“I Was Thrown Down a Staircase by Meryl Streep.” The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Laura Zucker

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By Steven Leigh Morris

The No-Nonsense Arts Administrator

A colleague had cautioned me that punctuality is a standard Laura Zucker holds in high regard, and that tardiness aggravates her. The wisdom of that advice was apparent when I rang the doorbell of her Sherman Oaks home at 10:58 for an 11 a.m. interview. She flung open the front door, and cheerfully declared – among her first remarks – “And you’re right on time!”

On July 31, 2017, after 25 years of service, Zucker stepped down as Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. At the start of her tenure, the Arts Commission had an operating budget of just over $900,000, providing grants to about twenty arts organizations. It now has a granting budget of $9 million (over a two-year cycle), and provides grants to 400 companies.

Among Zucker’s many administrative accomplishments, in 1998 the County Arts Commission helped implement the re-opening of what had been the Mark Taper Forum’s dormant 87-seat studio theater, re-named [Inside] the Ford, located under the 1200-seat John Anson Ford amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. This was the space where Robert Schenkkan developed The Kentucky Cycle in 1988, and Tony Kusnner and Oskar Eustis developed Angels in America the following year. Recessionary pressures compelled CTG to cease programming there after about 1990, though they still had a few years remaining on their 30-year lease.

Two years later, in 1992, Zucker would join the Arts Commission, and when CTG decided not to renew their lease, she developed a plan to re-open the small theater under the Ford by first refurbishing it with monies from County Proposition A. In partnership with the James Irvine Foundation and A.S.K. Theatre Projects, Zucker created a winter-season home from 2000-2004, with operating support from the County, for some of L.A.’s finest gypsy theater companies that needed a space. (With the re-opening of the Ford Amphitheater this summer, the replacement of [Inside] the Ford with a 299 seat and 99-seat theater are in the plans but not yet funded.)

Zucker championed adoption of L.A. County’s civic art policy in 2005, leading to more than 100 commissioned civic arts projects (from $10,000 to $1 million). She spearheaded the creation of Arts for All, an initiative designed to bring arts education back to public school students. That program now serves 65 of the County’s 81 school districts. The nation’s largest paid summer arts internship program (132 undergraduates each summer work in various performing arts organizations across L.A. County) is operated by the L.A. County Arts Commission, and is yet another of Zucker’s initiatives.

Talia Gibas is the Arts Commission’s Professional Development Programs Manager, and worked with Zucker starting in 2009. She describes her former boss as no-nonsense.

Gibas says that before arriving at the Arts Commission, she was never a fan of workplace meetings. But that changed when meetings were run by Zucker.

“There was a standard Laura set when she walked into a room. That was one of the first times it was immediately evident we were there with a specific purpose and there was no time to be wasted. I remember being struck that when she was there, we were focused in a very different way. Nobody had to say anything, we just knew that.

“I felt that my first meeting at the Commission, being run by Laura, was the most efficient meeting I had ever been in. From early on, I had this impression that bullshit was just not part of her vocabulary. The conversations we were having were to be taken seriously. One has to fight for the arts to be taken seriously, and that was her fight, which was our fight. Her model was anything that we were talking about was to be taken seriously.”

Years later, Gibas had attended a conference of the Americans for the Arts in San Antonio. At the end of the conference, she was tired and “over-networked, and looking forward to turning my brain off.” At the airport, “happy not to be around colleagues anymore,” she bought a copy of the tabloid US Weekly as a guilty pleasure — a diversion and a way to decompress.

At the gate, she ran into a familiar face: “Not only were Laura and I were on the same flight, we ended up sitting next to each other.”

Gibas promptly hid The US Weekly deep in her purse. It was never opened.

“When Zucker started her career in arts administration, it wasn’t even a field,” Gibas notes. There were no graduate programs in arts administration.

“She oversaw the professionalism of a field,” Gibas adds.

During her tenure with the Arts Commission, Zucker directed the Masters in Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University for six years, and continues to serve as a senior fellow in that program.

“My experience had to do with the high standards that she set within the workplace and [as a woman in the arts] the sense of, you have to do what others do, but you have to do it backwards and in high heels, because it will be assumed that the arts fields will not have their stuff together — but that’s not true.”

Zucker made a point of having her stuff together, and insisting that those around her did, too.

Among her other initiatives was the use of rigorous data collection and analysis methods in the field of arts management. In a related program, Zucker spearheaded a cultural equity and inclusion report, submitted to the Board of Supervisors this past spring, as an initiative to help ensure that the arts are available to diverse populations in all corners of the County.


The Long and Winding Road to Arts Administration, via Acting and Directing and Producing

After fetching us both glasses of ice-water, Zucker led me to a carpeted library, where we sat facing each other – she in an armchair and I in a desk chair.

Her actor-director husband of over 40 years, Allan Miller, was in the house, but made a point of staying away. He was preparing for his role in the September 24 opening of South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Rachel Bonds’ play Curve of Departure.

I asked her about the Yale School of Drama, where she studied for one year in the acting program. She broke into a smile, then took on a wistful expression.

“That was 1972,” she recalled. “I was in the same class as Meryl Streep. Sigourney [Weaver] was one year ahead of us, along with Chris Durang  . . . I saw Meryl during the first week, and I understood there was absolutely no point in my being an actor – not realizing that I was there with the greatest actor of our generation, and not fully realizing that there’s room for many kinds of people in the acting world. What Yale helped me discover is that I had been a very talented amateur and was not really ready to be a pro – the primary reason was that I loved acting, so long as I didn’t have to do it. When you’re a professional, you have to do it whether you feel like it or not.

“That was also where I met Allan – he was hired to coach the directors and he worked [as an actor] in [Yale] Rep.”

Zucker and Miller married in 1976.

But back to Meryl Streep.

“We played sisters in [Maxim Gorky’s] The Lower Depths, and [there was a scene where] she threw me down a flight of stairs. I couldn’t scream well so they had somebody scream for me off-stage,” Zucker explains, suggesting that she lacked at least one requisite skill of a professional actor.

Meryl Streep in The Lower Depths at the Yale School of Drama.

“Allan was already a master acting teacher at the time. He was great with me. Because he never said to me, ‘Don’t act Laura’ – instead he said, ‘You should be directing,’ and he was right!

“One of the things I learned was that I have a stronger left brain than a right brain. I have a better ability to organize material than to live it. This was a time when women were not directing.”

Zucker asked to see Tom Haas, who was then head of the acting-directing program at Yale, and she requested to switch from the acting to the directing program.

“I was told to my face that women didn’t direct. I ignored that, primarily because of Allan’s encouragement. We both left [Yale] after that year, and I started directing in New York. I directed a new production of Tennessee Williams’ Two Character Play.

Two Character Play, which also went under the title Out Cry, was originally presented by London’s Hampstead Theatre in 1967. It worked its way to Chicago’s Ivanhoe Theatre in 1971, before receiving a poorly received and fleeting Broadway production at the Lyceum in 1973 – the same year that Zucker and Miller arrived in New York, having left the Yale School of Drama.

Zucker requested rights to stage the play with a new concept at the Thirteenth Street Repertory Company, an off-off Broadway theater. Williams himself wrote back to Zucker on May 16, 1974.

A framed letter from Tennessee Williams. (Photo by Darrett Sanders.)

“I was very pleased with your interpretation of Out Cry, and the planned trial production.” Williams also mentioned his intention to attend rehearsals. By this time, however, Miller was pursuing opportunities in Los Angeles, and their departure from New York was growing imminent.

On June 28, Williams wrote to Zucker that he so liked her production, and he so supported her idea of extending the off-off Broadway production, he offered to pay for an ad in the New York Times announcing the extension. He added a telling remark: “I do hope now you are intending to postpone your trip to the Coast, since the youth of the actors makes supervision practically essential.”

Zucker has framed and preserved these letters.

“Allan had been doing soaps in New York and wanted to come to L.A. to do nighttime TV,” Zucker explains. As for the letter asking her to stay in New York, “I didn’t know how extraordinary that experience was. We came to Los Angeles. There are a lot of curves and wrinkles. I didn’t want to act anymore, I was on the directing path. Somebody fell out of a play that Alan knew, and they needed someone to step in.”

As a favor, Zucker stepped into a role at the Inner City Cultural Center. An agent came to see it and asked to sign her.

“I was in this odd place where I was actually acting to make money.”

Meanwhile, Miller continued his work coaching actors, and encouraged Zucker to do the same. She worked with Gabe Kaplan on Welcome Back Kotter, and the show wrote her a guest role.

“I specialized in people who had not come into the business as actors – this was still while I was in my 20s.” Zucker’s roster included Linda Carter on Wonder Woman and Jose Feliciano.

Zucker coached Gabe Kaplan on Welcome Back Kotter and acted in a guest role on the show.

At the same time, Miller was acting in the seminal production of Eric Bentley’s Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been? at the Cast Theatre, which he also produced. (It transferred to the Hollywood Center Theatre, and was later revived at the Back Alley and the Odyssey Theatre). That appearance launched Miller from a career in daytime TV to one in nighttime TV and film. And from that revenue, the couple subsidized the creation and operation of their own theater in Van Nuys, near their home in Sherman Oaks. Zucker was the resident director; Miller was the producer.

“We did this crazy first production of Arnold Wesker’s The Jounalists, and it had a who’s who of who was acting in LA at the time. It was a terrific, interesting production of a difficult play. I remember days before we were set to open, we had to come up with a name for the theater, on the spot. We came up with The Back Alley – not a great choice because there was another theater nearby called Actors’ Alley. Our theater started as a mom-and-pop operation, subsidized by Allan’s work.”


Rising to Standards of Professionalism

Zucker explains that every time she directed, she ended up sobbing in a tub of hot water. “And Allan was a terrible producer.”

After a few productions that she directed and Miller produced, they decided to switch roles.

“It all fell into place,” Zucker explains. “Allan was a brilliant director. Nobody had been taking much interest in us, nobody much cared – we were intent on making sure it wasn’t viewed as a showcase situation for us. Allan had written a play called The Fox. We didn’t produce it because we didn’t want to seem like a vanity showcase, theater.

“Since nobody cared about us anyway, we just did it, and the play took off. It was funded by the California Arts Council to tour in California and moved Off-Broadway to the Roundabout Theatre – and suddenly, the Back Alley needed to become professional.”

Presenting only new plays, The Back Alley Theatre soon became the fifth largest budget theater in Los Angeles, with a mailing list of 25,000. The theater housed a playwriting unit, headed by Oliver Hailey.

“We were on our way, we thought, to becoming the SCR of the San Fernando Valley. We were very intent on moving into a mid-size theater.”

Photo from the Back Alley’s In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

Zucker reflects for a moment. “When you look back on your past there seems to be such a clear story line. But it’s very clear that my inner-organizing skills and my policy wonk temperament were in play.”

She was asked to join the board of the premiere arts service organization of that time, Arts, Inc. She became chair of the Associated Theaters of L.A., and became the point negotiator with the national actors’/stage manager’s union, Actors’ Equity Association, in the 99-seat Equity Waiver Wars of the 1980s. (Miller was a plaintiff in the 1988 lawsuit filed by actors against their own union.)

Perhaps Zucker’s most telling accomplishment of that time was her creation and design of the “L.A. Theater Pass,” funded by the California Community Foundation.

Essentially, she “self-curated” an integrated marketing/collaborative pass (like a loyalty card) among five local theaters (The Back Alley, Stages, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Matrix, and L.A. Theater Works). Buy one pass, and get in to see shows at all of these theaters.

“We worked with enough geographic diversity that would allow people to explore the city,” Zucker says. “We had a bi-monthly newsletter. We created a forum for urban explorers.”

Zucker says it was successful until Stages and L.A. Theater Works stopped producing enough new plays to provide sufficient inventory for the pass-holders.

“Stages started recycling Ionesco works, which people had already seen,” Zucker explains.

Meanwhile, The Back Alley dedicated itself to the production of new plays. “We did two full weeks of previews before we opened a production, and they always sold out,” she explains. “[Those previews] allowed us to do the essential work on new plays that required rehearsal feedback.”

Zucker started down the road of creating a mid-size theater from The Back Alley. “We can go back to the impediments of creating mid-size theaters in Los Angeles, which haven’t changed since the 1980s,” Zucker adds.

The Back Alley received a $150,000 line item from the State legislature to renovate a historic post office building in Van Nuys, and the theatre paid for a development feasibility study. “The study said we couldn’t raise the money, or shouldn’t, because we didn’t have the strength on the Board. . . Basically, people liked us just the way we were.”

However, she and Miller felt they had done all they could do artistically at The Back Alley. “We were often not getting the rights to the plays we wanted. There was a pecking order,” Zucker explains. “We found ourselves exhausted and not doing the works that most excited us. We felt we needed to grow up, but our audience, our base, and Board, were happy with us.”

When she and Miller looked at the challenges of fund-raising, they decided not to take that leap to forming a mid-size theater. They offered to leave and allow the Board to continue without them, but the Board refused, saying too much of the theater was invested in Zucker and Miller. And that’s when Zucker decided to close the theater –a “planned closure,” that lasted an entire year.

“We closed in the black, met all our obligations. And it was the right decision, because it was 1989, and we were headed into a recession. I would have spent the next 10 years banging my head against a wall. I don’t know that we would have ever succeeded. Instead, fabulous new opportunities opened up for us.

“When I came into the job at the County Arts Commission, my experience had created an understanding of the forces for small and mid-size organizations in L.A. That compelled me to find ways how to help this field.”

Zucker says that at the Arts Commission, she always tried to hire people “from the trenches, who had been there and really understood what the challenges were.”

And what are the biggest challenges? I asked.

“I was part of the explosion of small theater in L.A. in the 1980s, and the explosion of everything in terms of the arts in LA, just continued to take off over the next two decades. Heading an arts organization was trying to surf an enormous wave, figuring out how to support this growing ecology. It was exploding at every level – growing the grant program and governmental support was key. Making sure that funding was for the most essential needs was a priority for me. I knew how much new projects were sexy and interesting to funders but how desperate organizations were for core operating support.”

Photo by Darrett Sanders.

“Laura is the most direct person I’ve ever met,” says the Arts Commission’s Director of Grants and Professional Development, Anji Gaspar-Milanovic, who worked with Zucker for a decade. “I always walked away from a conversation with her knowing exactly what she thought of a situation. She was clear and strategic and always had a deep understanding of granular details and the blue sky big picture. During the recession, when there were cuts across the County and the arts internship program was in danger of being eliminated, she insisted that the staff response be meticulous and thorough. We planned, presented, rewrote and did it again, until it was right. The result? Not only is the program still around, but it is poised to grow substantially in the coming year. We believed it was worth fighting for and she made sure we had every tool needed to succeed.”

Through her tenure, Zucker built and enhanced robust technical assistance and professional development opportunities for the field.

“I knew that most arts administrators were accidental administrators – anything I could do to make that easier was a priority. That being said, the grant program isn’t nearly what it should be. I hope the County will double the commitment to fund it.”

As for her plans, Zucker says her plan for the fall is to explore the beaches of Laguna while Miller performs at SCR. In the meantime, she’s extremely busy relaxing, she says. In her garden is a small secluded swimming pool guarded by foliage, including tomatoes. I could understand never wanting to leave the property.

I asked her if she intends to hang around the Arts Commission.

“I don’t plan on hovering,” she replied. “I’m not going to have time to hover. I’ve seen ex-ED’s who hover, and it’s sad. I have full confidence in [interim director] Leticia Buckley.

The County has hired Koya Leadership Partners, a recruitment firm, to lead a national search for a new executive director, a job insiders say they expect to be filled by January.

“We’re all type-A personalities here,” Milanovic adds. “That’s not a coincidence.”

Reflecting  on her circuitous journey from Yale Drama School to the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Zucker says, “So much of it seems serendipitous, and yet not. Because it’s all been driven by desire and passion and, hopefully, some talent.”

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.