It's 8:30 on a warm evening in May 1997, and a reading of Justin Tanner's new comedy, Coyote Woman, has just ended at the Cast Theater. The play, about a young woman who undergoes Jekyll-Hyde transformations after she believes a coyote has bitten her in Griffith Park, is vintage Tanner – a tale about a timid Everywoman coping in a world ruled by the loud and obnoxious.
The actors, all familiar faces from previous Tanner productions, light up cigarettes in the theater's outdoor “beer garden” and joke about how badly they read lines they were handed only minutes before the reading began. It's a scene that's been repeated on this same spot for more than half a century; according to artistic director Diana Gibson, the Cast is the oldest professional theater in Hollywood, having been converted from a corner grocery store by Sidney Chaplin in 1941. Back then a group of UCLA students that included future acting stalwarts William Shallert and Kathleen Freeman began putting on shows here, and Sidney's father, Charlie Chaplin, is said to have briefly taught comedy at the El Centro and Waring location.
Compliments hang in the air this evening for Tanner's infallible ear for contemporary dialogue, and for his knowing jokes about Coyote Woman's Silver Lake milieu. Still, there is some apprehension about how his meeting is now going with Gibson, to whom he reports after every reading. He soon returns with the word: Diana doesn't think the script is “there” yet, and at least one more rewrite will be required before casting and rehearsals can begin.
A psychic groan rises among the actors, but it's mixed with soldierly stoicism – Tanner's cast has been coming to readings of his play since November 1996. What they don't know is that it will be more than a year before Coyote Woman will finally premiere.
Justin Tanner is a boyish 33-year-old who talks a mile a minute in a soft voice that bubbles with such anachronistic exclamations as “Groovy!” and “Gee!” By now everyone's heard about his around-the-clock, hands-on involvement at the Cast: Bookkeeping, stage managing, script reading, answering the phones – he does it all. His Silver Lake apartment is merely a stopover away from his true home, the theater.
It's been 15 years since Tanner took the Greyhound from the salad bowl of Salinas to come to Los Angeles. To mark the occasion he dropped his given first name, Steven, and replaced it with his middle, Justin. With that symbolic change, he left behind the hometown he hated and “the awful chaos” of a family life that included a bullying adopted brother, a sister who was arrested for cocaine possession in high school, and a mother who grew marijuana in a back-yard greenhouse and who kicked him out of the house shortly after he dropped out of high school. Today he is a playwright with a “Hollywood job” at Universal TV, pitching a dozen or so ideas every year to execs and fleshing out those they believe promising. “Let him write and see what he comes up with” seems to be the thinking, which isn't far from his first writing gig, in the first grade at Madonna del Sasso Catholic primary school, where he was separated from his classmates and encouraged by the sisters to sit at a typewriter and record the little stories he had written at home in longhand.
Depending on whom you talk to, Justin Tanner is either the most original playwright to emerge from Los Angeles in decades or the manufacturer of facile shag-rug comedies that play well locally but would be shredded in New York – a judgment that has never been tested because none of the 13 plays Tanner has written since 1986 has ventured beyond Hollywood, nor has Tanner allowed anyone but himself to direct them. (This will change in July, when Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theater presents Tanner's Pot Mom under another director's hand.) a
What is undisputed is Tanner's almost forensic understanding of the “little person” who populates his work: the put-upon friend, the dateless loser, the roommate who never has her half of the rent ready. The titles of his plays – Teen Girl, Party Mix, Heartbreak Help, Bitter Women, Intervention – describe the human comedy in the Age of Prozac. But perhaps more than capturing the fitful neuroses and fragile ambitions of these restless Americans, Tanner has, over a dozen years, drawn vivid caricatures of a generation that has never known poverty or war (or even a draft, for that matter), has barely been affected by AIDS, and has now begun warily to ease into its 30s. It would be a mistake to pigeonhole his plays as revenge-of-the-nerd farces or slacker sitcoms – in their own unassuming way they mural a still-youthful but indolent generation that, even when it bothers to look, cannot find the truth in any situation. What else can you expect from a writer whose mother taught him that the worst thing he could do in life is lie?
Officially the literary manager for the Cast's two small stages, Tanner is able to display his work as few other playwrights can. And yet, some say, the permanent showcase represented by “The Collected Plays of Justin Tanner,” as this repertory is known, has effectively shut down the Cast as a potential venue for the work of other playwrights, and his molecular bond with Diana Gibson has hobbled his own progress as a writer. In 1989, at the start of his formal association with the Cast, Tanner pounded out the hit Happy Time Xmas in four days; Coyote Woman, every line of which was run past Gibson for her approval, has taken 18 months to reach the Cast's stage, where it is currently running. Perhaps more ominously, Tanner admits that the process of writing, which he has always found difficult, has become arduous.
“In those days,” he says of a time less than a decade ago, “I felt I could not fail – I was a force. I believed I was always right, but I've lost a lot of this confidence. It gets harder, especially if you haven't written a play in two years.” When he started out in theater, “I wrote fast because the plays had to come out – I felt compelled and I was poor. Also, in the beginning I was writing for college audiences. My plays were about people who wanted to hold on to adolescence and not let go. And that was my problem too – it's been hard trying to address adult issues.”
But perhaps another reason for Coyote Woman's extended gestation is, paradoxically, Gibson's pushing Tanner to finish a work he continually lost interest in. “Probably the main reason this play's taken so long,” he says, “is because I've been demanding more of myself. We had one great moment early on, and Diana told me, 'You need 300 of those moments to make a play.' It's taken me two years to collect enough of them.”
“He has typed until his little hands are bloody!” says Gibson.
A browsing police chopper drones lazily above Diana Gibson's Mount Washington neighborhood this afternoon. “The sky is full of helicopters here,” she says. “They're like locusts.” She is a tall woman of 53, whose imposing presence is belied by a gentle shyness. Although she's lived in L.A. for almost 35 years, Gibson's voice still bears a slight Des Moines nasality as she talks about how she came to the Cast Theater. Her house contains photographs of Tanner and other Cast regulars, as well as castoff furniture found and restored by technical director Andy Daley; a pack of Marlboro Mediums is kept busy throughout the interview (“I've been smoking since 13. It's one of the bargains I've made with God,” she says somewhat elliptically).
“I come from a kind of theatrical family,” Gibson says. “I started acting classes when I was 7 years old. But I didn't look a movie star, which is what I thought acting was about.” So she began her life in art as a painter, a calling she pursued at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and at the University of Southern California. But while at USC in 1968, she landed a part in a university production of Our Town and then joined a group of student actors who eventually took shows to the Edinburgh Festival and London, and on to the Continent. It was a fun, on-the-road sort of life for a student, but it came to an end with graduation, after which many of the group's members settled into careers, often in television. Not Diana Gibson, though.
“I struggled,” she says. “Diana always struggled.” She turned her hand to playwriting and had some work staged at the Met Theater in 1981, and three years later she got a bookkeeping job at Ted Schmitt's Cast Theater. In 1987 she became his partner in running the Cast, beginning as associate artistic director.
“Around that time I started seeing how difficult putting on a new play was, how little money there was, and I learned about the psychology of groups,” she says. “I feel that psychological leadership is as important as stage direction.”
She and Tanner experienced an early falling out when Gibson offered some blunt criticism about a rewrite he had shown her of his AIDS play, Red Tide, which was about to be mounted at Second Stage. “I don't think anyone had ever said anything like this to him before, and he just freaked. He wouldn't talk to me or answer my phone calls. I was heartbroken, because I'd wanted those kids in the theater that summer.”
Gibson wouldn't hear from Tanner for another year, when she received this message: “Justin Tanner, new play and new attitude.” The work was his blackest comedy, a violent meditation on what becomes of high school sweethearts titled Barbie and Ken at Home, which, following some dramaturgical input from the Mattel Co.'s legal department, was changed to Still Life With Vacuum Salesman. This play would cement the relationship between Tanner and Gibson, a professional dialectic like no other in Los Angeles theater. Today Tanner credits Gibson with insights into his work that he himself lacks, as well as a personality forceful enough to push him to complete his projects. He freely admits that Coyote Woman would not have been written without Gibson's persistence, and that she wrote passages of the play herself.
Intervention, his 1996 dramedy about an actor putting behind the temptations of youth to confront his career, went through 30 drafts before it was produced. “After four months of backbreaking work and reading after reading,” Tanner remembers, “Diana said, 'There's one line I think we can keep. If you think you've worked hard, you don't know what hard work is.' And she was right. A lot of times she has such a better eye for what works in my work than I do, and a lot of the funniest lines in Intervention were Diana's – she knows how to speak in my voice and comes up with whole scenes.”
Jonathan Palmer, a veteran of many Tanner productions, shares the playwright's enthusiasm for Gibson's counsel: “She's a brilliant dramaturge, and pretty good at casting a play.” Adds actress and longtime Tanner friend Laurel Green: “She is the genius behind the Cast Theater. She is a very honest person, and she's given me great advice over the years.”
Others, however, are not so complimentary. “Diana is kind of odd,” says Harvey Perr, who appeared in Tanner's Happy Time Xmas and who worked the Cast's box office for several years before moving to Brooklyn. a “If someone comes into her theater she treats them very well – and then has a very big falling out. I don't respect her tastes.”
Almost none of Tanner and Gibson's detractors wished to be quoted by name for this story, which is hardly surprising in L.A.'s fragile theater ecology. One individual familiar with both Tanner and the Cast finds the current arrangement of only Tanner's plays being run there decidedly unhealthy: “That sick, dysfunctional circle of friends of his needs to get some oxygen or something,” he says. “The Cast has developed a pathological fear of outsiders infringing on it. The place has become the Justin Tanner Memorial Theater.”
Both Gibson and Daley, who is also her partner in running the Cast, deny there is a Tanner-only policy in effect – it just happens that no other playwright has been produced there since 1994. Gibson says she still looks at scripts that arrive and gives readings to a few of these, but to date has not seen anything that she considers worthy.
Again, perceptions of the Tanner-Gibson relationship differ, depending on whom one speaks to. More than one observer has pointed out the financial difficulty Gibson faced following Schmitt's death in 1990, and that Tanner's arrival was mutually beneficial. (He has acknowledged keeping the theater afloat during the past few years through his lucrative job at Universal TV, and Gibson receives a salary from S.J. Tanner Inc., the company that oversees the playwright's authorial interests. His financial aid has been especially important because, according to California Arts Council spokesman Ray Tatter, the Cast hasn't received a grant in several years.) And one local actor speculates that much of the criticism of Gibson may simply be the hostility of a male-dominated theater community toward one of the few women running a theater in L.A.
Regardless of outside perceptions, Tanner's faith in Gibson is unshakable: “The greatest thing about her is that she's always right. She's never led me down the wrong path,” he says. “It makes me frustrated, wondering, 'Oh god, will I ever be able to come up with anything on my own without having to run it through this audience meter that she is?' Laurel and Andy are my left and right arms. Diana's my head.”
A Sunday afternoon in July 1997. It's been one of those hot days when nothing seems to move in Hollywood, when even the tinkling melodies of neighborhood ice cream trucks can be heard along the deserted boulevards. Another Coyote Woman reading has just ended, and the cast lingers in the shaded beer garden, relieved to find the temperature has dropped a bit.
Over the summer, Tanner's script undergoes many metamorphoses: First Janet, the lead character, and her roommate are aspiring actresses, then they are not; the roommate and a neighbor are lovers-to-be, then they become siblings, with the brother a homosexual; at some readings we see the friends of Janet's boyfriend, though mostly we do not; at first the main character will be played by one woman, then Tanner decides to split the role between two actresses, who will play Janet and her dark side; sometimes the play is a broad comedy verging on slapstick, other times it is more restrained.
There is an uneasy current of conversation among the actors today, stemming from the chance that Coyote Woman will be scrapped – a very real possibility if Tanner cannot overcome the script impasses that Gibson believes must be fixed before she even considers producing the play. (She has also floated the idea of bringing in Andy Daley as a co-writer.) Throughout the process there has been a core of readers around whom new, visiting actors come and go according to Tanner and Gibson's shifting hunches, and an air of democratic camaraderie reigns among them.
Even so, the talk always seems to roll back toward the actress playing the “nice” Janet (to Thea Constantine's evil twin), a vivacious 33-year-old blond who is both used to this attention and still slightly surprised by it. She has been in every one of Tanner's plays, and more than anyone else personifies the Tanner temperament. She was born to hippie parents in Hollywood after, she says, being conceived in the back seat of a car; she went to a Summerhill free school and moved around to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury and Mexico City before returning to L.A., where she got her SAG card at the age of 15. She is Laurel Green.
They met in a costuming class at LACC.
Tanner, who had come to L.A. to attend Los Angeles City College, caught a bus to USC on his first day by mistake; Green was taking classes in psychology and something called Child Development. The two instantly hit it off. “I just liked him,” Green says. “I thought he was funny.”
Almost immediately Tanner asked her to give him rides to school, and before Green knew it, psychology and the rest of it were out the window; what lay ahead was a future scripted by Justin Tanner. The pair began what would quickly evolve into a lasting platonic marriage, in whose early years Tanner worked at the Old Spaghetti Factory and Border Grill while Green, who also worked at the Old Spaghetti Factory, slaved away at Numero Uno and sold to Aron's Records whatever LPs and tapes she received from her mom, who worked in the music industry. “One time,” she remembers, “after I'd sold a pile of records we went to Ralphs to buy food, but I hadn't changed the oil in my car forever and it caught on fire. We were pretty pathetic back then.”
They graduated in 1986 after performing together in Amadeus – Tanner as Mozart and Green as his wife, Constanze. During their time at LACC, Tanner and Green had made friends with other theater students who would become the Tanner Players: Lisa Beezley, Brendan Broms, Jonathan Palmer, Tony Maggio, John Amirkhan and Adrienne Stout were some of the gang that hung out at the College Grill on Santa Monica Boulevard or in the theater department's green room. Perhaps most important of all for Tanner's future was Andy Daley, an actor and talented set designer who bankrolled Tanner's first three off-campus plays and who co-wrote Zombie Attack! with him. Daley is single-handedly responsible for the structural viability of the Cast, once charitably described by the Herald Examiner's Jack Viertel as “shabbily comfortable.” More than that, his sets for Tanner's plays have become characters in themselves. “Andy can make a set from driftwood” is how actor Dan Gerrity puts it.
Changing Channels, a comedy about a Salinas family living in a trailer, opened at the Second Stage on November 17, 1987, and quickly drew rave reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the Herald Examiner and the Daily News, with the late Times critic Ray Loynd comparing Tanner to Sam Shepard.
Tanner had not wanted to stage his own play, but couldn't get anyone else to. And something wondrous happened: He found he could direct actors well, and so became his own best interpreter.
“As a director he gives us a lot of freedom,” says Dana Schwartz, who plays Janet's roommate in Coyote Woman. “We don't do a lot of, 'Okay, now you're a tree, walk into the room.' But he lets us play a lot, and from there he can figure out where he wants to go.”
“Justin is not an egghead,” says Gibson. “He writes character-driven plays. His work is more instinctual than intellectual. He's a very good director because of his psychological leadership.”
With Changing Channels the Tanner mold was formed: The playwright would direct his own work using the actors he felt most comfortable with – his circle from LACC, plus a few others who would eventually cross paths with him – on the finely detailed sets of Daley, whose eye for low-rent architecture and ornamentation is as sharp as Tanner's ear for conversation. All Tanner and his company needed was an understanding producer, and he soon found that in Ted Schmitt, who had run the two Cast Theater spaces since 1976 and who fell in love with Changing Channels. After Tanner's second play, the critical bomb Red Tide, Schmitt invited Tanner to stage his next work at the Cast, and the playwright has been there ever since.
Tanner's comedies may not sport the Euclidean lines of well-made plays, but audiences and critics alike don't care, because he so deftly constructs the neurotic dioramas of his characters that one seldom notices his stories' structural shortcomings or the limitations of his kind of satire. Basically, a Tanner play is a bowl of cookie-dough batter.
“He's intuitive,” explains Green. “He understands my plight as a human on this earth. He sees the things I go through and writes them down. I'm always amazed how much humor and light he gives to them.”
Tanner is also one of the best writers of female characters. His feminized environments seldom feature strong, let alone admirable, men, something he freely acknowledges and that Gibson attributes to his growing up in a mostly female household. It is, in fact, no exaggeration to say that Tanner's life has always been guided by strong women, beginning with his mother.
Straddling the old Camino Real between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, Salinas was and is a
the no-nonsense, business-is-our-business town sarcastically referred to as “Lettuceburg” by its most famous son, John Steinbeck, who was only grudgingly honored there late in his life.
Tom Tanner, Justin's father, didn't move to Salinas in 1959 for the literary climate. He was the office manager and chief accountant for Bud Antle Inc., the produce giant that had helped revolutionize the industry by vacuum-cooling and shrink-wrapping lettuce right in the fields. His wife, Sally, believed in the Eisenhower-era ideals of motherhood and housewifery, but she was also a dreamer, a reader of books and magazines, fond of intelligent people and conversation – things that had been as scarce as rain in her hometown of Brawley, an arid crossroads that made Salinas seem like Florence of the Medicis.
The daughter of Dust Bowl “fruit tramps,” Sally grew up poor on a bleached landscape. But even in Brawley there was color if you knew where to find it, and Sally thought she knew. When she was 18, she converted to Catholicism because “I liked the drama and music, the vestments were colorful, and there was the Latin.” Her conversion was also an act of youthful rebellion, a slap in the faces of her anti-Catholic parents.
She brought this flair for reinvention to Salinas, where she took up dressmaking, set up an eight-foot loom in the living room, dabbled in Buddhism and the Ouija Board, had one of the town's first hot tubs installed and experimented with cooking. “My mom once decided we weren't going to buy ketchup anymore and that we'd make it ourselves instead,” Tanner says. “So our family went out and picked 16 cases of tomatoes so that she could make the most horrible thing you can imagine. It tasted like vinegar and sugar.”
Salinas soon lost whatever charm it held for Sally, however, and a deep marital fissure opened between the father, who worked long hours, and the mother, who was 10 years younger and commuting great distances to the Jesuit Santa Clara University to complete a psychology degree. “My mother was miserable,” Tanner says. “I'd go to bed at night and hear my parents screaming at each other until 3 a.m.”
Tanner's status as a precocious child who wrote poetry and short stories also began a radical alteration. “Until third grade I was an adorable little kid with white-blond hair and blue eyes,” Tanner says. “Then I turned into this snaggle-toothed troll overnight – my hair got frizzy, I gained weight, I needed glasses and I walked around the school like a freak.” Suddenly, the golden child who had typed under the smiling gazes of nuns could do nothing right: Even when he tried to take up smoking he put his first cigarette into his mouth backwards, burning his tongue.
When Tanner entered the fourth grade Sally moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a costume designer specializing in beaded work for the Jackson Five and other black vocal groups. She returned one year later, but her marriage to Tom was set to autopilot: The couple would stay together until their kids graduated from high school, then divorce. (When that time eventually came, Tom moved north – to Alaska.)
In the meantime she landed a job at Hartnell Community College teaching costume design, and began inviting collegiate “strays” to live at the Tanner home, where Justin, his adopted brother and two sisters were left to do all the chores and scavenge food for their school lunches. “I wanted to be the Brady Bunch so bad,” Tanner says apropos of his wars with Mom. “I wanted a maid. I felt like the youngest kid but I wanted to be the oldest, a swinger with good looks and his own bedroom. But there was no safe haven. I'd walk home from school with a feeling of dread – wondering if my mom's car would be in the driveway.”
Eventually he did find a place he could escape to, a dream world created by his favorite Brahms concertos and the black-and-white horror films he avidly watched on TV with friends. As he washed the dishes, he would make up symphonic scores for imaginary monster movies. This desire to impose musical order upon what was ugly and irrational led him to decide, at age 13, to become a concert pianist. But he came to realize that a lifetime of rigorous practice was less an escape route than a trap.
High school was the unquestionable nadir for him, as he followed older brother Tommy, a born-again Christian who had often “witnessed” in the middle of his classes and denounced schoolmates as hell-bound sinners. When Tanner entered North Salinas High there were more than a few who took out retribution upon him.
It never got better. “I was walking down the hallway once, toward a group of really bitchy girls,” Tanner recalls. “One of them said, 'Oh, look at that guy – he's cute!' For a second I thought they were talking about me. Then, when I turned to see who they meant, they said, 'Hey, he looked! We said that guy was cute and he looked!' By the next day it got around school that I was a fag. I'd be sitting in the gym bleachers and the people playing basketball would yell, 'Hey, fag!' and throw the ball at me.”
An outcast in high school, Tanner viewed each day as “another 24 hours of misery . . . I thought we were destined to be the freaks of Salinas.” Ostracism, social awkwardness, the family as a permanent civil war – these themes would all one day find their way into Justin Tanner's plays. He did not know it in high school, but he was steadily moving toward a true escape – the stage. The world of literature was opening to him via Hartnell College faculty parties hosted by his mother, for which Justin would prepare elaborate Chinese meals, and as part of a gifted-students program he was seeing full-Equity shows on field trips to San Francisco.
Perhaps most important, he was growing fond of Sally: “I had hated my mother for so many years that I grew to love her the way people who've been kidnapped eventually come to love the people who kidnap them.” The catalyst for this domestic version of Stockholm syndrome was Erhard Seminar Training – or, as it was abbreviated in that age of abbreviations, “est.”
Sally Tanner, like many young educated Californians during the early '60s, made a religion of self-improvement. Which led her, when Justin was in junior high school, to the psychotherapeutically inclined human-potential organization created by a former Philadelphia used-car salesman and ex-Scientologist named Jack Rosenberg, who had reinvented himself in California as Werner Erhard.
“Est questioned what everyone had agreed was true about life,” Tanner says. “Basically people sat around and screamed. I lost it a few times, but I liked est, although I didn't get it at the time. To me it was a weekend away from home where somebody would yell at you a lot, and some people would cry or confess really intimate things. Now it seems that is commonplace everywhere.”
But est had a wide authoritarian streak to it. “It got a little weird when we started assisting in the est training,” Tanner notes, “which seemed like military school with its rules.” Group power dynamics and the psychology that governs an organization were as important to est as they were to a family like the Tanners.
And, for that matter, as they are to a theater company such as the Cast, which has been run by Diana Gibson since the 1990 death of Ted Schmitt from complications of AIDS. It is an easy though not necessarily inaccurate observation to make that in Gibson, Justin Tanner found a second mother – or, as he jokingly described her in an interview with the online zine Silver Lake 2000, “my second wife,” his first being the theater.
April 28, 1998. Jon Amirkhan, who from the very beginning has read the part of Janet's neighbor, Mike, has been forced by illness to drop out of Coyote Woman. Tanner has replaced him with Gill Gayle, who has appeared in several of his other plays; this means rewriting Mike's part to better suit Gayle's onstage personality. Tanner has by now gone through 75 complete rewrites of Coyote Woman, but this afternoon he is joyful, having set May 29 as opening night. “Today I just wanted to dance and sing when I called [publicist] Julio Martinez to announce it,” he says. “I don't feel like I'm alive unless I'm in the process of opening a play.”
Even in the rehearsals, Diana Gibson has a hand, laying out the primary blocking of scenes that Tanner will adjust over the next month. “Diana is a much, much better director than me,” Tanner explains. “With her painter's eye it takes her two seconds to do what would take me weeks. But what I have is what Diana calls the psychological leadership of my group, which she says is 99 percent of directing, to get people to follow you anywhere and have fun.”
Although Coyote Woman, in its goofy, macabre humor, resembles the much earlier Tanner-Daley collaboration Zombie Attack!, there is still present a sense, through the character of Janet, of acceptance of the crummy hand life deals. The play's final scene, in which Janet embraces and Frenches her alter ego on a couch, is a silent gesture of Tanner's rapprochement with the forces in his life that so frightened and angered him as a child and adolescent. He is, in many ways, the playwright of reconciliation, a man who has found a measure of peace and success wrestling his demons onstage only to shake their hands by the curtain.