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STAGE NOTES : Costa Mesa OKs Token Fee for Playhouse Rent


COSTA MESA — The City Council has agreed to rent the Rea Community Center to the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse for a token fee through the end of March.

Last week, while reviewing its leasing policy for all organizations occupying municipal premises, the council discussed asking the amateur playhouse for $1,544 a month. But the playhouse--which has occupied the center at no charge since 1985--said it could not afford more than a token payment.

According to Deputy City Clerk Mary Eliott, the council voted Monday to ask the playhouse for $100 for 90 days' rent through March 31, charged retroactively to Jan. 1.

"In addition," Eliott said, "the council directed the city staff to come back at the end of the 90 days with a memorandum of understanding that spells out the stipulations of a lease."

"I'm not sure exactly what input we will have in coming up with the memorandum," said Gary Halbert, the playhouse board's vice president for artistic affairs. "The key word here is understanding. My impression is there is a reasonableness on the part of the mayor and the council majority. I don't think they are eager to restrict the playhouse financially or artistically."

At the same time, the playhouse board is "apprehensive about signals from certain members of the council," he said. "They don't seem to understand the relationship of the city to the theater, its history or the fact that we are not in the business of making money."

According to Keith Van Holt, director of Community Services, the leasing review was undertaken to protect the city for insurance purposes and was not aimed solely at the playhouse, which came under council scrutiny last summer over a production of Christopher Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You." A small but vocal minority objected to the 1979 play because of its satire of Catholic dogma.

As part of the leasing review, the council has asked the playhouse to take out at least $500,000 worth of liability coverage. Holt said Tuesday that the 90-day interim agreement requires the playhouse to obtain that amount of coverage and would be part of the future lease.

"The city has asked that much insurance coverage for anyone with a lease," Eliott added, noting that about 10 other organizations occupying municipal premises have had leases approved "as presented by the staff."

In another matter at the council meeting, theater representatives asked the city to waive an existing policy that has prevented the theater from obtaining a previously requested promotion grant of $9,400. Eliott said the policy is that a single organization may not receive more than one grant from two separate grant-funding mechanisms. Apart from its annual subsidy of $35,000, the playhouse is already a recipient of a $20,000 arts grant.

Theater representatives claimed the patrons of the playhouse, not the playhouse itself, were asking for the promotion grant. They reasoned, therefore, that the grant would not be going to the same entity. But the council did not appear to buy the argument, Eliott said.

"The council said it would accept the application for the waiver and would explain its reluctance to the playhouse staff," Eliott said. "So the council really did nothing. They just said to wait and see what happens, which doesn't look too good for a waiver."

As part of its evolving relationship with the playhouse, the council had indicated it would like the playhouse to formulate a 10-year plan outlining how it would become financially self-sustaining. But there was no discussion of those goals at the meeting, Van Holt said.

"They left it up to the city staff and the playhouse board to work out a plan as part of the memorandum of understanding," Holt said.

The Laguna Playhouse board of directors decided at its Monday night meeting to give "Big River" one more try before writing it off as the last production of the current season.

"We'll make a request for the rights in writing," artistic director Douglas Rowe said. "If that doesn't work, we'll go on to something else.

Rowe had announced a production of "Big River" from May 14 to June 9, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library, which controls the rights to the 1985 musical, told him he couldn't do it because it would interfere with a Fullerton Civic Light Opera revival scheduled from May 17 to June 2.

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