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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

He's Trying to Bring In 'Da Subscribers

March 23, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The Ahmanson Theatre series has been losing subscribers since it returned to the refurbished Ahmanson in 1995.

In 1994-95, the last of six years for the Ahmanson series at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, the subscriber base was around 43,000. In the first year at the remodeled Ahmanson, subscription dipped to 38,000. And in the current season it stands at 34,038.

Awareness of this 21% decline over two years is hovering behind the announcement last week that the Ahmanson Theatre's 1997-98 season will open with three recent, well-publicized Broadway musicals--"Rent," "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and "Chicago."

"There's no question that it makes a difference if [a show] is known or unknown," said artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson. However, he also said he couldn't pass up these particular shows at this time because of their quality.

Most of the subscribers who fell off the lists in recent years were among the 14,000 new subscribers who joined during the six seasons at the Doolittle, Davidson said. They lacked any previous identification with the series at the Ahmanson, and they didn't want to go downtown. Some of them lived much closer to Hollywood and didn't want to travel, he suggested; some "liked parking across the street, and walking right off the street" instead of negotiating the Music Center's subterranean parking garages.

However, there also were some long-term Ahmanson loyalists who didn't like the Doolittle, he added, in part because its smaller capacity made it harder to get prime seats. Many of these stuck by the series through the Doolittle years, though. "If they've been with us more than five years, they tend to stay," he said.

"Now that we're back [at the Ahmanson], we have to realign our audiences and gain new loyalties," Davidson said. "We'd like to be at 40,000 or 45,000." He hopes that such shows as "Rent" and "Bring in 'Da Noise" will attract new, young subscribers, and pointed out that student subscriptions can be bought for as little as $49.

Davidson acknowledged, however, that many customers want "more flexibility" than they did 15 years ago and therefore might be less inclined to subscribe. So the Ahmanson aims to keep single-sale ticket buyers satisfied, too, he said.

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SEND IN THE SWANS: The Ahmanson's decision to substitute a ballet, Matthew Bourne's unorthodox and acclaimed "Swan Lake," for the previously scheduled non-musical comedy "The Play's the Thing" in the current season's spring slot has so far drawn only 71 requests for refunds from Ahmanson subscribers. "That's extremely low, given the magnitude of the change," said Nausica Stergiou, Center Theatre Group's audience development director.

This isn't a complete surprise for Stergiou, who led a group of Mark Taper Forum subscribers on Center Theatre Group's annual English theater tour over the winter holidays and took them to "Swan Lake" in London, among other shows. "It was a great opportunity to get feedback and see how we might proceed with selling it," he said.

Not that CTG is out of the woods yet. Because of the "magnitude of the change," CTG offered refunds to Ahmanson subscribers even after they've seen "Swan Lake" if they're not happy.

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LADCC NOTES: How could "Eleemosynary," which dates from 1985, win a writing award for Lee Blessing this year from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle? So asked a reader after the LADCC awards ceremony Monday.

It's because West Coast Ensemble's 1996 production of "Eleemosynary" was the play's professional premiere in the area that's covered by the awards--Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

"I have been slow to approve productions in Los Angeles and New York because there is so much press in both places," Blessing said last week. "I want to feel I know the people involved and how it might go."

Although Blessing moved to the L.A. area a little more than a year ago, he was at his mother's birthday celebration instead of the awards ceremony on Monday. He joked that he's somewhat leery of L.A. awards ceremonies ever since he visited L.A. for a cable awards ceremony in 1994--just in time to experience the Northridge quake.

Meanwhile, another script that won an LADCC prize this year, Barbara Field's adaptation of "Great Expectations," was in fact done in Los Angeles County before last year's production at A Noise Within. The Guthrie Theatre, where it originated, briefly brought it to two L.A. County campuses in a 1985 tour. An LADCC spokesman said the circle didn't know of that precedent when circle members selected nominees.

This year, by presenting an award in every nominated category, the critics' group steered clear of a problem that ruffled feathers a year ago, when no winners were announced in three categories (the circle's rules stipulate that the top 30 scorers among the 60 nominees, virtually regardless of category, get awards).

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