Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1998
In the theater, a ‘triple threat’ is someone who can act, sing and dance. So what do you call someone who can act, write and direct? Tim West.
A mild-mannered teacher of English as a Second Language by day, West metamorphoses, Hyde-like, into a Man of the Theater at night.
It all began in 1984, when he was a teacher’s aide at Hoover High, assisting with English literature, history and writing. To motivate the struggling readers, the program produced read-along tapes of great books. “I was all the male voices in ‘Great Expectations,’” West recalls. “We did O. Henry stories and ‘The Scottish Play’ [actors are superstitious about mentioning the often ill-fated ‘Macbeth’]. The staff told me I was a natural actor.”
Other people would just be flattered by the compliment. West, a funny but serious-minded, assiduous kind of guy, acted on the comment immediately. He went right out and got himself cast in a show — and not an easy one, either. He made his debut in Ionesco’s absurdist antiplay, “The Bald Soprano”.
Once the bug had bitten, West couldn’t stop the itch. He kept auditioning and getting cast. “I always wanted to be some kind of artist,” admits the affable, voluble 37 year-old. He put aside thoughts of being a caricaturist or illustrator; he had found his niche in the theater.
In 1988, he appeared in Octad One’s production of “Amadeus”, where he met talented local actress Betty Matthews, his main squeeze of ten years. They’ve acted together (“All in the Timing” at Ensemble Arts Theatre), and he’s directed her (“Mud” at the Fritz). Over the last two years, Matthews has been away, in the prestigious acting program at New York’s Circle in the Square. West endures the separation by keeping busy.
Over time, at a variety of local theaters, he has played three different doctors dying of the disease they were supposed to cure, an inadvertent murderer, an Alabama pig farmer, a Nobel laureate, a dog, a 12 year-old, FDR, Joe DiMaggio, a Vietnam vet, and “some really vile characters — a Nazi, the Devil, and even worse than that, a theater critic.”
That kind of humor surfaces repeatedly in the hilarious, personalized comic monologues he began to write in the early nineties — for himself and selected friends. At the same time, he had become an investor/producer at Ensemble Arts Theatre, where one of his “proudest moments in theater” was snagging the West coast premiere of the very hot off Broadway show, “All in the Timing” (“I’ll be happy to have that on my tombstone,” he says). At Ensemble Arts, he wore many hats — actor, producer, literary manager, dramaturg, painter, builder, re-decorator, and first-time director (a beautifully lyrical production of “Three Poets”).
But it was the Fritz Theater that really changed his life. In 1993, Bryan Bevell, now the Fritz artistic director, cast him as Gloucester in “King Lear”. It was Bevel’s directing debut. At the Fritz he also met Karin Williams, the theater’s resident playwright, producing director, and overseer of the Fritz Blitz of New Plays. It’s a mutual admiration society; West adores Williams’ writing, and has appeared in all her full-length plays produced at the Fritz. Williams has been a great supporter of West’s writing, acting and directing, and she brought him into the Fritz Blitz.
In last year’s Blitz, West wrote and starred in the comically provocative “FDR Can Walk” (see photo). This year, “Fifteen Minutes”, his 15-minute piece about one man’s fifteen minutes of fame (what Williams calls “a very, very funny play”) kicks off the fifth annual Fritz Blitz, sixteen short pieces grouped over six weekends (through August 30).
Williams started the Blitz in 1993, and it’s been a great success for the theater — and the theater community. It brings in new audiences and is a fertile proving-ground for new and seasoned writers, and actors who want to try their hand at directing.
Williams considers this year’s 100 play submissions “the best ever.” There are returning writers like West, Judith Montague and Michael Hemmingson, and first-time playwrights like actor Michael Severance and retired judge/Fritz volunteer Dick Emmet. There was no overarching theme to the chosen plays, but, says Williams, “a lot of pieces with political content, a lot of historical drama.”
Next season, for the first time, Fritz mainstage productions will feature works of local writers: Melanie Marnich, Judith Montague, Tom Vegh and Tim West.
West recently joined the artistic committee of the Fritz Theater. Next month (September 17-October 18), he directs his first Fritz mainstage production, “La Bête”, David Hirson’s frenetic, poetic, absurdist 17th-century comic spoof that took Broadway by storm in 1991 (and was, parenthetically, Hirson’s professional theater debut).
There’s a definite through-line here: artists supporting and developing the work of other artists. Says Karin Williams, “Tim has always been amazingly encouraging to other artists; he loves new work and really loves the theater. I can’t think of another theater performer around with his unique combination of talent, dedication and humility.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.