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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

West Coast Ensemble Settles In

December 08, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

When most L.A. theatergoers think of the West Coast Ensemble, they think of the corner of Hollywood and Argyle, where the group occupied a two-stage structure for eight years--a period that saw it become one of the city's most prominent sub-100-seat companies.

That building is gone. It was demolished in the last few weeks by its owner, the Nederlander Organization. The space will be used as a parking lot.

Not to worry. The West Coast Ensemble is happily ensconced in its new, 85-seat home, the former Estelle Harman Workshop site on the east side of La Brea Avenue, between Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.

The company moved from Hollywood Boulevard in early 1995, citing problems caused by earthquake damage and subway construction. First stop was a transitional home at Hollywood's 55-seat Lex Theatre, but it was much too small and subscribers didn't like its location off the main thoroughfares, said artistic director Les Hanson.

The company began producing shows at the Harman as well as the Lex last fall. This fall, the company gave up the Lex and moved permanently to La Brea, where 10 productions are scheduled for the company's 15th season, running through 1997. The season opened in October with productions of "Eleemosynary" and "Don Juan in Chicago" running in repertory.

"We were very spoiled by having two theaters on Hollywood Boulevard," Hanson said. In order to continue doing shows in repertory in only one space, Hanson extended the performance schedule to Tuesday-Sunday, making West Coast one of the sub-100-seat scene's busiest spaces.

The La Brea facility includes a studio that serves as a rehearsal space and a small office, although the company's primary administrative offices remain off-site, in Santa Monica. West Coast operates on a budget of around $250,000, of which about 40% comes from box office, a third from the $45-per-month dues paid by 150 actor members, and the rest from grants and donations.

The programming remains eclectic. Montana-raised Hanson, who co-founded the company in 1981 and is the only remaining link to its origin, said he believed the offerings were "too white bread" about 10 years ago. "I wanted it to be more representative of Los Angeles." So the company began actively developing programming oriented to ethnic minorities. But, "the work suffered because we were trying to cover too many areas," Hanson said.

Now the company's continuing diversity efforts are focused on African American plays, as witnessed by last summer's "A Soldier's Story." "That's what's worked best for us," Hanson said. And it has paid off in audience recruitment--Hanson estimates that around 15% of the company's 300 subscribers are African American--an unusually high percentage for a primarily white company.

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CHANGE OF FOCUS: Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre has never been a conventional theater. Instead, it has been one of the L.A. theater community's major behind-the-scenes institutions, sponsoring readings and workshops and conferences and funding various prizes and projects.

Now, it's changing its name to sound a little bit less like a theater. The new name will be A.S.K. Theater Projects. Yet in a sense it'll be a little bit more like a theater, for A.S.K. now plans to generate projects as well as develop them.

"We've become involved creatively with the programs we fund," said executive director Kym Eisner. A.S.K., which is funded primarily by the Skirball Foundation, has commissioned plays from three writers and is planning to put composers, librettists and actors together in a musical theater workshop next February, with the intention of creating new musical theater pieces.

Known primarily for supporting the work of playwrights, A.S.K. is now expanding its focus to include more collaborative works that aren't necessarily "text-based," Eisner said. "New work is created in lots of different ways, not just by playwrights." Still, the familiar play readings series will continue.

A.S.K. also has moved its offices from Beverly Hills to a new Westside location near Olympic Boulevard and Bundy Drive. The new facility includes a room that's big enough for meetings of up to 50 people, which will be available to other theater groups when A.S.K. itself isn't using it. An open house is planned for Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. Information: (310) 478-3200.

Incidentally, when it changed its name, A.S.K. also changed its spelling of Theatre to Theater. "The re spelling usually means a building," Eisner said. "We are about projects, not buildings." While this is a new rationale for some of us, at least it's refreshing to hear someone articulating a reason--any

reason--to use one spelling or the other. In most cases, the people who run theaters (or theatres) have no idea why their institutions are spelled the way they are.

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