Artistic director Daniel Henning founded the Blank Theater Company in 1990. The company's start came after Henning won a settlement of $4,000 due to a New York City mugging, which allowed him to move to Los Angeles with $2,000 to spare. After spending a short time in L.A., he soon realized that the theater scene here could use a little boost. The mugging--which has now fondly come to be remembered as "the bonk"--served as the impetus for a lifelong mission.
The company's first season, in 1990, featured the play Hosanna. In 1991, BTC mounted Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, and later that same year began casting for a production of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Unable to find a suitable actor for the role of Danny, Henning reached into his file of submissions and called in a young man whom he had never seen before.
"This actor had been submitted," Henning recalls. "He walked in the room and he was 18 or 19--about 10 years too young to be playing the part. But he read, and we all looked at each other and said, who cares if he's too young?" The actor was Noah Wyle.
Wyle's involvement with The Blank had only just begun. After a highly acclaimed performance in Sexual Perversity, he went on to join the then-newly developed Living Room Series as both an actor and a director. Another brainchild of Henning, that series was developed "to let people do their craft, not in class, but in front of an audience. To give good actors a chance to spread their wings."
The premise of the series was to put on a different play every week--some new, some by established authors. Each production was mounted after a short rehearsal period, performed with scripts in hand and with only the most essential props and costumes. From 1991 to the end of 1994, the Living Room Series continued every Monday night for 36 weeks. Many rising stars passed through the walls of The Blank as part of the series, including Ricky Lake, Molly Shannon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Jeremy Sisto.
In January of 1993, Henning undertook a maverick endeavor for the Los Angeles community: He introduced the Young Playwrights Festival, a forum in which writers under the age of 19 could see their work performed by professionals. Now approaching its eighth season, the festival has received nationwide recognition (it's currently nominated for an LA Weekly Award). Writers are invited from all over the country to participate. "There is a tradition that we are hopefully passing on," says Henning, "that the playwrights should be respected. It's very important for them and for us, and for the future of theater."
In the Blank's early years, staying afloat meant covering rent through proceeds from the sale of wine during intermissions. A company without a home at the time, BTC floated from theater to theater throughout the greater Los Angeles area, mounting 14 mainstage productions over a period of seven years. For its efforts, it received critics' choice recognition from every major publication in Los Angeles as well as the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, the Ovation Awards, the LA Weekly Awards, the Dramalogue Awards, and others. But in 1997, after a production of Joe Orton's Loot, Henning began to feel the weight of the company's seven-year struggle. "It was becoming difficult because it was back to just me again," he says. (Henning's partner and artistic producer, Christopher Collet, was working in New York, and many other company members had moved on).
Noah Wyle, by now a longtime advisory board member of the theater, had since achieved considerable fame as Dr. John Carter on NBC-TV's hit show ER. Henning and Wyle had remained friends and colleagues throughout the latter's rise to stardom and, in a meeting in 1997, Wyle expressed interest in taking a more active role within the company.
"I was discussing with him the fact that the 2nd Stage Theater was coming up for sale," Henning remembers. " 'You got it,' Noah replied." Wyle was given the title of artistic producer (along with Christopher Collet) and, according to Henning, went on to become the "fundraising and publicity face of the company." Asked what role the theater played in his career, Wyle said: "It's the very backbone. [As an actor] you work sporadically, with these huge gaps of inactivity. The Blank Theater keeps my hands in. It's my gymnasium. It has afforded me a place to practice."
Since Wyle came on board in a big way, the company has acquired its own space, complete with lighting, sound and video production systems. BTC's first production with Wyle as artistic producer was Hello Again in 1998; the show, which starred Susan Egan, Marcia Strassman, Richard Kline, Alyson Reed and Jennifer Leigh Warren, boasted six Broadway veterans, two Tony nominees and a two time Emmy Award-winning costume designer. Suddenly, the world of the Blank Theater had taken on a whole new meaning, and the company's capacity to present large-scale productions with exemplary talent began to exceed Henning's wildest expectations.
In 1999, BTC began development of a Living Room Series production titled Starr Struck: A Musical Investigation. It was so well received that the company decided to produce it on the mainstage. Starr Struck previewed on the eve of the Bill Clinton impeachment vote in February 1999. It opened later that week--the day after Monica Lewinsky told all on Barbara Walters. This afforded the Blank Theater Company great publicity opportunities; the production was featured on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC, and in Time magazine.
BTC is now planning its new season, and submissions for this June's Young Playwrights Festival are being accepted. The Living Room Series is proceeding, though it has been scaled back to one production per month. And Noah Wyle continues to perform each year in the Young Playwrights Festival, as he feels that theater is "vitally important" for youth.
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