Talented California-born Doug Haverty has done it all, from actor and playwright to lyricist and producer. Little did he know that his first play, a college comedy called Hello, This is the Bottom Drawer, would draw so much positive attention and lead to a writing job in New York. But it was not until In My Mind’s Eye premiered at the Los Angeles Group Repertory Theatre in 1984 that his talent won him a most promising playwright award, as well as a Drama-Logue award for best playwriting in 1985. Musicals included Love Again, Roleplay/Inside Out, Flavia, and The Dream Maker, and The Ghost of Gershwin. Doug has acted in numerous Group Rep productions, most notably And Then There were None, Lend Me a Tenor, and The Cape and the Klan. In addition to his role at the Group Rep, Doug also co-moderates Theatre West’s Writer’s Workshop. A true multi-tasker, Doug took some time out of his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.
When did your theater first begin its long career? Were you Involved from the beginning?
Doug Haverty: The Group Rep began life in May of 1973 when 12 actors converted a laundromat in Hollywood into a 37-seat theater. They convinced Lonny Chapman to come on board and be their Artistic Director. Shortly thereafter, they relocated to a charming theater on Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood. I saw plays at this space, which reminded me (personally) of the summer stock theater in Michigan where I met my wife. The building looked like a barn. It was red with white trim, and it was set back off Magnolia. There was a walkway lined with pine trees and benches. It was really bucolic. It had a front porch and the box office/concessions looked like the bar in a saloon.
I joined the theater in 1982 as a playwright. Lonny liked my play, In My Mind’s Eye, and told me he’d like to help me develop it. My first meeting with the group was on a Monday night, and they were presenting a workshop of a new play they’d been rehearsing. It was memorized, directed, costumed; it even had working props. But it was played on the set of their current show. The work and dedication was astounding. Every role had been cast perfectly, it was beautifully directed, and I could not believe the level of commitment from these actors and this director. They had obviously been working on it for weeks without any guarantee of production — they just believed in the play. I knew, then and there, that this was the place for me. The play was The Lilac Tree, and it did become a production — in fact, it was the last production at that charming space. The City of North Hollywood had determined that they needed that land for a senior citizens tower (which is there now). One or two of the pine trees survived.
The City relocated Group Rep to its current space on Burbank Blvd.; and the first full-length production was my play, In My Mind’s Eye. The production did very well, and this play went on to be produced in Berkeley and Whittier. It was eventually published by Samuel French, where it’s been done all over the country. The Group Rep just revived this play as part of their 2020 season; and it was, again, very well received by audiences and critics alike. I had many people tell me how moved they were by the play — even perfect strangers liked it.
When did you become the artistic director?
DH: Through the years, I have participated in various productions at Group Rep wearing various hats. I have acted in many shows, produced several shows, and done sound design and graphic design for many shows. As a playwright, I’ve had several premieres, including In My Mind’s Eye, Next Window Please, Roleplay (A Musical written with Adryan Russ), Love Again (a musical written with Adryan Russ), The Ghost of Gershwin (a musical written with Wayland Pickard and Laura Manning), and A Carol Christmas (a musical written with Bruce Kimmel).
When previous co-artistic directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield announced their plans to retire, the search committee offered me the artistic directorship about a year ago. We began planning the 2020 season last June. I took over, officially, on January 1, 2020. Larry and Chris are both still very much involved with the theater — which is great for the company and me.
“The Group Repertory Theatre was one of the original 99-seat Equity waiver theaters in Los Angeles (allowing us to use Equity actors and not have to pay Equity wages). The 99-seat plan was dissolved by Equity a few years ago, and Equity named a dozen membership companies as AEA approved membership companies. This allows us to use Equity actors and non-Equity actors without any restrictions. AEA recognizes that we are a company run by actors, and therefore assumes we will treat actors justly and with respect.
Some of my works have started at Group Rep and gone on to have other lives. So, it’s fun to realize that things we’re developing in our little theatrical think-tank could actually “grow up” and expand after their debut in NoHo. I wrote a musical with Adryan Russ which started as a workshop. We were going to present it as a two-nighter to the public. After Lonny Chapman popped into a rehearsal for a look-see, he came up to me afterwards and said, in his usual theatrically startling way, “No. We’re not going to do this as a two-nighter. Let’s do a little more rehearsing and just open it.” And we did. It was supposed to run five weeks and it ran five months, which was fairly unheard of at that time. That little musical, now called Inside Out, eventually wound its way into Manhattan , had an Off-Off Broadway run at the Village Theatre Company, and eventually an Off Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre. It’s been done around the world, was recently translated into Serbian, and had an 18-month run in Belgrade that was tremendously successful.
“We did a relatively new version of A Christmas Carol in 2009. It was adapted for the stage by Richard Hellesen and David De Berry. This extravaganza was directed by our then-artistic director, Ernest Figueroa. It was one of the most ambitious shows we’d done with a huge cast, glorious set design, tons of costumes, and beautiful, lush music. The author of the book combined text from the short story, as well as other essays Dickens wrote about Christmas. So, it was a Dickensian Christmas buffet. I played Bob Cratchit, and Chris Winfield was Scrooge. It was magic. Audiences loved it. It was so rewarding to be a part of that; and I genuinely felt affection for all the Cratchit kids, especially Tiny Tim.
It was that experience that inspired me to write my own musical version of the classic by Dickens. I wanted to make mine modern and set in the U.S. I converted all the major men’s roles into women’s roles. I enlisted Bruce Kimmel to direct and create the songs and score. In 2018, A Carol Christmas was born; and audiences absolutely loved it. We’re in the process of marketing it now to a national theater network and hope to have the GRT-streamed version available during this shelter-in-place.”
When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?
DH: Our first production was scheduled to close on March 15, and we did run until the published conclusion. That last weekend, groups of 50 or more were being discouraged. We limited sales to 50 seats per show (which wasn’t difficult at that point) and encouraged seat selection using social distancing. Those last three shows were very good, and the audiences seemed very appreciative. My friend, talented director John Musker, remarked, “Well, this may be the last play I ever see…and if it is, then at least it was a good one.”
“Our next two plays, Neil Simon’s London Suite and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, were both in rehearsals. Rehearsals continued for a few days, but then the order came through that groups larger than ten were discouraged. That’s when we collectively decided to postpone all activity in the theater building until the Mayor/Governor determine it’s safe to gather again.
Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?
DH: This has impacted us drastically. We are completely volunteer-run and member-funded. Our members pay dues and are, in essence, shareholders in our company. Somehow, over the past 46 years, we have managed to stay afloat with donations, dues, fundraisers, and box office. Some months are leaner than others. We had two shows almost ready to open and fundraisers planned. Everything has been put on hold. Plus a lot of our members utilize the theater space for work on various projects that they’ve devised. There is a lot of activity at that building, given two theaters and two additional rehearsal spaces.
Additionally, we are in a Triple Net Lease, which means we are responsible for the physical upkeep of the building (as well as property taxes and insurance). With the rains and a very old roof, we have to constantly keep watch for leaks. We were right in the middle of refurbishing the dressing rooms for the upstairs theater and putting in a new lighting system upstairs.
Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen?
DH: Just this week, we put a video of In My Mind’s Eye; and it’s available for steaming. In the coming weeks, we will upload other original works and make them available for streaming. Once it’s safe to gather again, we will resume rehearsals and start to reschedule our fundraisers. We have had tele-conferences, and some people have been meeting via Zoom.”
What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?
DH: Will live theater in Los Angeles change as a result of COVID-19? I am an optimist, so I always hope for the best. I hope that, after people have been quarantined and sequestered for weeks or months on end, they will be hungry for live theater and crave participating in live art played out before their eyes. I hope that theater-going habits will survive this pandemic. I hope that people will once again look for activities outside the safety of their homes.
Our matinees have always been popular with audiences. We had already planned to introduce additional Saturday matinees with London Suite, and we will continue to schedule them in once we’re up and running again.
My fear is that many businesses, including many theaters, will not survive this pandemic and will shutdown. I just hope that we can hang on and continue doing what we love doing.
What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?
DH: Naturally, the thing we most need is money just to keep paying the rent (and in our case also the property taxes and insurance). We realize that — at this point in time — money is not easily given. We desperately need a new roof. The rains have damaged our structure and exterior doors and carpets. We’d also like a large storage shed to hold costumes, props, and set pieces. So, since we are an official 501 (c) (3), we can accept donations in kind (things like materials, labor, etc.)”
What are some of your future plans?
DH: Once we re-gather, we will complete the rehearsal process and open two plays in rep (upstairs and downstairs). We have a very ambitious season planned (in both spaces). We will re-strategize our fundraising campaigns and events. And we will continue to audition and bring in new members, as well as continue to develop new plays and musicals.
In 2008, we did Inspecting Carol, which is kind of Noises Off meets A Christmas Carol. It was in the beginning of the financial downturn, and people were generally depressed. It was so wonderful to be able to offer the community an evening of belly laughs. There were times where the laughter was so intense that the huge laughs turned into coughs. Laughter can be healing. So, personally, I am looking forward to presenting Neil Simon’s London Suite. A lot of people are familiar with Plaza Suite and even California Suite, but not that many people are familiar with the third entry in his Suite of Suites. It will be like discovering a new Neil Simon. That play opens whenever we reopen – which is currently set for mid-May – pandemic permitting, of course.
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.