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Stage Struck

A funny thing happened on Tony winner Jerry Zak's way to med school: he became a Broadway director.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

(continued from page 1)

Becoming an ensemble is "a very delicate process," he says. "Everyone gives great lip service to it. But doing it is another thing." He gives actors great leeway, he says--up to a point. "I tell them when something's not working, when it could be working better and why it's not working. Maybe it's the tone, maybe it's in the actors' attitude to each other. And I could be wrong. I'm wrong many times. But the actors have to be willing to trust me. What I do is I throw out ideas--good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. They'll adopt the good ones and discard the bad ones and the indifferent ones. And they will come up with things on their own, amazing things, that I never would have expected. And together we'll make our way to opening night."

Zaks' own opening night was on Sept. 7, 1946, in Stuttgart, Germany. "My parents were Polish," he says. "They had come through the war. My mother was in Auschwitz for a year; my father had changed his identity and managed to escape. And then they were reunited."

The family emigrated to the United States in 1948, settling first in the Bronx and soon after in East Paterson, New Jersey, where Zaks grew up with no interest in the theater.

"My father opened a kosher butcher shop, just as his father before him," Zaks recalls. "I went to Paterson East Side High School, and I basically didn't know that theater existed. I was the first-born son, precious, overprotected, encouraged to excel in school. I was smart, I was nonathletic. My only vice was '50s music, which I would steal away and perform by myself in the basement, singing into a mirror over my father's bar, all the songs in Smokey Joe's Cafe. I was Ben E. King. I was the Coasters. That was my joy."

His pain, he says, was the pain of many other children of parents who survived Hitler. "My parents didn't talk about their Holocaust experiences, so the mystery of it was huge in my mind," says Zaks. "But I was made to believe that the world was an incredibly hostile place, that people are essentially out to get you. The message was to be careful whom you trust, if you trust anyone. And that you as a Jewish person have reason to be afraid. I don't know if there's a direct connection between that and the fact that my greatest terror is fear of boring an audience, that they'll get up en masse and ask who is responsible for this, but I suspect there's a connection between my upbringing and the fact that I have an incredible need to be liked by everyone. The feeling is I need to please people to protect myself, so they won't attack me. And that kind of perception, from the earliest days of childhood, dies very hard."

College changed his life. "I went to Dartmouth, which is really where everything in my life began," he says. "I divide my life pre-Dartmouth and post-Dartmouth. I finally left the family, went out into the larger world. And I discovered theater. Two things happened in my sophomore year. I was asked to act in an intrafraternity play, and I found that I loved performing. I was scared by it, but I loved it. And then shortly after that I saw the college's winter carnival student musical. It was Wonderful Town. It was the first musical I had ever seen. And I couldn't believe it--the lights, the music, the joy that was being spread. From then on I was hooked. I gave up the notion of being a premed student. I tried out for every play I possibly could. I got parts in all of them and started acting."

Zaks wound up getting a master of fine arts degree in theater at Smith College, where he lost 40 pounds, began dancing and met a theater director named Curt Dempster. He moved to New York, became a founding member with Dempster of the Off Off Broadway Ensemble Studio Theater and spent most of the next decade acting on and off Broadway and in commercials. He appeared in the Broadway revue Tintypes, in a score of children's productions for Theaterworks U.S.A. and as Kenickie in the long-running original Broadway production of the musical Grease. The more he performed, the more he wanted to direct.

"I was an OK actor," he says, "good but nowhere near great. And in directing, I could work with actors who could do things I could never imagine. Even in Grease, the wanna-be director in me was starting to come to the surface. I would start giving notes to replacements on their performance--something I would fire myself for today. Any director would consider it unacceptable behavior for an actor--but I couldn't help taking that responsibility for myself."

In the late 1970s, a fellow member of Ensemble Studio Theater suggested he direct a play, unknown then and unknown now--The Soft Touch, by Neil Cuthbert. "We did four performances. It wasn't even publicized. But the place was packed--and the sound of laughter was huge. I was hooked."

Soon after, as part of Ensemble Studio's marathon of new plays, Zaks read a one-act play called Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a comedy about an aging religion teacher conducting an assembly in the auditorium of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows School. The author was Christopher Durang, a young playwright he had met several years earlier at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. "I remember finishing it and wanting to burn all the other copies so no one else could get it before me," Zaks says. He directed the play at Ensemble Studio, then at the Off Broadway Playwrights Horizons and finally for a long and successful off-Broadway run. Slowly, he was becoming noticed.

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