In 1978, two men that were accepted into the 11th class of the drama department at The Julliard School became fast friends. Jack Stehlin and John Bunzel developed a kinship which extended so far as to become a part of each others’ families. What makes that important to us is that on April 26th, 2019, they opened a play, Boxing Lessons, written by John Bunzel and Directed by Jack Stehlin. It’s a play about family — more than just family, the consequences of lifetime relationships.
John has written a number of award-winning plays which have been produced here in LA, New York and beyond. Delirious, Death of a Buick, 63 Trillion, just to name a few. Beyond that, John worked in film and television, both as a writer and an executive. While his day job has taken him down a different road, the need to write and create plays has endured and been nurtured.
Jack is an award-winning actor/director/producer and the artistic director of New American Theatre, where Boxing Lessons is currently playing, and a renowned teacher/coach at The New American Studio Ensemble. Jack has spent his entire life in theatre, with some notable appearances in television and film.
We, Jack, John and myself, gathered, along with Jeanine Wisnosky Stehlin, producer and company manager for New American Theatre, to talk about the show in particular, and theatre in general. After a walkabout and looking in on the two stages at the new digs. We sat down in the developing set of Boxing Lessons. Sitting amongst the boxes and piles of books and pictures both on and off the wall, it was pretty clear that there was a story to be told.
According to John, “it’s a dark comedy about a family gathered to attend to the clutter of a man’s life.” As with any occasion where the family gathers to clean up, relationships are as much a part of the process as is the practical matters of clutter. And how better to accomplish that cleanup, but an effort to come to a resolution, an understanding of who and what we are to each other than in sorting out what’s left after a loved one passes.
It is the commonality of a more than 40-year relationship between John and Jack that helped facilitate the development of this world premiere. Understanding each other, as classmates, as anxious artists, as friends, the lexicon of familiarity lubricated the process of flushing out the text. Jack, who speaks of having the actors’ interest at heart, wants to assure that the play is a conduit for the revelations of an actor’s discoveries.
For Jack, who has been described as a consummate actor, the art of acting is not in demonstrating skills, but in the use of acting skills to delve into the heart of the character. Finding the truth of a character within the confines of play.
“Theatre is the highest form of story-telling.” Says Jack, who goes on to speak of the qualities that make it so. The singularity of the moment. While the lines and characters may be the same for every performance, the commitment to an honest hearing and response to any single moment is infinitely unique. All the tools and skills of an actor are drawn upon not by rote but by the instinctive reaction by an actor to that moment. It is in the singularity of each performance that we find the truth and vulnerability of the human condition.
Earlier in his daily life, John Bunzel, at one point, was on a 10-year hiatus from the theatre. But seeking the truth, the essential goal of an artist, he was compelled to cast pen to paper once again. Now in Boxing Lessons, the truth about family is the goal. In relationships with our fathers, why do we look for approval, reject criticism and compete all at the same time? Why is it that when we talk of mothers, we can see them, reflect on them, with both love and hate? Why is the nature of relationship different for sons and daughters? What are the expectations of our children from us, what do we expect from them?
John goes on to say, “Every effort gets me closer to the truth. I guess the goal is to one day write a piece I’ve written and judge it to be complete, having hit all the right notes, used all the notes I have.”
A friendship that began as new students at Julliard flourished well beyond the four hectic, intensive and collegial times. Jack produced John’s first play, and the collaboration has been repeated often.
Jack, despite the advice given by his agent at the time, which was to move to LA and get into film and TV, instead set out to work on stages all over the world. 20-some odd years later, having just closed the Scottish Play in New York, Jack was taking a subway home, lacking the funds to even grab a cab. As happens with every artist, that moment of WTF hit him. “Why am I still doing this, where am I going…” That night the decision was made. No more theatre, no more New York. It was time to take his old agent’s advise and move west, Los Angeles, It was time to cash in. If there was ever a time to reach for the brass ring, this was it.
It was John that Jack first called when moving to Los Angeles. John was in the movie business, so his first suggestion was to go to a play reading, figures. There is something about theatre artists, that when triggered, reading a play, seeing a play, being in a play, basically anything dealing with theatre invites our contribution. As there was a discussion after the reading, Jack piped up, expressed his thoughts which then earned him an invitation to a cup of coffee.
15 minutes later, Jack was invited to be the artistic director for an Equity Waiver company that worked out of the Hudson Theatre. With the full awareness that he had just sworn off of theatre, Jack accepted and went to inspect his new workspace the next day. Walking in, the first thing he saw, “stood the most beautiful exciting women I had ever seen. It was Jeanine Wisnosky, who happened to be the managing director for the company. Needless to say, they are now married and have three amazing daughters.
From that moment, which was back in 1995, they have worked together to build a company. Not just a production company, but a gathering place for working artists to hone their craft, work on new material and gain the sense of peer security that can only be accomplished when working with those you truly trust. And that working, developing and honing your craft it a full-time job. One of the guiding principals of the ensemble company is never going more than two weeks without work, maybe just on yourself, but push.
As it turns out, Jack continued to work in theatre. Since its inception, The New American Theatre, which was formerly Circus Theatricals, has produced more than 190 productions, premiering 129+ new plays. In the meantime, Jack has found his share of success, including a recurring role as Capt. Roy Till on the much beloved show Weeds.
Both John and Jack, graduates of one of the world’s most celebrated acting conservatories, have tried to walk away from theatre. But as with most that have experienced the awesome power of theatre, they both returned, and look to continue working till… they get it right, the truth is revealed? All while assuring that others will follow.
Boxing Lessons is playing through June 2nd at the New American Theatre, located at 1312 N Wilton PlacE IN Hollywood 90028. For further information on the theatre, the play and the company, go to www.newamericantheatre.com