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Retaking Stage : Theater Academy Trying to Restore Image

November 17, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

In a small room at Los Angeles City College last week, a purple-stockinged dancer was somersaulting for a friend. Outside in the hall, two women discussing Ibsen and Chekhov strode quickly by, stepping around a young man constructing an almost tangible box in space with his hands.

It was a typical scene at the college's Theater Academy--all high spirits and tangible energy. But in the academy's faculty offices, the mood was more somber. The program's director, Winston Butler, was worrying about the 60-year-old academy's future.

"We are one of the strongest professional theater training schools on the West Coast," Butler said. "But it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the traditional standards because our budget is not commensurate with inflation."

Butler, a man with an eye for a good performance, is the head of the 125-student, 3-year theater program, an academy with a prestigious history that has lost much of its former luster.

The academy is a peculiar part of the Los Feliz-area community college, a self-contained world of performing arts on a campus better known for its business courses and immigrant student population. It also is a highly selective program at an institution that otherwise offers to needy students a virtually open door.

But in recent years, the academy has begun to show signs of age. Once an entree to the major Hollywood studios near the community college's campus, it is now much less known than similar programs at USC and UCLA.

And while the rosters of the academy's older graduates are studded with film and television stars, recent graduates have not enjoyed similar fame and glitter.

"It's not a school that people brag about having gone to," Shana Landsburg, manager of casting at NBC Television Studios said. "You're not seeing it on resumes, and people don't talk about it. You see UCLA or USC or, of course, CalArts, but not LACC."

The academy has a proud tradition. Esther Williams, James Coburn and Alan Arkin are graduates, as are Mark Hamill, Mike Farrel and Cindy Williams. Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Charles Gordone and director Jose Quintero are alumni as well.

In 1974, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle presented the academy with a special award "for maintaining consistently high standards of programming and production." And since 1971, three academy productions have been chosen to participate in the American College Theater Festival, the final segment of a national college theater competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and held in Washington.

The program itself, however, has received little note in recent years. And its level of professionalism is considered by theater experts to be uneven, according to Lacy Bishop, artistic associate in charge of casting at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

"I went to a round of auditions of students who were about to graduate the school several months ago, and there were a wide variety of students who were working very hard but who just hadn't gotten there," Bishop said. "I mean, if you're going to go to Yale or Juilliard, you have to be pretty focused. I think sometimes people who aren't as far along in their development as human beings might consider LACC."

In recent years, budget cuts forced Butler to reduce staff and limit productions. In 1982, the theater department had a $25,000 operating budget. This year the budget has shrunk to $20,000. And Cliff O'Connell, the theater manager at the academy, said that supplies, printing and royalty costs have increased by as much as 40% in the same period.

In 1982, the academy--the only one of its kind in the Los Angeles Community College District--had a permanent faculty of 11. Now it has eight. Where the academy once produced 10 major shows a year, it is straining to produce eight.

Butler has big plans to get the school on track. He has suggested forming a professional theater company of talented graduates to start them off right in the business. He also has spoken of drawing graduates back to direct productions celebrating the school's 60th year and plans an aggressive program to solicit financial support from alumni. Currently, the academy does not receive any funds from alumni or outside charitable sources.

Minimal Cost

Today, academy students study acting, technical theater and costuming in a fast-paced course of study that weeds out those uncommitted to a theater career. The typical academy student is 24 and already has earned a bachelor's degree from another institution. Unlike the higher-priced private theater academies in town, the program costs only $50 a semester.

The college's drama department, which includes the academy, runs three different programs in the labyrinthine corridors and rehearsal spaces of the theater building. Any student at LACC can take beginning acting and stagecraft courses with academy teachers while pursuing other associate of arts degrees.

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