James Eckhouse & Richard Schiff Wax Trippingly On Their Tongues On Joint Directing Triptych's NOCTURNE


Gil Kaan

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic


With full committed schedules and a lucky twist of fate, veteran actor/directors James Eckhouse (Beverly Hills, 90210) and Richard Schiff (The West Wing) have come together as co-directors for Triptych Theatre Company's production of Adam Rapp's NOCTURNE, a solo show featuring Jamie Wollrab, Triptych Theatre's artistic director. We had the chance to question these two gents on their artistic affiliations with and contributions to the Los Angeles theatre community.

Thank you Both for taking the time for this interview.

What initially drew you to become involved with NOCTURNE?

James Eckhouse: Jamie brought me the script last year and asked if I would direct. I had worked with him over at IAMA Theatre. I loved the script and was very excited to have the chance to work with Jamie again.

Richard Schiff: Jamie asked me to look at the play and to direct, if interested. I had some time before my TV show starts in Vancouver later this summer so I read it.  I'm a fan of Adam Rapp. I was moved by this play; it's a compelling story of surviving grief. It's almost triumphant in the end in that this character confronts the darkest corners of his existence and tells this harrowing story and yet there's that survivor's sense of irony and even a little humor wrapped inside the darkness. I've done a one-person play, by that I mean I've acted it. It's challenging and scary and asks the performer to go to the edge of that cliff and make the leap. I thought it would be interesting to coach another actor through that with the perspective of someone who's been there.

Who came up with the idea that the you two co-directing NOCTURNE?

JE: What a crazy idea! Actually this was by necessity. I started to work on the play with Jamie in January. We were hoping to get back into rehearsal in June, but I had some conflicts and wasn't sure I would be able to resume as director. Richard stepped in to direct and did a fantastic job with bringing the piece near to fruition. Then Richard had to bow out (to shoot a pilot). So I (happily!!) stepped back in to bring us to the finish line.

RS: Well, my schedule turned out not to be so accommodating and I had to come to NY for two weeks. I offered up a co-directing or any option that would be most comfortable for Jamie and the company. Then James, who originally was going to direct this, when he became available again, I was happy to give over the reins. Apparently, James, after seeing a run-through, felt compelled to have us share the credit. Jamie and I had worked pretty hard to set the foundational work, but I was fine either way.

Were either of you aware of NOCTURNE since it opened in New York in 2001, or during the succeeding years?

RS: No. I hadn't seen it before. My reading of it was my first introduction to it.

JE: I was aware of Adam Rapp, but not this play of his.

James, you mentioned you've worked with Jamie before. How about you, Richard?

RS: Jamie and I met in Vancouver while filming a TV show. He was coaching an actress in the show and we had dinner up there. Years later, which was just recently, I was doing a workshop for my wife, Sheila Kelley, at her S Factor studio. Sheila has created a journey for women through movement which is extraordinary. She basically invented the industry known as pole fitness back in the early 2000's. But now she has transcended its origins and has created a movement and journey for women that is transformative, life-changing. This workshop included men and understanding the differences between the genders. Jamie was there. He had been working with Sheila for years, but I didn't know until we met again at the workshop. I don't know the Triptych theater's work. I have been bad about LA theater, usually saving my theater going for New York, Chicago or London. I decided to change that recently and take advantage of what is here in town. I was looking at doing Hallie Feiffer's play at the Rogue Theater but the dates weren't working for now. I was going to act in that one. Then when Jamie presented this opportunity, I thought I should really think about this.

JE: As I mentioned, I had worked with Jamie at IAMA and he approached me to work with him at Triptych. I directed one of the John Patrick Shanley one-acts at Triptych this spring, which was a blast. This is growing into a very exciting company!

You both have been steadily acting for the eyes of the mass public since the mid-1980s. Surely, your paths must have crosses once or twice in the past decades. What do you remember of the first time you two met?

JE: Richard and I actually worked together many years ago at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO. I was producing and directing several one-acts that were part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's line-up. Richard (of course) was extraordinary to work with and watch perform. After that we haven't really played together but I enjoy being a huge fan of his work and admiring his kinda wonderful career from the peanut gallery.

RS: It was produced by HBO for the Aspen Comedy Festival. We had a good time. That's all I remember. That and that festival was my first introduction to Eddie Izzard, who was performing. That was a seminal moment for me. The guy is brilliant.

James, you started your theatrical career acting. When did you say out loud, "But what I want to do is direct!"?

JE: I've always directed when I had the chance. I don't think you have to pidgeonhole yourself. I started directing in a rather wacky theater company I helped found in 1981 in NYC. It was called Dearknows and we started out creating pieces from JAMES JOYCE'S DUBLINERS. Since then I've been a part of several theater companies both here and in NY where I've acted and directed, including a stint as Artistic Director of Ensemble Studio Theatre LA. I've been lucky to direct on camera as well, doing several episodes of hour TV, a documentary, and a couple of short films. I've also been teaching the last 12 years, which has been a fantastic journey. It has fed my work as an actor and director in all kinds of ways. I can't imagine growing up and having to choose one ‘label' or the other.

Richard, you started your theatrical career directing. What do you recall of your directing the then-newbie actress Angela Bassett in ANTIGONE?

RS: Oh, Jeez! She was amazing. Just out of Yale Drama. I was trying to figure things out as a director and she couldn't have been more patient and professional. And she was phenomenal in the role, as she always is.

Richard, you are co-executive producer of NOCTURNE. Does that give you an edge/advantage over when you and your co-director and James don't see eye-to-eye on a directing issue?

RS: Jamie and I had no disagreements during our time rehearsing. Of course, since I had to leave, perhaps he just sat on his hands and has changed everything since I left. Kidding! I believe that if your title is the final arbiter then you're probably on the wrong path.

Both of you have long, successful television careers. What draws you onto the LA boards?

JE: I have never been away from theater for more than a few months. Two years ago, I spent the year in NY acting in the Tony award-winning production of ALL THE WAY with Bryan Cranston. An incredible experience by the way. Last year I did a world premiere in Minneapolis. I have worked out here at The Geffen, the Taper, the Old Globe, Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Rep, La Jolla, as well as, the typical LA actor diet of gazillions of 99-Seat theater productions! It's my life's blood.

RS: I think I explained that. I did a play that opened the Wallis Annenberg a couple years back. Directed by the great Mark Brokaw, it was called PARFUMERIE. A beautiful production. That's the only theater I've done here since GOOSE & TOMTOM by David Rabe in 1991 and a couple of things with The Actor's Gang. I've gone to Broadway, to The West End, to Off-West End, even to New Brunswick and yet so little theater here in LA. I decided to face my prejudice and embrace what's here.

As one who's frequented the LA theatre boards for the last couple of decades, what do you see as the real value of doing theatre with little-to-no-compensation? 

RS: Do the work you love. Love the work you do.

JE: I don't really divide the work into that which I get compensation for and that I don't. Never really think of it that way. It's all ‘the work.' It's all diving into the process and trying to expand, improve, excel at this elusive craft.

Richard, don't you credit acting in David Rabe's GOOSE & TOMTOM at the Stella Adler Theatre in 1991 for opening up the opportunity to be cast in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon?

RS: Well, yes. A producer saw me in GOOSE & TOMTOM, and next thing I know I'm at the table read of the film version of Glengarry with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon and a bunch of Hollywood brats. Later, I was flown to New York and auditioned numerous times. They kept me in New York for two weeks before casting a movie star in my role. Pacino remembered me at a party a few years later and that led to City Hall, which was a big break, and later to GLENGARRY with Al on Broadway. So, wait a second or two and the thing you thought was a break but isn't might yet turn into one.

James, would you share some of the perks you found in directing productions for Bonnie Franklin's Classic Contemporary American Plays?

JE: Working on great texts is like getting in there and really flossing your mind, your soul. It spurs the imagination which can get a little dormant (with a constant diet of television!). It challenges in a myriad of ways – having to dig deeper to reveal the essence of the work, really digesting the text and making sense of it, getting your mind and imagination to get deeper than just a surface level take on a piece.

What major differences/improvements do you notice in LA Theatre today as opposed to when you first entered the LA theatre community?

JE: That's a loaded question! We are at an extremely difficult moment in LA theater with the passage of some arcane rules that are supposed to be for the actor's benefit, but might well limit the opportunities we have to do the extremely important work of practicing our craft. It is a complex issue. I did a play last year in Minneapolis. A great theater town. They have all kinds of sized theaters – no 99-Seat plan. But they have a devoted audience – probably more sophisticated in some ways then LA. They aren't interested in seeing the star from the latest vampire thriller up close. They go to see gritty, exciting work. The actors get paid – not a lot in the small theaters – but a decent wage. Wouldn't we all love that? Of course! But this city's (LA's) relationship to “The Theataaaah” is very different than in Minneapolis or NY or Chicago. We need a much more inclusive and rigorous discourse from all parts of our community to create an environment where the theater life in LA can truly blossom. It's possible! The amount of theater has been growing and growing and the diversity of the participants is expanding, all wonderful to behold. I want theater to feel ‘essential' in this town. It needs to be a high protein/high calorie/vital part of everyone's cultural diet! (I tell ya'! If they'd only make me dictator of the world!)

RS: My nephew, Seth Russell, came from Montana to be an actor here. He is involved in all sorts of theater enterprises and companies. He got involved in the Rustic Theater Company at Santa Monica Airport where I've seen a few things he's been in. Good stuff. They also have cafe plays where a writer writes a theme-based play in four hours, and a cast and director then work on it for six hours, and then they perform it twice that very night. They were fun to see. They asked me to direct one, and I did with Spencer Garrett and Rob Morrow. We had a blast. That's what got me interested in doing more in LA. Funny, The Geffen or the Taper or Kirk Douglas have never asked me to do anything at those theaters. Don't know if I've been too busy or what. Also, I started teaching a master class out of the Rustic space. I actually loved doing it and was exposed to some very fine actors, some of whom have asked me to come to their plays in town. I did so and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Any one specific audience reaction you would love after the curtain call of NORTURNE?

RS: I'm always curious how audiences will react to material. One of the great joys and great mysteries is how when performing a show, it seems so different from night to night, and most of the time I think the energy of that night's audience is the major ingredient to that phenomenon. I don't like to predict a response largely because they vary so much. I stay curious and only hope that audiences listen and absorb everything they can from seeing an act of creativity unfold in front of them.

JE: Thunderous applause and a sea of invitations to expensive dinners.

Thank you Both again!

For NOCTURNE's show schedule and ticket availability, log onto www.triptychgroup.org

Gil Kaan
Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.