re not going to be successful with fancy scenic design. It’s all about the story. It’s storytelling. That’s why I responded to this play. It’s about story first — only story.”
While directing is one of his loves, Shakman says if that’s all an audience sees, he hasn’t done his job.
“I don’t think there is any point in leading with a big concept,” says Shakman. “˜I’m not interested in making people aware of my direction. If it moves them and they understand it and it resonates with them, then my work is accomplished.”
From 30 to 495
This is Shakman’s first time directing at the Geffen. A much larger theater than the 30-seat Black Dahlia, the Gil Cates Theater boasts 495 seats. It’s not the first time Shakman has directed at a large house. Still, he doesn’t take the opportunity lightly.
“Definitely it has been a great opportunity to work on a bigger scale that my theater with 30 seats doesn’t afford,” explains Shakman. “It’s nice to be able to work at other institutions here in town…This is a terrific theater. I admire what [Geffen founder] Gil Cates [who died last Oct. 31] and [artistic director] Randy Arney have done.”
Shakman received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Milton Katselas Award for career or special achievement in direction last month.
“I guess doing small theater in LA is measured in dog years,” he jokes. “I was really worried whether I was ready for a lifetime achievement award. It’s a great honor. I’m grateful to LADCC. They were some of our earliest supporters of the Black Dahlia. They paid attention to Orson’s Shadow. Their stamp of approval helped us to establish our reputation. As far as the award, I hope I have a lot more left to do. Awards are always nice to get, but never the reason to do it.”
Shakman donated the $1,000 check he received with the award (funded by the Katselas Theatre Company) back to the Black Dahlia Theatre.
“It’s a needy child like any small theater.”
From Ventura to the Black Dahlia
A Ventura native, Shakman is a son of a doctor and a homemaker. In high school, he acted and directed. At Yale University, he studied art history and theater. He graduated in 1997.
Shortly after college he tried to start a Shakespeare Festival in Vail, Colorado.
“I did it for quite some time, but it didn’t end up coming to fruition despite a lot of groundwork,” says Shakman. “The interest of new plays was coming around at that time.”
After moving from Ventura to Los Angeles, Shakman helped to start the fledgling Firefly Theatre, along with his friend Steven Klein.
“We were in an old telemarketing office on Pico and Genesee, not too far from where my Black Dahlia is,” says Shakman. “It was part actors’ gymnasium, part play development, part improv place. In the front a friend had a painting studio. It was an art complex, a sad one, but it was vibrant. I did it for about a year, but moved on to a formal space that was handicapped- accessible and acceptable to the city.”
Shakman opened the Black Dahlia Theatre in the Pico corridor in August 2000. For a while he did a series of workshops and small performances.
The theater has won numerous awards (LADCC, Garland, GLAAD, Ovation and LA Weekly) over the years. It was named “Best Small Theater” by Los Angeles magazine in 2005 and “one of a dozen young American companies you need to know” by American Theatre magazine in 2006.
“I founded the theater because I had always wanted to run a theater,” says Shakman. “Even in high school and college it was an aspiration. I thought it would be fun. I have an appreciation for the classics, but I wanted to focus on new works. Our mission at Black Dahlia is to develop and produce new work.”
The ominous name of Shakman’s theater comes from his appreciation of James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia.
“I loved old Hollywood,” says Shakman. “When I started a theater, I was keenly aware of trying to create an organization that felt it had longer, deeper roots than I did.”
By naming it after an old Hollywood crime and noir novel, Shakman says he gave the theater “a bit of history”.
“It had more age and weight to it,” he says. “I also admire the book My Dark Places about Ellroy’s mother being murdered. The Black Dahlia is like a haunting substitution for his own mother’s death. So he solves this famous unsolved murder in a fictional way. I thought, well, isn’t that what theater is all about. It’s about catharsis and working through your demons. I liked that as a metaphor for what theater is all about.”
At the Dahlia, Shakman’s most recent staging was Hey, Morgan!, which closed just a month ago. It was nominated for LA Weekly Awards for musical of the year and direction of a musical. He won an Ovation Award for directing the premiere of Secrets of the Trade at the Dahlia in 2008, and he also staged its Off-Broadway production in 2010. His credits include two performances of Better Angels with Dustin Hoffman and James Cromwell for an inaugural event at Broad Stage, a national tour and numerous television directing credits (Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Riches, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, House, Hung and Weeds).
Shakman has made a name for himself in the entertainment industry, but he dares not pat himself on the back.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he states. “Yes, there’s almost always a moment when I’m directing a show when it gets frustrating. But, it usually comes together. There is no production that ever lives up to the platonic ideal you have in your head. I’m always a little disappointed in myself. But, in the end, it always exceeds my expectations in some way. I enjoy having a good time doing my work. I try not to take myself or anything else too seriously, but I take everything serious enough.”
Good People, presented by Geffen Playhouse. Opens April 11. Plays Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat at 3 and 8 pm, Sun at 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $47 – $77. Through May 13. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
***All Good People production photos by Michael Lamont