Raging for Guffman
Tim Hart is having a hard time concentrating. He wants to tell me the complex, nasty story of how his Ensemble Theater Company got booted from its performance space a story rife with bomb threats, infighting, even a Seinfeld connection.
But the story isn't coming easy to Hart, who swears that it's his various personality disorders and not the three beers he's just quaffed that are making it hard for him to focus. Tucked into a dark corner at Scottsdale's Cafe Blue, Hart furrows his brow and tries to remember how he went from soap opera actor to artistic director to thespian outlaw.
New Times: Is this the story about a small theater company fighting to stay in business, or is it a story about a belligerent asshole who wouldn't take "no" for an answer?
Tim Hart: It's a story about someone who refused to stop. I promised myself that I was going to do one thing in my life as hard as I could. That's this theater company. I regret that I didn't give it my all back when it looked like I was going to have a career in film and television.
NT: That's right I forgot that you were on a soap opera.
Hart: I was on One Life to Live. This agent came to ASU, where I was studying theater, and he signed me. He wanted good-looking types for TV. He represented Gary Coleman.
NT: The little black kid?
Hart: Right. Gary Coleman's agent signed me and got me an audition on One Life to Live. I was . . . I'm sorry. I'm scatterbrained. Uh, like, all the time. What were we talking about?
NT: Your agent. One Life to Live.
Hart: Oh, right. The main story line was based around my character; I had my picture in TV Guide. And then, uh. I forgot what I was saying. What? Oh. I was on the show for a year, but my character got written off.
NT: Did he die?
Hart: No. He went to Denver.
NT: Okay. So, your troubles with Ensemble Theater began when some actor from Seinfeld turned you in to the cops?
Hart: No, you're thinking of Len Lesser, the guy who played Uncle Leo on Seinfeld. He's the best actor I've ever been involved with. He was never the problem. He starred in a show that we co-produced called Two and a Half Jews. It was the producer of that show who was the problem. He brought us the show direct from off-Broadway, and he wanted us to sign agreements about the show that we didn't agree with. When he didn't get what he wanted, he threatened to close the theater down. On the opening night of our next show, the fire marshal was there. This guy called the City of Scottsdale and Rural/Metro, our landlord, and said that we were violating fire codes. So they shut down the theater an hour before the show opened.
NT: There was a report filed that said that your theater was a firetrap.
Hart: The complaint said that there were lights falling on actors' heads, and there were electrical cables sitting in puddles of water onstage. The dickhead producer guy wanted to sabotage our opening night, so he made false complaints and the city locked our doors.
NT: You were actually locked out of your own theater.
Hart: No, that time we were just told we couldn't perform until we made the theater safe for the public. We were locked out of the theater twice, but those were other times.
NT: You didn't pay the rent for four months what did you expect?
Hart: I expected what our landlord said. Which was, "Don't worry about it, pay what you can when you can." I gotta pay the phone bill, the electric bill, we're not making any money. And Dickhead the producer had stolen $10,000 from our box office. So we were broke.
NT: Is this the way that most small theater companies operate?
Hart: Good Lord, I don't think so. But most small theater companies are in fire code violation. We got busted because of this producer turning us in. I can't believe all the shit that's happened. And all the weird stories.
NT: Like the one about how you showed up at your landlord's corporate office, shitfaced drunk, and demanded to see their CEO.
Hart: That's sad. I wasn't drunk! I had just come from my psychiatrist. I have to go to him once every two weeks. I have attention deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are these neurotransmitters that don't work in my brain.
NT: Then there's the one about how you were busted shutting off the water to the fire suppression system for the theater.
Hart: No. I went in after we weren't going to be able to fight our way back in to the theater one last time. I had people writing letters saying they support the theater, that the landlord shouldn't kick us out. And, uh . . . Ah, shit. What was I saying?
NT: You were busted in this locked enclosure.
Hart: Right. I went in there and saw that someone had sawed off the lock to the place where the fire sprinklers were, and I went in to see if it was working. Then the landlord showed up.
NT: SRP turned off your power . . .
Hart: Three or four times!
NT: But then someone cut the lock off the SRP box and turned the power back on.
Hart: Well, that's what they said. But I got a fax from SRP . . . see, no one will talk directly to me, because I've been portrayed as a loose cannon. A guy that's dangerous. Like, if you try to close my theater, I'm obsessed and I'll come after you! That's how I've been portrayed. Uh, what was the question?
NT: Nothing. So, tell me about the bomb threat you reportedly made.
Hart: (Laughing.) This is just so fucking unbelievable. Okay, the bomb threat. I had asked one of our company members to write up a move-out schedule, because we were finally being evicted for good. And the last item on this move-out schedule was "BLOW UP RURAL/METRO!" in big bold letters. It was a joke. But someone took that and gave it to the Scottsdale Police Department. An officer called and said, "Are you going to bomb Rural/Metro?" What am I gonna say to that, "Yeah, we're gonna bomb them"? Because that would be a federal offense. I'd fucking end up in jail!
NT: You finally got tossed out for good after the alleged bomb threat, and you weren't allowed to come back on the property.
Hart: (Laughs.) When they moved us out, they had a sheriff's deputy car parked out front. They were trying to make us look dangerous, to back up this bomb threat thing. They said they moved us out on the weekend because there would be fewer employees in the strip mall who would be hurt if there was a bomb in there.
NT: Shop owners near the theater apparently complained that you sometimes slept on the sidewalk in front of the theater.
Hart: That's correct. One time I was directing one show and acting in another, so I really wasn't getting a lot of sleep. I took my script outside and I was leaning against the wall and I guess I fell asleep. That's the only time I've ever slept on any sidewalk in my life.
NT: When I called your publicist to set up this interview, she said, "Can I come along? Because we don't really like for Tim to talk to the press by himself."
Hart: She said that? That's not a nice thing to say. She's afraid I'm going to say something stupid. She thinks I'm an idiot. A lot of people think I'm an idiot because I'm very disjointed in my thinking.
NT: Or they think you're a drunk.
Hart: Yeah. Both, in equal amounts. A drunk idiot.
NT: What's next for Ensemble Theater?
Hart: We made an offer on a new space at Fifth Street and Indian School. The guy who owns the space used to work with the Groundlings, so he's interested in renting to a theater company.
NT: Does he know what he's in for?
Hart: No, but he will.
NT: Once the Mad Bomber comes through the door.
Hart: I can't believe what has happened to me. It's just amazing. But I'm not giving up. Because you give up and what do you have? Nothing. Accusations about bomb threats. And your ego. And neither of those is enough.