A lifetime in theater
Publication Date: Friday Jul 18, 1997

A lifetime in theater

Veteran actor and Palo Alto resident Gerald Hiken takes center stage in Theatreworks' "Once in a Lifetime"

by Jessica McCuan

Actor and director Gerald Hiken won't teach for money and doesn't hand out instant formulas for good acting. "There's something sacred about passing on what you've learned," said Hiken, who's lived in Palo Alto for 33 years. "When you start teaching for money, the students have a right to expect you to give them a formula that will give them instant monetary results. The best teaching I ever got I never paid a cent for."

Whatever his formula and whatever its price, the silver-haired 70-year-old is once again delivering the polished end result of his years on stage. Hiken is one of the featured performers in TheatreWorks' production of "Once in a Lifetime," a classic comedy about early Hollywood that begins tomorrow night, July 19, at the Lucie Stern Theatre. It runs through Aug. 17.

"Once in a Lifetime," a classic satire on the movie industry, originally premiered in New York in 1930 and featured playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It focuses on the time when Hollywood was turning to "talkies" and traces the sad life of a playwright who is lured into the industry and then willfully ignored.

Hiken plays the role of Glogauer, a studio head whose role is a classic bully. Glogauer's claim to fame is turning down "talkie" movies and an apparatus called the Vitaphone. Glogauer is certainly power-hungry, but Hiken steers the role in a different direction.

"Glogauer could just be a rough bully," said Hiken, lowering his voice and puffing out his cheeks. "But I'm not interested in being a rough bully. That's like paint-by-numbers: He's a rough bully so you sound gruff. He's more like a martyr."

Hiken said he found a published script that described Glogauer as a little man with indigestion.

"He's a small bully," said Hiken. "And I've got a small voice that's emerged with it."

Hiken said that now, after more than 30 years of acting and directing, acting is fun for him. He can walk into a rehearsal without a script, listen to the other actors, and respond to them.

"It makes life pleasant," he said. "In the last five years, I think I finally feel like I know what I'm doing."

Hiken said he's been around so long he doesn't feel challenges anymore.

But acting hasn't always been that easy.

"I never thought I would be an actor," said Hiken. "Through a whole bunch of different circumstances, I found myself acting in New York in 1955."

He took all the miscellaneous acting jobs he could. But Hiken said the quality of acting he saw was childish and poor. He and some friends in academic theater, who were also unimpressed by the talent of the actors in their fields, decided in 1964 to collaborate with Hiken and move to Palo Alto. That year the group got a grant from the Rockefeller family and formed the Stanford Repertory Theatre on Stanford University's campus.

The theater group, which combined acting teachers and acting professionals, was initially fairly successful. The Stanford faculty, however, wasn't keen on the idea of a repertory group. Hiken said they made several financial and personnel decisions that forced Hiken and his cronies to stop performing and leave the campus.

Though Hiken had considered leaving for a place like New York where most actors worked at that time, he couldn't leave Palo Alto.

"Compare it to New York and Los Angeles," said Hiken. "Does that answer your question?"

The challenge, then, that he and his partner Paul Richards faced, was making a living as actors in a town like Palo Alto.

Hiken said he and Richards did any kind of performing they could find.

"We did everything from entertaining real estate customers to performing in people's living rooms to acting in front of grade school kids in schools," said Hiken.

All the while, he and his wife, Barbara, were raising their two kids. Noah, 31, now works at Whole Foods in Palo Alto and is in the rap group Hip Hop Hippies. Nina, 35, is an elementary school teacher and playwright in Los Angeles.

After nine years with Richards, Hiken went out on his own to travel, direct and act.

"I would go wherever the work was," he said.

He's performed all over the country and has had leading roles in the works of many of the classic writers--Chekov, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw. He was nominated for a Tony for his role as Strider in Tolstoy's "Strider" at the Chelsea Theatre in New York City, and he won a Bay Area Theater Critics Circle Award for his role as Doolittle in "Pygmalion" at the A.C.T. in San Francisco.

In 1983, Hiken realized that he was getting older and that play directors didn't know his name anymore. His agent recommended that he spend time in Los Angeles auditioning for TV directors, producers and networks, doing TV and movie work.

Hiken couldn't take that for long.

"TV acting is like kissing through surgical masks. You're doing it, but there's nothing really there," said Hiken.

His Hollywood movie credits include "Reds" and "Fat Man and Little Boy." In television, he's been in "All in the Family," "Mission Impossible" and "Cheers."

Acting for money is somehow painful, said Hiken.

"It is prostitution in some subtle way," he said. "It isn't so bad if you only have to do it once in front of a camera, but I've been lucky. I only had to do that for a while.'

Now Hiken spends his time doing smaller, selective parts like Glogauer.

"I love language," he said. "I love somebody who writes beautiful speeches, and this play is brilliant for me. It's got brilliant lines. You're just grateful that you get to say these brilliant things."

Hiken said he's walked away from acting many times because of the disrespect that actors endure from directors and crews.

The truth he finds in acting, however, always brings him back.

"I like revealing the cruelty of truth," said Hiken. "I don't want the audience to love me. I'd much rather shock them. And sometimes I just play a part that's good to hate."

What: TheatreWorks' "One in a Lifetime," directed by Robert Kelley

When: July 19-Aug. 17; Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 9, matinee also at 2 p.m.; Sunday, July 20 and Aug. 17, 2 p.m.; Sunday, July 27, Aug. 3, Aug. 10, 7 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $23-$31; $18 youth/seniors

Information: 903-6000 

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