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CENTER Stage : CREATING A CENTER : Cultural Catalyst

September 21, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin is The Times' arts editor

The ruffles and flourishes attending the debut of the Orange County Performing Arts Center bring to mind several remarkable parallels with the opening--22 years ago--of the Los Angeles Music Center atop Bunker Hill.

Like the earlier item of history, the unveiling of this dazzling and innovative complex is a grand assertion of civic pride, confidence and aspiration. The center is an imposing and exciting structure; it is an achievement, although the larger vibrations are from the promise of pleasures to come. By any standard the center represents a milestone in the cultural life of the area.

Yet, this is also an occasion that, along with all its hopes and dreams, raises questions and stirs some apprehensions. Largest among the questions is, inevitably, whether there exists an audience in Orange County in sufficient numbers and of persistent enthusiasm to sustain the box office and, indeed, to expand the endowment and fuel the growth of the center in the months, years and decades to come.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center does not start, as the Los Angeles Music Center did, with a spectrum of resident and ongoing operations, led by the Philharmonic and including the Civic Light Opera, the Master Chorale and others. This is a mixed blessing. There are obviously fewer immediate burdensome operating costs, but there are also fewer organized and proven support systems. There is pressure to book the house with first-rate touring attractions. There is time to build solidly for the future.

A related question is whether--or how quickly--the Performing Arts Center can go beyond being a booking house. Having a home of the scope and appeal of the center for touring national and international attractions is in itself a crucially needed and substantial addition to the cultural diet of the county. But in addition to the presentation of visiting artists, ensembles and stage productions, the longer-range hope is that the center will in time encourage resident performing groups in the other arts, of a quality comparable to that of the South Coast Repertory Theatre in drama.

By now it is hard to remember the fears that the arrival of Los Angeles Music Center engendered, along with the excitement and the hope.

There were those who worried that the Music Center, with its three theaters, would drain the audiences, and the vitality, from all the other theaters in Los Angeles.

There were cynics who felt that Los Angeles had bitten off more culture than it could digest, and that the generosity that brought the complex into being would be inadequate to sustain it, especially if the economic weather should turn blustery (as it did, soon enough, albeit temporarily).

But two decades of experience with the Music Center provide a large measure of reassurance and encouragement to those who have brought the Orange County center into being.

ll the evidence is that the theatrical life of Greater Los Angeles, for example, is richer and deeper now than it has ever been in modern times. Theater audiences are neither automatic nor inevitable; they have to be wooed and beguiled. But they are significantly larger than they were, and they are game for almost everything, as the success of the avant-garde offerings during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 made clear.

It has been an agreed lesson in literature that great poetry demands great audiences. But it is true of all the arts from ballet to painting to the symphony: Artists need audiences. The audience the new center begins with, and even more important is able to build over the years, will finally determine how it prospers, financially and artistically.

What is obvious is that the Music Center has been not a monopoly but a catalyst. It has helped to make theater, for example, a necessary item on everybody's cultural dance card, so to speak. For a goodly number of citizens, theatergoing is a habit rather than an occasional event (as it had to be when good theater was far harder to come by).

There is no reason to think that the Orange County Performing Arts Center cannot play the same kind of catalytic role, engendering excitement for all the performing arts, creating a larger audience for all the arts organizations in its territory. There is, in fact, good reason to think that it can become a vital nucleus whose reverberations will be felt in widening circles.

Does the new center pose a competitive threat to the established institutions in Los Angeles? Absolutely not, and, in fact, quite the reverse, say some of the arts figures.

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