It is an annual thing: a West Hollywood theater director with New Jersey roots returns to Princeton to take the helm of a play by a Princeton-based playwright and mount a summer theater production.
That quick line sums up the summer reunion of director Dan Berkowitz and playwright Marvin Cheiten at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. It is the fruit of a friendship that began almost 40 years ago and continues this week when their Allied Playwrights Productions presents “Queen Jane.” The verse-script is playwright Cheiten’s take on the tragic life of Jane Grey, who served as England’s queen for two weeks before being dethroned and executed.
“It was Marvin’s conceit to make Lady Gray a political radical, and that was her demise,” says Berkowitz a few days into rehearsal. “The amazing thing is what she is talking about: universal health care and equal pay. It sounds like things that are being talked about in Washington. It is very contemporary, and I thought it would be interesting to do in modern dress. It makes it as relevant as can be.”
Having directed nearly 100 plays and musicals and more than a 150 musical revues, the director is also a writer whose plays have appeared off-Broadway and on regional and community theaters across the county and include “A.My Name Is Still Alice” (for which he was a contributor), “Miami Beach Monsters,” and “When Oprah Says Goodbye.”
Those accomplishments — along with his experiences as the former West Coast liaison for the Dramatist Guild of America, active co-chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, and former senior story analyst for RHI Entertainment (a division of Hallmark) — give weight to Berkowitz’s words when he talks about creating life in the theater for himself and others.
“What you do is cobble things together, but you also have to be extraordinarily lucky,” he says of his ability to continue in a tough business. “I direct things. I produce things. I write things. I do script consulting. I do production consulting.” Everything he does happens through his own production company, Interarts Creative Incorporated (ICI). One of his mottoes, he says, is “anything that pays and a lot that doesn’t.”
While royalties and freelance work, the word “luck” often pops up. “Luck, training, and being in the right place at the right time,” he says are part of the ingredients of success.
Effort is also something that is involved. “You really have to tend to the business part of show business. As one famous playwright said, what you have to do is to write six months and then sell your work for six months. “
For those planning for a life in the theater, Berkowitz has some basic advice, “Work in every theater job you can; the more you work in the theater, the more you know that will help.” He also says that they should enjoy it for what it is. “I always say to people just entering the business, there’s no point of not having fun because the chances are that you’re not going to make a lot of money doing it.”
He also advises getting involved and talks about getting involved with different organizations and efforts, such as boards on cultural groups. “You’re making a contribution and on a purely practical level you never know where it may lead to paying work. My forte is to come up with ways to create entertaining events that can get done.” That, in turn, helps him land more work.
Although he is frequently concerned about his finances in a profession that has more than its share of variables, he says that he has been fortunate to follow the life that he has carved out for himself, “There are so many people who for whatever reasons will do something they hate doing and hope in retirement that they will get to do what they want. I don’t have a lot of money, but every day is an adventure. “
Like most Americans, Berkowitz’s lifestyle was changed by the 2008 economic crisis, an event that still leaves its mark on a number of artists and cultural organizations. “It affected of lot of things. I’m kind of insulated because of my personal life. Consulting jobs went way down. Until then, I could count on a number of inquiries and follow though and have cash on hand. It is frustrating for me. It hasn’t been a hard slap, but I can’t send a little bit my retirement fund.”
With his success as a playwright and script advisor, Berkowitz’s website offers a variety of script evaluation services to writers and producers and contains a list of fees, such as the $350 evaluation fee for a 120-page screenplay. While providing such services has helped him in the past, the hurt economy also hurt his income. “At first it had totally stopped, and it hasn’t gotten back to what it was before,” he says.
When asked to note the general ongoing problems that he finds with new scripts, Berkowitz replies, “A lot of people who start out writing don’t understand that there is a fundamental difference between writing for the stage, writing for film or television, or for the web. There are no close ups and no jumps to the next scene (in theater). If audiences could read stage direction, then it would make sense.”
Then there are problems related to dialogue. “So many people write dialogue and you can tell they have never read it out loud. In real life people don’t really speak in full sentences, unless they’re preparing to address a jury. Write it and rewrite to fewer words.”
About the theater world in Los Angeles — which he claims has more theater happening in any other city in the world — Berkowitz says, “What I have heard about people doing theater is that it is just harder to get things going. During a boom, people want tax deductions and to be patrons. Now they say, ‘we don’t need to do that.’”
Yet, for himself, luck again seems to be on his side. “Last year there was no Marvin show and from 2005, it’s been part of my yearly income. On the day I would have left to drive here, I signed a contract to script doctor and contribute to a new musical. It was the kind of thing where I get paid several thousand dollars for 10 days of work.” Saying that there was movie industry money behind the musical’s backing, he adds that his contract has royalties for film, Broadway, and League of Resident Theater use.
But this year, the reunion is on and Berkowitz recently hopped into his white Honda to take the trek across the nation and visit friends and family, write, and return to Princeton, where he met Cheiten at a New Years Eve party when they were both students at the university.
Since that time playwright Cheiten — who was heir to the hardware manufacturing Water Master Company in New Brunswick — and director Berkowitz have remained friends and collaborators, with the writer also serving as a producer.
Berkowitz says, “I majored in history but spent all my time in the theater, and it was wonderful.” At that time Princeton had no theater department and no academic credits. Unfazed, Berkowitz invested his time to write for the annual Princeton University Triangle Club Show and develop the Theater Intime summer productions in the Hamilton Murray Theater, where, he says, he has directed more shows than anyone living or dead.
Then in the mid 1970s Berkowitz became regionally well known for being the impresario and host of the Nassau Inn Cabaret. When talking about starting the project while he was managing summer theater, Berkowitz says, “The board of the theater said I was crazy. No one would come out for a midnight cabaret.” Ignoring their advice, he experimented with midnight shows and attracted a following. Eventually, he was creating a new show every Friday for several years, tallying up over a hundred shows.
Berkowitz followed his graduation from Princeton by heading to California to attend graduate school at the University of Berkeley but had become impatient with academia and wanted hands on theater directing experience. His creative energies were ignited by his studies with actress and acting instructor Stella Adler, who helped him organize his various theater experiences in an approach that he still uses.
After his break from Berkeley, the Jersey City native and son of a lawyer took a variety of jobs that brought him deeper in the professional theater and production. In Manhattan, he served as an associate producer for the influential late night interview program, “The David Susskind Show.” It gave him the experience of having a full-time office job and management skills. The show continued to 1986, and Berkowitz wrote and worked in New York.
His 1994 move to California was prompted when the first thing that he wrote professionally, “’A’ My Name Is Still Alice,” a sequel to an earlier musical with a similar title, “’A’ My Name Is Alice,” was being produced at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Attracted by the weather and opportunities, he now calls it home, works there, and has been active in a number of boards, including the City of West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and Tom of Finland Foundation.
It has been almost 20 years since Berkowitz directed his first Cheiten play, the 1996 farce “Chowder, She Wrote,” a send up of the old Angela Lansbury TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” starring Angela Lansbury. Other Princeton summer theater productions by Cheiten include “Zenobia,” 2005 and 2011, “Miss Connections” (2006), “Whizzer’s Island” ( 2007), “The Star” (2008), “Touching a Goddess” (2009), and “Oh Deer!!” (2010).
His return to work with a professional cast assembled under an Actor’s Equity Guest Artist contract has become a regular summer occasion and an opportunity to work with friends, who, in addition to Cheiten, include Princeton-based professional costumer Marie Miller (who Berkowitz says has costumed most of his work on the East Coast) and other actors who have worked on the summer productions.
“It’s all due to Marvin because he has the potential to give a lot people work. He’ll write something and we get all these people who are good at what they do and nice people. It’s like a little theater company in a theater company. And we get to catch up. It’s a part of the small town feel of theater. When you meet people who are talented and nice, you want to work them again. It really is a blessing.” Or perhaps it’s just a lucky break for everyone.
“Queen Jane,” an Allied Playwrights Production, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton campus, Fridays August 16 and 23 at 8 p.m., Saturdays, August 17 and 24 at 8 p.m., and Sundays, August 18 and 25, at 2 p.m. $16-$20. Tickets may be purchased online www.Smartix.com, by calling 877-238-5596, or at the box office one hour before each performance. For more information, go to www.Marvincheiten.com.