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Playhouse's First Place Enhances Growth Plans

June 17, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

To director Douglas Rowe, the Laguna Moulton Playhouse's first-place victory in the 1987 national community theater competition last week was more than an artistic coup.

"It has given us greater community recognition--more appreciation--of how good our community theater is," Rowe said Tuesday after the playhouse's 23-member "Quilters" thespian troupe returned from the competition held in Norman, Okla.

"It can't help but accelerate our efforts in building our audiences and raising more money for our expansion," Rowe said. "To us, it's the capstone to a terrific year for us in every way."

Even before last week's ninth biennial American Assn. of Community Theatres Festival, leaders of the Laguna Beach-based company said 1986-87 had been a milestone season.

Box office sales for the five-play regular season have made it one of the best, bolstered by large turnouts for a 3 1/2-week run of "Quilters" last February and a 4 1/2-week engagement of the "The Music Man," which ends Saturday. Attendance has averaged more than 90% for the entire series, said Jody Johnston Davidson, playhouse general manager.

The Laguna Moulton also mounted a full-scale Youth Theatre season for the first time, filling an average of 65% of the seats, Davidson said. The youth theater's three plays included the Orange County premiere of "Special Class," a work about a class for the physically and mentally disabled.

Moreover, the Laguna Moulton Playhouse Foundation announced that it has raised $660,000 for a two-phase expansion of the facilities and an operating endowment. The foundation drive was helped along by benefit performances in April by Julie Harris in the one-woman play "The Belle of Amherst" at the local playhouse. An overall goal of $2.8 million has been set.

Already, a 68-seat balcony addition has been added to the 350-seat theater, along with new offices, at a cost of $800,000. Construction of a $1-million rehearsal and technical facilities wing is planned for next year.

To Laguna Moulton backers, then, a victory at this year's American Assn. of Community Theatres Festival is just the frosting on the cake.

Laguna Moulton had won the Region VIII competition twice before--1981 and 1983--but finished out of the running in the nationals both times. (Region VIII includes California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.)

This year's entry was a 60-minute abbreviated version of Laguna Moulton's critically praised production of "Quilters," the musical about American pioneer women by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek.

Led by Rowe, the producer, and Teri Ralston, the director-choreographer, the 23-member Laguna Moulton contingent included seven actors, four musicians and 10 technical crew members. Most troupe members have been involved in previous productions at the local playhouse.

One member of the all-women cast, Tricia Griffin, had to leave her role as Marian, in the playhouse's current run of "The Music Man," to make the festival. However, Mark Turnbull, music director for "Quilters," remained with "The Music Man" show in Laguna Beach, where he is starring as professor Harold Hill.

"We were worried, of course," said Ralston of their competition at the three-day festival held at the University of Oklahoma's Rupel Jones Theatre. "It was one of the strongest ever. But we felt strong ourselves, that we had a winning combination,"

Works performed by the nine other regional representatives included "Blood Knot" (presented by the first runner-up, the Black Liberated Arts Center of Oklahoma City); "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"; "Brighton Beach Memoirs," and "The Normal Heart," a play about AIDS.

Apparently, there was little to worry about.

"Laguna's 'Quilters' was clearly the best all-around production in the festival," said Jack Wright, theater arts professor at the University of Kansas, who was one of the competition's three judges. "You couldn't ask for a better example of ensemble work, a unified piece of theater--the direction, music, acting, technical work were all fabulous."

John Bryan, the University of Oklahoma's coordinator for the festival, said Laguna Moulton's victory was the first time that a Region VIII group had won the Most Outstanding Production Award, the festival's top honor. Judges also gave a special award to Laguna Moulton's 10-member technical crew.

The "Quilters" troupe will represent the United States in an international all-English speaking competition next May in Dundalk, Ireland. And this week, Laguna Moulton's board of directors quickly approved Rowe's proposal to raise monies for the trip to Ireland, as well as for a possible European tour next spring.

Rowe said he also hopes to win backing from the International Amateur Theatre Assn. for a "Quilters" tour that might include performances in the Soviet Union.

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