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April 17, 2003

Milt Commons: From Cripple Creek, Colorado to San Francisco, California
A Life in the Theatre

Milt Commons

San Francisco's Milt Commons, a member of the Bay Area Advisory Committee (BAAC) and chair of its Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, is 75 years old, has been an Equity member for more than 50 years and continues to work as a stage manager. Here, Jerry Mark, Chair of the BAAC, speaks with Milt about his career and the changes he has seen in Equity and in the theatre in San Francisco over half a century.

Jerry Mark: You're celebrating your 50th year as a member of Actors' Equity. How did your career get started?

Milt Commons: I had a job in summer stock in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and, in those days, you got a contract because you were working for the company. So, it was one of those cases where I had the Equity job so I got the Equity contract. Of course, it was a Blue Card, meaning we were Junior Members. But it wasn't very hard to step up--eventually.

JM: How did you end up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine?

MC: My first job out of college in 1950 was with a melodrama company in a hotel in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Melodramas were all over in those days, so we got really cocky that summer, had a good time, and decided to go to Phoenix, Arizona, where we went broke and had to work our way out of town. Except I didn't. I stayed there for a while and worked in a winter stock company, a star company, with some very interesting people. One particular show I remember was Kirk Douglas doing Detective Story. Then some of us got together again, wrote our own melodrama and went to Ruidoso, New Mexico, because somebody had told us that on the Fourth of July, you could hardly walk down the street for the people. Well, they were correct. It just happened that on the other 364 days, there's nobody there. So, we went broke again and left in the dead of night and went to Hollywood. We had pooled just enough money to get to Hollywood and I remember stepping out into a parking lot in Hollywood with 80 cents in my pocket.

JM: What year was this?

MC: 1951. And I got a job in a theatre. I started acting and stage managing there and then. Finally, my friend who had come to Cripple Creek with me and who had left when we came to Hollywood, came back in his 1932 Auburn and took me to Boothbay Harbor where he had s summer job and that's how I got there.

JM: You mentioned being an actor. At what point did you decide, "I'm a professional stage manager" or did you both act and stage manage for a while?

MC: I was both an actor and a stage manager--and I still am. If anybody asks me, I still act, but I began finding out that I'd go for an interview and they would say, "We've got the actors, but we need a stage manager. Do you stage manage?" and I would say, "Yes, if necessary. I do stage manage." I used to tell people, "If I'm with a big company, I'm stage managing and, if I'm with a little company, I'm acting." It went on for quite a while. Most of my big jobs have been as a stage manager.

JM: How did you get to the Bay Area?

MC: It was after a particularly horrendous Broadway show. I had an aunt and uncle who lived out here and I used to come and visit. Actually, I had a job here in 1974 as an actor, but I still lived in New York. I went back to New York, and, after the show closed, I said, "If I don't go to San Francisco now, I will never go." So I closed up my apartment and moved here. A friend of mine had told it was a good area to find work. What he neglected to tell me was that you can work, you just don't get paid for it. But, at that time, I was working both in New York and in Hollywood. So I lived here and split the difference.

JM: What was your first Equity job in San Francisco?

MC: My first Equity job was in a play called Mind of the Dirty Man. It played the On Broadway Theatre on Broadway (San Francisco). A little theatre, one of the many at the time, gone now. Actually I played it twice. Once as an actor and once as a stage manager.

JM: You've been in Equity for more than half its existence. How has Equity changed as an organization in 50 years?

MC: I would say that most of the changes are because the profession has changed. I think Equity has always been, for my part, a fairly progressive organization, trying to help the members when and where they work. I think the decentralization has been a great thing, absolutely necessary. When I started, you went to New York. It was what you did. There was an Equity office in Los Angles, but you went to New York and booked out of there. I was very lucky to be part of the decentralization, because I went to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1965. The idea was to see if we could get the theatre out of New York. Well, we've passed our expectations, I think. One of the changes I've seen is that it is now possible to work outside of New York and to not know what's going on in New York. I rather regret that.

JM: Is it the regional companies that have made the difference? Are they what have spread Equity around the country? Or has it been more locally-generated commercial production?

MC: I think the rep companies did start the decentralization, but I think mostly it's the idea of population changes and moves.

JM: How have you seen theatre and Equity's presence in the Bay Area change since you came in 1974?

MC: Again, Equity has gone with the flow. The change I have mostly seen is the great dichotomy between the size of theatres. In the Bay Area, the mid-sized theatre is going, going, gone, leaving small theatres and big theatres. There are only a couple of ways to make money in theatre here. Either you have to play more times or you have to have a large theatre to sell more tickets. And the trend has been to get smaller and smaller theatres and play fewer times. Economically, this makes no sense.

JM: I'm wondering if you're encouraged by some of the smaller mid-sized theatres that seem to be up and coming in the Bay Area and using more Equity contracts. Do you see a future for Equity members in these 300-500 seat theatres?

MC: Well, it's what we've got. I'm not going to say anything about 'the good old days.' Theatre just changes. It changes and changes and you have what you have. When I started out, you had the choice of the movies or legitimate theatre and you either went one way or the other. I decided I would take the legitimate theatre, knowing that I would never make a great deal of money and, I must say, I've exceeded my expectations.

JM: Let me ask you about the craft of stage management. In a sense, we look at you as a connection between the acting company and management, even though, certainly in terms of union affiliation, you are allied with the cast. How do you see your role?

MC: It's always been between the hammer and the anvil. I had an actress say, right to my face, once, 'We all know that stage managers are in management's pocket.' But management really does expect you to look out for their interests and the actors expect you to look after theirs. I've always said that my job is to get the curtain up and keep it up. I do that for the management and for the actors, because if they don't play, they don't pay. I have never worked for management where I had to bend rules to accommodate them.

JM: Have you seen any other changes in theatre over your career?

MC: Theatre used to be very white and the idea of ethnic performances or plays was a pretty low priority. You had white actors generally playing actors of color which, nowadays, is discouraged--happily so. But, we have not yet scratched the possibilities of color-blind casting. If there's one thing we have to do, that's it.

JM: I'm reminded of our large, local repertory company's annual production of A Christmas Carol with an African-American playing Scrooge and an interracial marriage in the Cratchits. There were those who complained that it was unrealistic to the point of nonsense, with others saying they're not presenting history, they are presenting a play. How do you feel about this?

MC: I think the solution is a disclaimer in the program that simply says, 'The ethnicity of the actor means nothing to the plot, don't worry about it.

JM: It's interesting that you mention a program disclaimer, because if a company did put that into their program, they would be hauled into court for being politically incorrect. How do you feel we are dealing with this issue these days?

MC: I'm well acquainted with stories from Hispanic members and of their employment woes trying to get into the mainstream of the theatre and stay there. I don't think it's getting easier. It's something we have to plug at every minute of the day and from all directions. We need to urge companies to surmount their own inertia and to be a little more imaginative in casting. Playwrights help; directors certainly help. Actors have got to go out and explore possibilities. They've got to walk into more auditions and be there. They Bay Area has not been a good place for ethnic casting. There just aren't that many venues and jobs are tight and getting tighter all the time here. The smaller the cast, the fewer opportuities for everybody. Now we have plays with one or two people and the seating capacity is 75. That doesn't do much for employment.

JM: What sorts of other things have you been involved with an as outgrowth of your work as an actor and stage manager?

MC: I've taught classes in theatre history and acting at the new university down in Monterey, California. That was a revelation. First of all, teaching acting. The trouble started when I asked people to bring in scenes, because they didn't know where to find them. They had no background in theatre to give them an idea of what scenes were available. So, they would go out and rent movies and transcribe movie scenes and bring them in, because all of them knew about movies. Very few of them knew too much about theatre and they really didn't know what kind of plays were available because they hadn't seen any. In the theatre history class, I really didn't know where to begin because theatre history is a very tricky thing to teach because of lack of exposure. People know about movies. They can rent them. You can't go back and dig out someone's live performance because it's gone forever and, if you film it, it becomes a film, it's no longer a play.

JM: Some major corporations, like Disney, are getting involved with theatre. How do you see that affecting the future? Is it getting people into the theatre or is it destroying theatre because it's melding it with movies somehow?

MC: I remember when Disney first proposed cleaning up 42nd Street in New York. Incidentally, I think Disney was the only organization with enough money to do it. Someone in the theatrical community, and I can't remember which producer it was, said, 'Bring 'em in! We can't have too much theatre.' and I think any theatre is okay--any theatre that appeals to anybody.

JM: What do the next few years hold, this being one of the wonderful professions where you can work as long as you want to?

MC: I'll keep working because I don't know any retired people. If I left the theatre, I wouldn't have any more friends to run around with. So I guess I'll just keep working until, like the Pope, I fall over. We must never forget that the Pope started out as an actor too.

Note: San Francisco Business Representative Jane Shaffer adds a personal story about Milt Commons: "He was stage managing Stop Kiss and I had seen the show and was waiting for him to close up afterwards. The theatre has about 100 steps from the floor to the booth. I was watching him jog up and down these many stairs, and, on his third pass, he stopped, grinned and said, 'Longevity Magazine says that a person my age should get at least 20 minutes of light exercise a day.' Then, he chuckled and jogged off to finish up."

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