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Theatre Great Stephan Morrow: “I’m A Big Believer In Self-Empowerment”

Featured Theatre Great Stephan Morrow: “I’m A Big Believer In Self-Empowerment”

New Greek TV's Greek of the Week is actor, producer, and director Stephan Morrow.

The Greek-American has worked in the independent theatre sector in both Los Angeles and New York, for more than twenty-five years. Morrow has served as the director of plays authored by renowned writers, including Arthur Miller and Mario Fratti, among others. The entertainer's latest work in the award-winning film "Dogmouth" has been met with international acclaim.

In our interview below, Morrow, whose original surname was Morros, discusses his vast career, how he broke into showbiz, the success of "Dogmouth," his own Greek background, and more.

Maria Athens: Can you offer an overview of your acting, producing and directing career?

Stephan Morrow: Because there are so many people who want to do things like film and theater I'm a big believer in self – empowerment. Just getting an idea for a production, finding some good actors and getting it up. Doesn't matter where – a storefront, a basement theater, a church hall – if the work is good, there's always a chance at igniting interest in the material and developing an even bigger production.

I started The Great American Play Series that way in L.A. during Clinton's impeachment trial it occurred to me that the situation was like Arthur Miller's play The Crucible so I staged two 'performances on book' (actors are on book but there is some staging). Miller heard about it because one of my actors, Barry Primus had been in four Miller premiers. And even though many people I knew insisted that the play was a metaphor for the Mcarthy HUAC hearings and informing – I posited that it was about an older man having an affair with a younger woman and paying the price (I dressed the cast in suits and outfits as if they worked in the White House.).

At about that exact moment Miller wrote a long article in The NYT pretty much saying verbatim what I claimed – how the play had changed in its meaning for him. That started the ball rolling and after doing After the Fall (with Rebecca De Mornay as the Marilyn character) I returned to NY and put on a staged reading of Incident at Vichy with Fritz Weaver and F. Murray Abraham. He attended that and gave me exlusive rights to it for three years – gratis – to get it to a Broadway venue - until sadly, he passed away.

The point here is that relationships I've developed with major writers like Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Murray Schisgal ('Tootsie' and 'Luv') started as volunteer efforts. The best example is that as a young actor/ director I was asked to fill in for a play reading at The Playwright Directing Unit of The Actor's Studio. When I was approached it sounded like the director just needed someone with two arms and two legs. But when I read it I saw it was a fantastic character (a Scottish gang leader trying to go straight) and worked hard on it that week. I was asked to repeat the performance in a workshop production – which Norman Mailer saw and afterwards asked me to work with him on a play about Marilyn Monroe.

There was no money paid for any of this but a year and a half later Norman invited me to audition for his film 'Tough Guys Don't Dance' and I got the role. Every living actor wanted to be part of that – it was a plum project – a film from his best selling novel with Isabella Rossellini and Ryan O'Neal – actors were flying in from L.A. on their own dime to audition for it. But by then, he really knew my work. And I had found it inspiring to work with such a seminal figure of our culture so I gave 110 % of what I had and he had liked it. So I tell young thespians get out there, find something that speaks to you and get it up. You never know where effort will lead.

Maria Athens: How did you initially break into the business?

Stephan Morrow: I went to Stuyvesant H.S. and as a senior there was a Student/ Faculty Show in which I played well, I wouldn't call it a character - a python – but I was on stage in a performance. And the director, Sterling Jensen, (the lead actor for The Roundabout Theater at that time) thought I shimmied well. But when I was at The University @ Buffalo I was lucky to get into a piece of experimental theater that I was absolutely inspired by: Jean Claude Van Itallie's 'The Serpent' – a seminal production whose resonance lasted for years up there. It was an exhilarating piece of 'physical theater' in the tradition of the work of Joseph Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski.

But I was very influenced by the Woodstock utopian socialism that was still rampant and had gone to British Columbia to build a geodesic dome with some other utopians when I got a phone call from Buffalo. Gerald Miller was inviting me to join his 'Now Theater Company' – we performed an original piece of Grotowski based physical theater at Ellen Stewart's La Mama that year. But again, the call of the wild beckoned so I departed on a two year global pilgrimage – I had a knapsack, a lot of curiosity and an open heart – with about $150.00 in my back pocket at any given moment. (I did spend the fall and winter on Amorgos during that journey.).

Eventually, I came in from the glory of Kalalau Valley on the island of Kuai to a gray, drizzling, chilly JFK runway. So that brought me back to NY but nobody had any interest in the traveling I had been up to and I knew that I had to get with the program so I did a lot of studying: traditional theater and character development. I went on to study with the great teachers who were still around: Bill Hickey, Stella Adler, Wynn Handman, Uta Hagen, and finally Elizabeth Dixon. But early on, I was studying with Gene Feist at The Roundabout when his asstistant David Guc asked me to audition for Mario Fratti's play 'The Cage' at The Manhattan Theater Club and I got the role. That was the beginning of my efforts on the professional stage here.

Maria Athens: Can you describe your experiences both acting in and directing "Dogmouth"?

Stephan Morrow: I had seen the original production in LA at Tim Robbin's The Actor's Gang and was just stunned. It was the real deal – like a nightmare that you didn't want to have but one that you would never forget. So about ten years later I had been directing a lot (five productions for Mario Fratti at Crystal Field's Theater for the New City and two productions for Claudio Angelini - when I put on a staged reading of a Murray Schisgal play at Theater for the New City ("Wall Street Fandango") and mentioned "Dogmouth" to the Artistic Director of The Dream Up Festival, Michael Price and he got "Dogmouth's" power immediately and gave us a slot. He even picked up most of the production fees. So I accepted it.

I've never come across many directors or at least in the independent arena where I work – I mean who talks about the galvanic forces that Kazan (my mentor created on stage – he got me into the Playwright Directing Unit of The Actors' Studio) – so I ended up directing "Dogmouth" as well as acting the eponymous character. It's a niche I've fallen into lately and again Orson Welles was my inspiration – he had showed you could do it. And then Crystal Field who also got the power of the writing in spite of its off putting dimensions - invited us to re stage it for another week a month and a half later which we did.

It's a disturbing piece (Viet Nam vets who are like Hell's Angels who hop freights instead of motorcycles) and some were offended but some people like Lyle Kessler, Ulu Grosbard, Murray Schisgal really got the power of the material. So that inspired me to continue working on it. Ken Kelsch (Abel Ferrara's DP) stepped up to the plate and filmed an archival video of a run through and even though I had always said that in its DNA it was a theater piece and not a film waiting to be made from the stage, we screened it several times to colleagues and you could hear a pin drop. So I said, you know what, I'm going to go back on my word – the dialogue is so powerful this could make a good narrative feature film.

That meant I would be producing a first - feature film, directing it and acting a very challenging role simultaneously. I had several people who were acting as associate producers and they were helpful in crucial moments: June and Jonny Ospa and Rob Hunkele but I can't deny that a lot was on my shoulders – by all accounts we should have failed miserably. But I was determined and after raising $2,500.00 on a gofundme.comcampaign we went for it the joke was that everybody worked for sandwiches – which I made). It was the writing that inspired us all I think.

One thing I did have were several locations out in Clifton, New Jersey where I live and an apartment that was our base/production office. Also, I make good sandwiches. So in ten days we got a film made. The DP Crawford Watson brought along his own camera so that was very helpful. I will say that I couldn't have done it if number one - Orson Welles hadn't shown that you could do it (produce, direct and act) and number two - if I hadn't done the character on stage first. You just don't get up and do a character like "Dogmouth" when you hear 'action' – especially when you're saying it.

My concept for the film was fairly straightforward: good, interesting backgrounds – nobody believes that it all exists 17 mi outside of the city – and strong actors really committed to the material (Ray Wasik, Alexandra Milne and Bill C.Tate). Again, I can't say this enough, the power of John Steppling's writing is head and shoulders above any film I can think of. And the Europeans at our premier at The NYC Greek Film Festival – that was critical – the first time you see how it lands on regular filmgoers – were absolutely compelled by the drama of the story. They got it. So that was very encouraging.

Maria Athens: What awards has "Dogmouth" received and what is it up for?

Stephan Morrow: We are very honored to have received The IndieFEST International Film Competition - Award of Merit: Film Feature and I guess you could say last month we swept The Bergenfield Film Festival of New Jersey: Best Writer - John Steppling. Best Actor - Stephan Morrow and Best Producing - Rob Hunkele. We didn't know a soul there, had never been there so we were hardly a favorite son – so the objective acknowledgement of the artistic director and programmers was an extraordinary boost.

Maria Athens: Where has "Dogmouth" been showcased and what film festivals has it and will it be featured in?

Stephan Morrow: Five Film Festivals so far. It premiered at The New York City Greek Film Festival Oct 2014. Then, NewFilmmakers/New York Winterfest 2015, followed by The Berfenfield International Film Festival, The LES (Lower East Side) Festival of the Arts at Theater for the New City – Film Section and will be screened this month at The Bollywood International Film Festival.

Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your own Greek-American background?

Stephan Morrow: I am a full blooded Greek American-both sides. My grandparents came here as teens so that makes me third generation more or less. Growing up by the Verrazzano Bridge on Shore Road in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. Greek ethnicity was not a part of my everyday experience with my friends and even our adult neighbors. For all intents and purposes – we were perceived as Americans. Just never came up. I think that it's in the Greek DNA to be successful at adapting and that's what the family did. My parents were American - born here, and the neighborhood was a very WASPY one. So that's what we were inclined to be like. Still, we went to St Mary's Orthodox Church in Bay Ridge ( the service was in English). And I was a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout which was a very healthy pre adolescent activity.

So I don't know, ethnicity and identification with Greeks has always been a big question for me. As I think it is for all Americans who are brought up here. I mean who cares that Robert Zimmerman turned himself into Bob Dylan. So it's a complicated question. When we spent time with my grandparents who had retired to what had been a farm outside of Washingtonville, up state NY, that was a very Greek experience - helping my grandfather grow his tomatoes and in his vineyard. Even though my grandfather and his four brothers had established a shoe repair franchise from Wall Street to midtown – they spoke very accented English. I would have to admit, as American and as Wonderbread as I was – and as much as I loved my grandparents – there was an element of embarrassment to their inability to express themselves to other Americans.

I want to add however that 'the farm' was an integral part of my childhood – weekends and summers – and the other Greeks that would constantly visit was like a parade of these very strange but fascinating creatures. Outdoor picnics with the trees in the backyard festooned with lights, wine and shishkabob barbecue – this was my ethnic experience - the European warmth of the people and the laughter, the singing of the old songs and the dancing has been ingrained on my brain ever since.

When I spent that winter on Amorgos even though I could speak with a good accent and even more than rudimentary Greek, as I recall, the perception of me was as that of a peculiar American who could speak Greek well. A strange young dude. The fact that I had a blonde girlfriend who showed up from the States that lived with me didn't bring me closer to the local islanders. Though when an uncle of mine called from Athens – a phone call to the island was a big deal at the time – to the local kafeneon I think it was – my family was trying to track me down – then suddenly I was a long lost relative. Don't forget – I was there trying to puzzle my way into the adult world from the counter culture whose embers were slowly dying - even into the late 70's - so my psychology was the furthest thing from a rural island one or even a conventional American one – tourists they could have understood – but trying to write poetry on a portable typewriter that was one of the things I had carried on my back with me? Not too normal to them.

Finally, I want to say, there have been four Greeks that have been very influential and supportive in my life. First, was my uncle Peter Galatis (the one how telephoned Amorgos) who gave me a copy of: The Illiad, The Oddysey and Zorba The Greek – as a pretty young kid – for the future he said. And Kazantzakis in particular has stood me in good stead through my life. Reading The Illiad again right now.

Then, Elia Kazan who as I said, mentored me into the Playwright Directing Unit of The Actors Studio. (He didn't know me from Adam and my ethnic heritage never came up.). I had written him a letter describing some of the theater I had done and asked to learn how he got the famous performances he did from the actors whom we know like Marlon Brando and James Dean etc. So as a young theater artist – he was one of the few people who gave me a break for which I'm forever grateful.

The next was Dimitra Arlyss a wonderful actress most known for her performance as the hit woman in The Sting opposite Robert Redford. Dimitra was an incredibly opinionated and strong woman who I adored like the older sister I never had. We got to know one another when I spent the 90's in LA.

The other, oddly enough – after claiming how little ethnicity has been a part of my life - is Soti Triantafillou, the best- selling novelist from Athens. We met in NY years ago and somehow have remained friends for decades through various parallel relationships etc. She's one of the most astute spirits that I've known even though we agree to disagree as often as not. But that's all fine and I feel I can express any idea to her that I want without being shot down – and that's a rarity. Including the work of the writer of "Dogmouth", John Steppling whose writing some find unbearably offensive – but not Soti.

Maria Athens: What successes are you most proud of, both personally and professionally?

Stephan Morrow: At the risk of sounding self righteous I feel I have been able to maintain a visceral kind of integrity for myself and work on projects that I feel have significance - is the only way I can put it. I've never particularly wanted to be rich and famous but I did want to express things that I felt had an import of some kind (I don't mean anything like polemics or agenda driven material – I find that kind of thing repulsive – being lectured to). I don't think that I'm a cookie-cutter-pleasing, easy-to- understand kind of person or artist - so institutional organizations are not particularly my cup of tea. So that's led me to being an independent and putting projects together usually with a minimal amount of funds but with the freedom that comes from not having to make nice with people who I would call bureaucratic – is the best way I can put it – people who have a place on the food chain or in an institutional hierarchy – and are determined to move ahead, play the game – I don't think that makes for the best work – especially in theater.

When I worked with Arthur Miller directly on his play 'Incident at Vichy' which he gave me control of for three years after attending a 'performance on book' of it I had directed he embraced the effort but asked me why he didn't know my work. And I gave him some references but I mentioned that I had made a global pilgrimage at the end of my teenaged years. He responded to that and said: You know, the theater has become taken over by a 'hothouse effect' – those inside whether they get there by connections or charm or credentials are brought along – but no matter how many gallons of coffee you get your superior, no matter how good your digital expertise online gets – if the worst experience in your life is not being able to order your favorite off the brunch menu – then what kind of depth can your work have? And as a result, he said 'Theater is becoming anemic'. Well, it's a good question. When you have done so much work that exists 'under the radar' then one does wonder why as he suggested is the cream not necessarily rising to the top? My answer is to do it yourself.

Anyway, if maintaining one's integrity is a brass ring than I claim it. But I have had the good fortune to work some of our most accomplished playwrights as actor and director: Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Murray Schisgal, Mario Fratti to name a few. With Norman Mailer over a twenty five year period as an actor on two plays ("Strawhead – a Memory Play of Marilyn" and "The Deer Park – or Hollywood Goes to Hell"– acted in it and directed it) his film "Tough Guys Don't Dance" (played 'Stoodie') and if he had lasted longer (alas alack) he had invited me to co-direct and act in a film of "The Deer Park". Sadly, he didn't make it.

And of course, most recently "Dogmouth" in its long journey has been profoundly satisfying and I am both amazed and proud that we've been able to go as far as we have with it. Again, it's not everybody's cup of tea and some find its offensiveness unbearable but to me, when you have material that's alive underneath your hands like a galloping thoroughbred, then there's nothing else like it.

Maria Athens: Do you have any plans to act or produce back in the homeland?

Stephan Morrow: I'd love to do something like that and tried many years ago when I came across the Greek Boston marathon runner Kyriakides, but that's the kind of big dollar project that is not what I do best and it hasn't happened yet. I would also like to do something by Kazantzakis but you know, you need collaborators with a lot of resources for those kinds of things.

Maria Athens: What's next for Stephan Morrow?

Stephan Morrow: I'm not finished getting "Dogmouth" out there to the different film festivals. In fact, after winning The Bergenfield Festival we're at the peak of possibility with it – so that's an ongoing long row to hoe – and is getting more and more exciting. Also, Marie Adler and Associates who are a Los Angeles producer/ distributor took it on and has just returned from The Cannes Marche du Film marketplace - we're in their catalog so we'll see how they did after the dust settles. Don't forget, as Orson Welles said, "You spend far too much time trying to raise money when you're an independent...".

But my old colleague, playwright Mario Fratti ('Nine') has just given me a solo piece that I presented two weeks ago at Theater for the New City – 'Brooklyn – Cain's Adventure' which he has ambitions to film as a solo piece. We'll see. An intriguing story about a man who resents women and uses that as a rationale for mercilessly exploiting them.  I'm also in pre-production for a locally shot modernized version of a Shakespeare play shot on the streets of NY.