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THEATER

For This Director, Challenges Rarely Take a Holiday

With his Lobero Stage Company gearing up for its debut season, Peter Hunt is facing a new turning point.

March 16, 1997|Philip Brandes | Philip Brandes is a regular contributor to Calendar

Back in 1989, director Peter Hunt found himself at a character-defining crossroads. Nikos Psacharopoulos, the founder and guiding force behind the renowned Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where Hunt had spent nearly two decades mastering his craft, had died shortly before the season opening. The entire operation was in disarray, and its managers were on the phone begging him to return to help take charge.

At that point, Hunt's directing career was flourishing on Broadway, with successes that included "1776" and "Give 'em Hell, Harry," and in television and film as well. Taking the Williamstown position would certainly distance him from the professional circuit and limit his availability for more lucrative projects.

From his airy, ranch-style home and makeshift rehearsal space in the Sepulveda Pass, Hunt recently recalled the difficult choice with a bemused smile. "My agent told me not to go. My wife told me not to go. Everybody told me not to go." He paused for a matter-of-fact shrug. "But I just had to."

For Hunt, 57, the decision was more than an act of loyalty to the company that had launched his professional career. It was a commitment to help preserve the spirit of the resident theater movement that since the 1960s has spawned prominent stage centers across the nation.

"I grew up artistically in that environment," he said, his cherubic features lit with affection. "I remember when it started out as a bunch of mom-and-pop operations--Zelda Fichandler, Joe Papp, Adrian Hall, Nikos and all the others who started their theaters as local alternatives to Broadway. Their communities really got behind them; they were very proud of these theaters, and they helped them grow into something important."

After navigating the Williamstown Festival for six years, one of Hunt's dreams has been to put another resident theater company on the cultural map. He gets his chance this Saturday, when his new Lobero Stage Company opens its inaugural season in Santa Barbara's 680-seat Lobero Theatre, with a revival of the Alberto Casella/Walter Ferris classic comedy "Death Takes a Holiday."

"I plan to follow a plan similar to what we did at Williamstown," he said. "That is, establish a tradition of quality and do wonderful theater. It sounds simplistic, but it's harder to do than one would think."

Indeed it is. Getting his fledgling company off the ground hasn't been as easy as Hunt originally hoped when he approached the Lobero Theatre Foundation's governing board of directors two years ago.

It wasn't the first contact between Hunt and the foundation. In 1991, the Lobero board had considered a proposal from Hunt to make the theater a winter home for Williamstown productions. But the board decided instead to include the theater in a mini touring circuit for Pasadena Playhouse productions. That proved an unfortunate choice when financial troubles and poor attendance forced Pasadena Playhouse to cancel the arrangement in midseason.

Now Hunt finds himself grappling with a backlash from burned ticket-holders. "There are figures that show just how bad it is," he said. "Of the 2,000 Pasadena Playhouse subscribers, only 100 have signed up for our season."

To overcome that kind of resistance, Hunt is determined to differentiate his new company from previous presenters. "First and foremost, we're community-based, with headquarters in Santa Barbara. A lot of what comes through the Lobero is just booked in, but our productions are originating here in town."

In addition to the subscriber backlash, Hunt's current efforts have been hampered by delays in finalizing the season program. Hunt had counted on the enthusiasm for live theater expressed by his many actor friends and contacts in Hollywood to translate into "name" stars in his productions. What he hadn't reckoned on, he freely admitted, was the overwhelming impact of the TV pilot season.

Hunt landed Broadway veterans rather than Hollywood headliners. "Everyone's afraid to commit to doing a play in March and April because they might get the call," he said ruefully. On top of that, because of casting delays, Hunt was unable to publicly announce his season until January, and his cast for the opening production wasn't announced until March 4--less than three weeks before the opening. "I wasn't trying to be secretive," he said. "I just had to be sure I wasn't promising something I couldn't deliver."

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