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COMMENTARY : Cancellation of Season Was an Internal Failure

March 04, 1990|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER WRITER

When the Regional Arts Foundation of Long Beach announced earlier this year that it was canceling the three-play series it had planned for the 862-seat Center Theatre at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center--effectively wiping out the Long Beach Repertory Theatre before it started--it placed responsibility on outside forces.

Foundation General Manager Steven McCarthy blamed the cancellation on poor response to a direct mail subscription campaign (1,200 yeas out of 128,000 solicitations) and cited the foundation's failure to match a $100,000 challenge grant offered by members of its own board--a failure that foundation Chairman Harry Newman attributed to "too many worthy charitable and cultural causes chasing too few dollars."

Problem or symptom?

At the time of the cancellation, the first show--Mayo Simon's "Elaine's Daughter"--was about to go into rehearsal. According to director Shashin Desai, casting was verbally and/or contractually in place. Set designs were complete. Everything was in place--except the money.

The budget for that first production was $110,000, or roughly the same amount that was spent in the pre-opening marketing and fund-raising campaign, according to McCarthy's figures. Considerable for a campaign that consisted of one brochure and two mailings.

While on the surface the canceling of a season for lack of dollars seems fiscally sound, this one was more like the retreat of an agency that, over the years, has shown little ability to fulfill its stated, twofold mission: to increase the potential audience for the arts in the Long Beach region and to establish a permanent theatrical activity in the Center Theatre.

Except for the Long Beach Opera, very little of a theatrical nature has taken place in the center in the past decade.

It is not as though it was proposing to go out on a limb. Desai runs a successful, award-winning small professional theater, the International City Theatre, on the campus of Long Beach City College. He has done so since 1985. Following "Elaine's Daughter," he had planned a revival of Paul Osborne's 1939 comedy, "Mornings at Seven," and Kevin Heelan's "Distant Fires," a 1988 hit at ICT.

It was nothing dangerous or outrageous, but nothing dishonorable either. What it showed was an artistic director proceeding with caution in relatively uncharted waters offering "audience-friendly" shows. And rightly so. Previous theatrical ventures in the Center Theatre had not prospered, after all. Herb Rogers' 1978 season barely broke even and Norman Twain's in 1979 lost money. But if the mandate was to fill an empty theater, it was wise to engage a company with a decent track record in Long Beach. So why the 11th-hour failure of nerve?

Susan Rafferty, a former acting executive director for the foundation who came aboard for six months in 1987 to do a feasibility study, had been the first to propose Desai. The board, she said, had bought her suggestions. "I can't believe they came this far and gave it all up," she said. "No way should they have expected to break even in the first season. They never knew how well-positioned they were for this opening. My sense, because I live in an adjacent community and get every solicitation from Long Beach, is that they really didn't market it."

Or at least not enough. Even Paul Berg, executive vice president of the foundation board, who voted for the cancellation, acknowledged that the marketing campaign could have been more aggressive.

Berg, who also said he was personally disappointed in the outcome, believed in retrospect that the cancellation might have been "overcautious." "It has always been my contention," he said, "that you have to tell people exactly what you want money for before you can raise it."

Putting on that first play would have told people what the foundation wanted money for. It would have shown spirit and confidence. And a deeply needed commitment. If more community support were not forthcoming, there would have been time to warn the public that the rest of the season might not make it. But the door would have been opened and left ajar.

The people of Long Beach do have to let their wishes be known. There cannot be an equity theater in that city if there is no will among its citizens to have one.

Newman and McCarthy contend that Long Beach is not ready. Desai and others, including Berg ("We're starving for it here") and Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, in whose district the Convention and Entertainment Center sits, contend it is.

"They sent out literature, but didn't follow it up with phone calls," Braude said. "You have to work people."

Who's right? And will there be a way to find out?

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