Olympia Dukakis Brings Us a Hero

Olympia Dukakis

Take your life in your own hands!”

That’s the answer, Olympia Dukakis gave to young Elisa Bocanegra, who appeared with the Academy-Award winning star in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Roundabout in January.

The question? How to get work?

Dukakis remembers telling her to “stop sitting around waiting for somebody to call you up and offer you something.  Do it yourself. Of course this has been my own experience, I’ve started a couple of theatres.”

That she has, as many in Baristaville  remember.  In 1973, Dukakis founded Montclair’s Whole Theater, and ran it for 19 years.  She also founded The Actors’ Company in Boston, which evolved into the Charles Playhouse. Years ago, my parents saw Dukakis and her husband, Louis Zorich, in a Whole Theater production of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  They loved it.  My father told my mother, “Ms. Dukakis and her husband, they’re my kind of people.” That might have had something to do with Dukakis having attended Boston University, as he did, but I don’t think that’s all of it.  Dukakis has a warmth and a down-to-earthiness that cross the footlights, including her performances as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck (1987); as a tough matron in Steel Magnolias (1989), as a transgendered landlady in the television mini-series “Tales of the City” (1993),  as a Jewish four-time widow in Martin Sherman’s Rose,(she has played and toured the role since 1999, and was preparing to take it to the midwest when we spoke), and as a dying woman overshadowed by her nephew in Morris Panych’s Vigil, at A.C.T. in San Francisco (she’s going to play the role again at Los Angele’s Mark Taper Forum in November).  Her warmth comes through the phone, too, and obviously in person, because Bocanegra listened.

She heard Dukakis’ advice in January.  She founded Hero Theatre in March. Tonight, August 8, the company has its first benefit performance, a reading of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, directed by Obie-Award  winner Lisa Peterson. The performers include Michael Aronov, Elisa Bocanegra herself, Eileen Desandre, Jose Febus, Kevin Fugaro, Yetta Gottesman, Thomas Kopache, Producing Director Anya Migdal, Arian Moayed, Bobby Plasencia, Krystal Rowley, Jeremy Shamos, Jerry Stilianessis and Juan Villa. The reading will be at 7 p.m. at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 W. 37th St., 3rd Floor.  Tickets are $40 and are available at Hero’s homepage.  The first fully staged production will happen in 2012, and the company seeks investors, donors and other support.

“I’ve suggested this to a number of actors who’ve complained bitterly about the business, but not too many of them have done what she has done.” Dukakis’ title is “Head Advisor,” which means, she explains, they can call her when they need her opinion on anything, because “it’s always good to have somebody in your pocket that’s done it before.”  But, she continues, they really don’t need to hear warnings; they already know all about it. The company are professionals, already in the business.

Once she founded a theatre, Dukakis recalls, “I became a person of the theatre.  I wasn’t only an actress; I directed, produced, taught, raised

Olympia Dukakis and Elisa Bocanegra

money; began to know the theatre totally.  I got to play parts I probably wouldn’t have been offered.”  Those included not only roles in Chekhov and in Beckett’s Happy Days, but contemporary toles that she thinks would have gone to other people because of her ethnicity.  Born in 1931 to Greek emigrants in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis loves the ethnic mix of the company Bocanegra has put together.  “There’s a wonderful energy that happens when there is that kind of mixture. It’s the mix that’s in America. It’s the same thing that keeps our motors going.”

Her son Peter Zorich still lives in Montclair, and she sounded happy to hear that she still has fans here.  When she ran Whole Theater, she created programming, raised money, and did an outreach program for women writers, that included people who wrote plays, people who poetry, people who wrote essays: “any writing was valuable and worthwhile.”

“Any actor who’s interested in starting a theatre, I’ll do what I can to help them,” Dukakis said. “Actors are so marginalized in the creative part of our business, unless you’re a big star. The idea of taking hold of your own life is a brave one, and not an easy one. If somebody’s willing to do it, I’m willing to stand next to them. Behind them. Wherever they want me to stand.”

She’s hosting tonight’s reading, not performing in it. “I’m not a member of the company; they haven’t asked me,” she says.  “But I’m always looking for work.”

In these days of economic uncertainty and government cuts, can a new company really succeed?

Yes, she says. “It always has to do with the people.” And she thinks this group has the determination, enthusiasm and experience to succeed.  Hero’s mission is actor-centered: to provide opportunities for theatre artists to hone their craft by way of the classics and to make classical plays accessible to modern audiences. Will there be an audience for that?

“There’s an audience for any theatre that’s really good.” Dukakis may have given up what she calls “hustling” as a producer, but she’s still got the chops.  She’s convinced– and it makes her convincing.

Tonight’s reading of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, directed by Lisa Peterson, is  at 7 p.m. at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 W. 37th St., 3rd Floor.  Tickets are $40, and are available at Hero’s homepage.

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