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Is Long Beach Ready for International City?; Padua Hills Instructors' List Adds Up to a 10

June 02, 1988|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Big things are afoot in Long Beach. Again.

The announcement last week that the Equity Waiver International City Theatre would make a leap to the Long Beach Convention Center's 800-seat Center Theatre this fall was good news for that facility. It's had no theater to speak of since 1979.

According to Harry Newman, chairman of Long Beach's Regional Arts Foundation, which is making the move possible with a $40,000 grant, it could be the start of something bigger.

"What we're trying to do is eventually establish a resident company in there," Newman said, indicating that International City Theatre is the prime candidate. Regional Arts, a private foundation charged with developing audiences and stimulating the use of the Convention Center's underutilized theaters, would serve as the fund-raiser. Its goal: a first-season budget of $250,000.

Not that theater hasn't been tried before at the facility. In the late '70s several seasons of shows were attempted under the auspices of various producers. Many of the shows were artistically sound, but all failed financially.

"I remember the debt--$250,000 in the hole," winced Newman, who had been involved in a bailout operation. "I was talked into it at a Christmas party after two martinis. That's also when I had my famous conversation with Tennessee Williams (whose "Eccentricities of a Nightingale" was part of the 1978-79 season). It had struck me that the audience was laughing at inappropriate places, so at the intermission I said, 'Excuse me, Mr. Williams, do you mind if I ask you a question?' and he said, 'Yes.' "

Recurring complaints voiced by producers at the time were the difficulty of working within an unwieldy city bureaucracy and the absence of local audience support.

"We have nothing to do with the city," Newman said about current plans, "but I never believed there was no audience in Long Beach."

Shashin Desai, the Indian-born artistic director of International City Theatre, believes there may have been less of one then.

"I've been working in Long Beach a long time," said Desai, who's served on the faculty of Long Beach City College for 20 years and has been chairman of its performing arts department for the last 10. "It's changed a lot. There's greater cultural interest now and nothing between L.A. and Orange County to satisfy it. A yuppie generation has moved into Belmont Shores, Naples, the Long Beach Shore area. These people come to International City, but they're also going away to the theater."

Desai still isn't sure what play he'll do in the fall as part of Long Beach's centennial celebration. But the record shows that in his two years with International City, he has picked his seasons well--usually new or nearly new work that stops short of being radical, but has some challenge in it.

Bigger houses, however, make different demands. Desai had to abandon his first choice (Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport") because the rights are tied up. He's now looking at "Bus Stop" (tied up by the Ahmanson), "The Rainmaker" or "The Matchmaker."

"Either you get the new play that everyone has heard about and that will fill an 800-seat house," he reasoned, "or you do a play that's been around, that everybody knows, and you do it well or do it in a new way. . . . We have to get the public to believe in us--and get the foundation to feel justified in believing in us."

SIDEBAR: Speaking of the International City Theatre, "West Memphis Mojo," a play by Martin Jones which it successfully produced in January, 1987, opened in New York May 23 in a production by the Negro Ensemble Company.

The baby boom musical "The Wonder Years" (a 1986 L.A. hit) opened May 25 at Top of the Village Gate. And the Woodie King Jr. production of Ron Milner's "Checkmates," which played the Westwood Playhouse three months ago, is due intact in the Big Apple by early August.

Remember when theater used to come to us--from New York?

PADUA REDUX: Jon Robin Baitz, Martin Epstein, Maria Irene Fornes, Lin Hixson, David Henry Hwang, Leon Martell, John O'Keefe, Eric Overmyer, David Schweizer and John Steppling are the instructors of the 11th annual Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshop, beginning June 27. Artistic director is Roxanne Rogers.

The festival, which is the culmination of the six-week workshop, starts July 13, is open to the public and will feature plays by Epstein ("Vera"), Fornes ("Drowning," to be staged by Rogers), O'Keefe ("Babbler") and new works by Schweizer and by Susan Champagne. Both the workshop and the performances will be at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

Information: (213) 281-6799.

PAYING HOMAGE: What do Artie Butler, Ernest Gold, Jerome Lawrence, Henry Mancini, David Raksin and Leonard Rosenman have in common? They've agreed to attend tonight's "authors' performance" of "Blame It on the Movies," in its sixth month at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood. More celebrities are expected. Gregory Harrison hosts. . . .

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