A Conversation with Vanessa and French Stewart

Vanessa and French Stewart
Vanessa and French Stewart (Photo: Anousha Hutton)

Vanessa:  French thinks of LA Theater like farming. I think of it like cooking. Both metaphors are about creating something from nothingGrowing up in the kitchens of Louisiana, I would try one of my mothers recipes over and over again until I got it right. And getting it right meant people walking away from the dinner table having experienced something special. No wonder that I grew up seeking other ways of telling stories that pleased people. To me, writing, acting, cooking, singing all come from the same inner need:  The desire to weave a tale that will live in peoples memories and share something about our mutual humanity.

The unique thing I found about LA theater is there seemed to be more “practice ovens” to cook in.  You see, Actors Equity gave us an amazing opportunity in the 80s: A Waiver agreement for theaters under 99 seats that allowed its actors to work for a small stipend and allowed its producers to try new, risky material and take chances on unknown artists.  And people like me were lucky enough to stumble into the scene after it was all sorted out.  It allowed me the freedom to find a place to bake my cake. Sometimes that cake fell to pieces.  Sometimes it fed more people than I had anticipated. Great playwrights and actors grew from the low risk that this opportunity provided.  Legendary LA playwrights like Justin Tanner, Padraic Duffy and Henry Ong cut their teeth because of the agreement.  Deaf West, East West Players and A Noise Within were born of this agreement.

Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara
Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara

And Sacred Fools Theater Company would never have been able to tell the story I – a lost 20-something storyteller – proposed to them: Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara. The budget simply would have been ten times more if on a standard AEA agreement. But, because it had been produced, Louis and Keely now has a life and I have a career.  It will go on; back to the Geffen Playhouse, Laguna Playhouse and even more LORT houses.  We just finished a run under the CAT contract in Chicago at the Royal George Theater.  The awareness of the work that we cook up in these incubators is increasing all over the country!  I have a piece that began with a $10,000 budget, ten actors and my husband’s dream to be Buster Keaton.  That piece, Stoneface, was so well received, we were asked by Sheldon Epps to bring it to life at his Pasadena Playhouse, and those same actors were brought along for the ride.  I can’t imagine what I’d do without my oven, a safe place where I can workshop my new ideas with previously unknown LA directors like Jaime Robledo and Paul Plunkett.  I even met my husband because of Louis and Keely.  It was a greenroom romance at the Geffen with frequent Justin Tanner performer, French Stewart.

French:  As usual, my wife is quite right.  We run a “mom and pop” business.  We seed, we farm, and hopefully, we bake our crop into a lovely meal.  No different really than the pot store that is our theaters neighbor. They, too, start with seeds, manage their product, use the right amount of lighting and keep some burley goon at the front door to ward off weirdos. But, if both establishments do their jobs, everyone goes home with a head full of nice thoughts.  Ta-da!  How `bout that?

Vanessa and I have always believed that Saturday night is a team sport.  It’s not just about your show.  It’s about the bar or restaurant next door.  It’s creating foot traffic for each other and a shared sense of community.  It’s citizenship.

I started my theater career in the mid eighties.  A truly beautiful time to put on a show.  Fresh faced drama school graduates could have a carwash, rent a ghetto theater, build a set from street junk and the L.A. Times would show up!  (Years later, I would hear that the set we so lovingly crafted made an appearance in a porn movie that a co-star happened to view in a hotel room. I was both sad and sort of proud.)

In all that time there are a few things that haven’t changed:

  • Every theater owner I know has a sweater with pet hair on it;
  • They all have a financially worried face; and
  • Despite what our Union would tell us during the 99 seat debate:  There actually are no Rockefeller producers stashing gold boullion in their Burbank home. Trust me.
Vanessa Stewart
Backstage with Vanessa Stewart and daughter Helene.

But some things have altered.  The Internet has been (both for better and worse) a game changer.  I used to be considered a theater actor who worked hard enough to get a TV show.  But when I came back to theater ( a mere 5 months later) all my street cred had seemingly vanished.  I was now a “TV star with a “vanity project.”  And any random critic, snotty blogger, or 13 year old social media star could paint me in the laziest possible way.  On the up side, via Facebook and Twitter, a ragtag group of people can collectively communicate with hundreds of thousands of potential patrons.  Which is way better than putting flyers on a table in a coffee shop.

So we keep it simple.  We grow and bake art with family and friends.  Jobs.  Not just for actors but directors, designers, craftsmen – and the guy who sells coffee next door.

Vanessa:  I was curious, so I compiled a list of 99 seat shows that, like mine, stewed in waiver theater and were baked into AEA contracts.  And I’m sure I’ve missed a few but I found 82 shows and over 700 jobs created because of our community.  Deaf West just moved a show to Broadway!  It’s so cool!

French:  There are more Vanessa Claire Stewarts out there.  More Justin Tanners.  But where will they go to get great?  Where will they become good citizens?

Vanessa:  Without the freedom that the (sadly) former AEA 99 seat agreement allowed us, the oddball artist will have a harder time finding their “oven”.  I worry about the new young cooks coming to town.  Lost, as I used to be.  That’s why we’re committed to finding a way to help the next generation of theater masterchefs.  Without them, the theater scene might be doomed to a future of Neil Simon TV dinners.

French:  Frozen dinner theater?

Vanessa:  I hope you don’t mean the one with Elsa.

About Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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  1. Nice, Vanessa and French.

  2. Keep doing what you guys do! Your great!?

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