Inside LA Stage History: Justin Tanner

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by Julio Martinez

Steven Justin Tanner, born in 1964,  grew up in Salinas, California, an area that is the setting for his early plays. Tanner didn’t know he was going to be a playwright. He only knew he was unhappy, the son of incredibly liberal parents with poor parenting skills. His earliest experience in “writing something and having people like it” dates back to the first grade in Catholic school. “I wrote a short story,” Tanner recalled, “and brought it to the attention of the nuns. They took me out of class and put me in front of a typewriter and let me just write. That went on for awhile. Then my parents couldn’t afford Catholic school and I was put into the public schools.”

Tanner shifted creative gears to pursue music, deciding that he would become a concert pianist. But when he reached high school, a theatre arts program at Los Angeles City College to study acting sparked his interest. “I auditioned and got into it,’ he said. “That was in 1982. And that’s when my life started to change.” One change occurred when Tanner discovered that there were three other Stevens in the class and he dropped his first name. His pivotal moment came, however, when a teacher named Donna Tomlinson asked each student to take a scene from his or her life, write it down as dialogue and turn it in.

“Out of a class of 40 people,” Tanner said, “she selected two scenes to be cast and read, Andy Daley’s and mine. She told us, ‘We need good playwrights and you know how to write dialogue.’ I was so suggestible and that’s all it took. I thought, ‘That’s great. I’ll write a play.’ My first play was called All You Zombies, which wasn’t about zombies at all.” The school let him put it on in a converted classroom and that was it: Justin Tanner was officially a playwright.

His re-write of the play was produced at 2nd Stage as Changing Channels (1987), and that’s when Tanner and Andy Daley, his former fellow LACC student, decided to become partners. When Ted Schmitt, the artistic director of the Cast Theatre, saw Changing Channels, he suggested Tanner bring his work to the Cast, a two-space complex that included the Cast-at-The-Circle. In 1988, Tanner brought his new play, Red Tide, to the Cast’s dramaturge, Diana Gibson, who was not impressed. “It was the first of many ‘line in the sand’ moments I had with Diana,” Tanner said. “The first of many huge fights between us.” Tanner left in a huff and produced the play at 2nd Stage in Hollywood. It was a huge flop. “After that, I realized Diana did have something to say,” Tanner said. “She had given me some really good advice about that play that I absolutely ignored because I thought I knew everything.”

Justin Tanner. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

When Tanner wrote his next play, Barbie and Ken at Home (1989), he took it to Gibson. The Cast produced it, starring Adrienne Stout, Dan Teachout, and Jon Amirkhan. It was a great success, beginning a 10-year dramaturgical relationship between Tanner and Diana Gibson. “That’s when I began to assemble an ensemble of players, mostly people I knew at LACC,” Tanner said. “I also started waiting tables. I met a lot of actors that way.”

Tanner’s next play at the Cast was Zombie Attack (1989), co-written with Andy Daley. Its initial 10-member cast included French Stewart, and it would run for a decade, through October 1999. At one point, Andy Daley replaced Stewart. By the fourth year of its run, Tanner realized he needed a constant influx of actors. “I once wrote a list of how many actors appeared in the play and it ran over 80,” he said. “I found a lot of them from my job waiting tables. Diana always said when I gave up being a waiter in 1992, I gave up a great casting opportunity.”

Tanner and Daley fell naturally into a verbal agreement that the two men would write, Gibson would produce, and it would all work perfectly. “We had problems with Zombie Attack right up to a week before opening that we couldn’t fix,” said Tanner. “Then Diana came in—and she was always brilliant at this—at the 11th hour and she would troubleshoot. She kept us there until dawn until it was fixed. We saw how expert she was at that particular job. Whatever the shortcomings were with working with her, mostly temperamental, the actual art creation could not be topped. Once we figured that out, we decided to hitch our wagon to the Cast Theatre.”

By this time, Ted Schmitt was very sick with AIDS and Diana was in charge. Daley segued into being the technical director. “During our first few months there, we were just doing readings,” said Tanner. “Our situation with the Cast wasn’t really formalized yet and I guess Andy fixed a few toilets. He just proved himself to be adept at finding things and making things work.” Soon, Tanner, Daley, and their company of players became the main focus of the theatre’s work.

Zombie Attack was Tanner’s second big success at the Cast, “and I did not handle it well,” he recalled. “I went back and read some of the articles that were done about me back then and I cringe over how incredibly arrogant I come across. I guess that was a kind of reaction to the unhappiness of my youth. I had left the Salinas area, but psychologically I placed my plays in Salinas to generate an idealized version of the genuine unpleasantness I grew up with. I guess because I am in therapy now, I am genuinely delving into it. For instance, a lot of the mothers who appear in my plays, the first eight or so, are fairly positive figures. They may be rough around the edges, but they don’t have any connection to my actual mom, who died a few years ago.”

Laure Metcalf and Laurel Green in “Happytime Xmas”. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

The first of Tanner’s “mom” plays, Happytime Xmas (1990), featured Rosemary Forsythe as Hazy the Mom and introduced Laurel Green as her daughter, Dottie. Also in the cast were Mary Scheer, Daley, and Erika Ingersoll. “It just might be the favorite of all my plays,” says Tanner. “The play did not get well reviewed the first time it came out. Ray Loynd of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Raden of LA Weekly didn’t like it and I was very disappointed. Then we did it again in 1991. Judy Jean Berns took over the role of Mom in that production and it all just clicked. It also featured French Stewart, Thea Constantine, and Harvey Perr. But Judy put the stamp on the part of Hazy. She also played the Mom in Teen Girl. She owned those roles. And Laurel Green became my muse. For the next fourteen years, I wrote for her.”

In 1992, Tanner wrote Party Mix, his first play set in Los Angeles. “I lived here long enough that I felt I could finally write about it,” he said. “This was another play that showed how great Diana was. I just happened to mention to Andy about looking at a box of Party Mix and said it would make a great name for a play. Well, Diana and Andy always had this relationship where they would talk like producers, separate from the playwright. Anyway, he told her what I said. She [said], ‘Party Mix. That should be the next play. I can see the logo.’ Then I went out and wrote it. And that how a lot of things happened for us. One day she ran in and said, “Intervention, starring French Stewart.” Then she ran out of the room. And I wrote the play.”

French Stewart and Gil Gayle in “Intervention”. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

Party Mix had 17 speaking roles. The party took place in the kitchen but the audience could also see into the living room, through the kitchen doorway. “There was one time when there was a reading in the theatre next door,” Tanner recalled. “We invited the audience from that play to be part of the backstage party crowd in Party Mix. Suddenly, we had more people in the Party Mix play than we had audience members in the theatre. Actually, there were times when there were people in this backstage party scene who were smoking real pot. I remember catching Diana and an actor smoking pot as part of the party crowd. It was so much fun.”

Teen Girl, Tanner’s next play, was also produced in 1992. “It had the shortest gestation period, 17 days from the first reading to opening night,” he said. “The reading was so perfect, coinciding with another play pulling out, and Diana decided to put it up. Laurel Green was the title character. And if you got to see Laurel in Teen Girl, it was pretty special.” The production garnered Tanner his first Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times from theatre reviewer Don Shirley. Joining Green in the cast were Dana Schwartz, Thea Constantine, Judy Jean Berns, French Stewart, and Jon Amirkhan.

During this time, Tanner’s plays were not the only ones being produced at the Cast Theatre. In 1992, David Steen’s earthy Avenue A pulled a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle sweep, with awards for production (Gibson), direction (Jim Holmes), writing (Steen), and individual nods to the show’s four actors (Gene Lithgow, Gloria Mann, Mark Ruffalo, and Steen). In the fall of 1992, another LADCC winner, Melody Jones, by Dan Gerrity and Jeremy Lawrence, directed by Ron Link, enjoyed a hit run at the Cast-at-the Circle. For the final performance of Melody Jones in December that year, Gerrity requested that Gibson put aside “free” tickets for the cast members to invite their guests. Gibson refused and the ensuing verbal melee resulted in Gibson locking down the theatre, essentially closing Melody Jones and Dunbar, a musical performing in the adjacent Cast Theatre. (In a Los Angeles Times feature chronicling the event, Don Shirley concluded the article with, “Cast members for both shows will be paid for the entire weekend. And audience members whose ticket orders were processed will receive refunds.”) Gibson decided to confine the rest of the Cast Theatre’s activities to producing only Justin Tanner plays. Unfortunately, this also coincided with a downturn in the relationship between the two.

“I think one of Diana’s problems at that time was that she felt she was the only person who had the information and no one else could understand it,” Tanner said. “And she became a bully when things got rough. A lot of industry people came and things began to change. Diana began to feel I could be her Neil Simon, a hit maker. It was just awful. The Cast was her playpen. And she wanted it her way. We had a breakup over the writing of Bitter Women (1993). I walked out and said I was done. I didn’t return her phone calls. Teen Girls was still running but I just left the theater for a while. My problem back then was that I knew how to write, but I didn’t know how to re-write. And Diane was not the most gentle teacher. My ego would get in the way when she would try to shorthand a way to change something with the subtlety of a bat to the side of the head. And I would just climb up to my high dudgeon of defensiveness. I couldn’t read her mind and she didn’t suffer fools.”

Bitter Women was the first show that Tanner worked on with Ellen Ratner, and in 1994, he scored a major hit with Pot Mom, featuring Ratner, Tanner, Jon Palmer, Laurel Green, Dana Schwarz, Brendan Broms, Elizabeth Cava, and Lisa Beezley. His fraying relationship with Gibson lasted another five years “but it was on a steady decline. It stopped being fun,” Tanner said. Fun or not, in September, 1994, the Cast staged a Tannerfest, titled The Collected Plays of Justin Tanner, featuring seven revivals—Zombie Attack, Teen Girl, Pot Mom, Bitter Women, Happytime Xmas, and Mark Ruffalo in Still Life With Vacuum Salesman (a name change since doll-making Mattel Corp. threatened legal action over the original title, Barbie and Ken at Home)—and one original: the premiere of The Tent Show.

Mark Ruffalo and Laurel Green in “Still Life With Vacuum Cleaner Salesman”, 1994. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

It was an ambitious time for Tanner. Los Angeles Times writer Shirley, in his September 18, 1994, article on The Collected Plays, wrote: “If you call the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, the man who answers the phone may very well be the same guy who writes the plays. And directs them. Besides being a remarkably prolific playwright-director, Justin Tanner works part-time in the box office for the Cast—which consists of two small theaters, one seating 99, the other 65. He does the spreadsheets on the receipts from his own shows.”

Tanner was also working in television. “Pot Mom got me a lot of attention in Hollywood, but my breakthrough play was Teen Girl, he said. “Winnie Holzman, the woman who wrote the book for Wicked, was writing a TV show called My So-Called Life, and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) saw Teen Girl and that’s how I got my first TV jobs. I was able to stop waiting tables in 1992. With Pot Mom, I got my first development deal.” The Variety review of Pot Mom, Tanner recalled, “said it was comparable to American Graffiti. The sad thing was that everybody thought I knew what I was doing and I didn’t. I was so torn. I didn’t know how to re-write and no one could teach me. If the first draft wasn’t great, I was in trouble. I was making a lot of money that I didn’t know what to do with. Diana would help me with that. She would schedule these daily expensive lunches. I bought a car and things. But I was unhappy because television was not my world,” Tanner said. “I was just faking it and expecting to be exposed. I managed to eke out a career writing for television until 2006. I made a lot of money and I was unhappy every step of the way.”

In 1995, Laurie Metcalf joined the Tanner ensemble. Pot Mom actress Lee Garlington knew Metcalf from the TV show, Roseanne. “Laurie came out to see my play and I was too nervous to go out and meet her,” Tanner said. I just loved Roseanne at that time. Garlington dragged me out of the dressing room at the end of the play and Laurie very graciously said how much she liked it and that she wanted to work with me. I did not believe her so I didn’t contact her. A year later I opened Intervention and she came to see that. She said the same thing, she wanted to work with me. I mentioned this to Diana, who screamed.”

When Tanner revived Happytime Xmas in 1996, Laurie Metcalf was in it. “She didn’t want to play the mother,” said Tanner. “Laurie wanted the smaller role, the mother’s best friend. She told me she had a desire to be on stage playing a character who didn’t speak much at all. And that character, Rhonda, just sits there and listens to what people are saying. Laurie was hilarious in it.”

Still, Tanner’s active theater work and busy TV schedule wasn’t offering him much relief from his emotional problems. “About that time I was doing a lot of pot,” he admitted. “I never took drugs until I wrote Pot Mom. People said I should get high while working on it, so I did. And the play was a big success. Directing the eight Collected Plays, I completely exhausted myself. I even electrocuted myself. It was horrible and it was great. And I continued using pot.”

The cast of “Pot Mom” and Tanner Players. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

Whatever he was working through, Tanner continued to write. His four-character play, Heartbreak Help, was produced in 1996, starring Laurel Green, Ellen Ratner, Carol Ann Susi, and Pamela Segal. The play, focusing on a women’s spiritual retreat in Joshua Tree, was as big a hit as Pot Mom. Coyote Woman (1998) was Tanner’s last original play at the Cast. It featured Green and Thea Constantine morphing in and out of the title role in a good girl/bad girl continuum, creatively staged by Tanner. “By that time, Diana and I were in this kind of dance of death,” said Tanner. “She was punishing me by constantly demanding I write another draft of the play. I wrote over 100. And I was punishing her by writing increasingly unworkable drafts. I was not doing it on purpose. I was taking her notes but it just wasn’t working on the page.

Steve Mikulan of the LA Weekly, who was writing an article on the play, “came to a reading and then another reading 18 months later,” Tanner said. “Eighteen more months passed and he came to another reading. He said the changes were so minuscule, he didn’t understand what had taken so long. He called me the prisoner of El Centro Avenue. He was absolutely right.” Daley and Tanner decided to go to Gibson’s house and issue an ultimatum: either she would leave the Cast or they would. “Diana didn’t have any money and we did,” said Tanner. “So we took over the theater.” They produced a revival of Bitter Women, directed by Lisa James, which won a few more LADCC Awards. “Then we did four plays that got reviewed dreadfully,” Tanner said, “and we left the Cast. That was in 1999.”

Daley and Tanner found a new home at Third Stage in Burbank, run by Jim Henriksen. “I didn’t have Diana Gibson anymore so I was afraid to write a new play,” said Tanner. “I decided to go back to my flawed plays and give them another pass. That was Big Bear [a reworking of The Tent Show]. It was a terrible time for me. We also did a revival of Happytime Xmas there. I had horrible insomnia; I was a day drinker and smoking pot. I was just lost.”

Tanner’s Wife Swappers was produced at the Third Stage in 2004. “This was my first overtly sexual play,” Tanner said, “but it was merely talked about. There was all this sexual stuff happening off stage. But in the main living room, where the play was taking place, people were talking about recipes for the appetizers they had brought. Jon Robin Baitz, who saw a revival at the Zephyr in 2009, was so offended by the play he ended our friendship. My next play, Oklahomo, in 2005, was directed by Lisa James at Third Stage.”

Tanner began to perform his plays in other spaces, producing Hot Property, a rewrite of Intervention, at Bart DeLorenzo’s Evidence Room. Space Therapy (2009), nominated for an Ovation writing award (even though Tanner considered it his least finished play) and the successful Voice Lessons (2010), starring Laurie Metcalf, French Stewart, and Maile Flanagan, were produced at the Zephyr. Subsequently, Voice Lessons was produced at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (2016). Procreations and Tanner’s last produced original play, Day Drinkers, were produced at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

French Stewart, Laurie Metcalf, and Malie Flanagan in “Voice Lessons”, 2010. (Photo by Ed Krieger.)

Tanner worked for two years on a play called All Night Barbecue. “Then I put that away and was done,” he said. “I got very ill. I couldn’t walk or sit. I was suicidal.” As he began his recovery, Tanner formed a band and started to write music. He has also penned six episodes of a web show. “I just didn’t want to do theatre,” he laughed. Three years ago, David Lynch and HBO contacted Tanner to work on a project called Video Synchronicity. “I did an episode,” he said, “and heard from a friend they were going to do a table read but then the show didn’t get picked up and that was that.”

Tanner stopped smoking pot in 2016. He re-wrote Bitter Women for a 2017 production at the Dorie Theatre, starring Melissa Peterman, Marisa Jaret Winokur, Teresa Gazel, and Sarah Gilman. (“Now re-writing and troubleshooting are what I do,” he said, “but it took me years and years to learn.”) And, as he recovered from his illness after his All Night Barbecue fiasco, Tanner got out a typewriter and wrote a play the old-fashioned way. “This is my first play since Bitter Women where I wasn’t high,” he said. “It’s called El Niño. It will premiere at Rogue Machine in 2018 [date TBA]. The ensemble will include actors from my former plays: Jon Palmer, Maile Flanagan, Joe Keys, Danielle Kennedy, Melissa Denton and others.”

Tanner believes it is his best work to date and he expressed delight to be working in live theatre again. He even has his next play planned. “I am into the first draft of writing a three-character play about Diana, Andy, and me. It is a very loving script called Little Theatre, about what went on the office between the three of us.” Of course, he added, “I would need someone bigger than life—like Laurie Metcalf—to play Diana.”

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Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.