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ART | FESTIVAL

Street Scenes : NoHo lifts the curtain on 100 stage events.

June 05, 1997|FRANK B. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The NoHo Theatre & Arts Festival has become a badge of honor for the no longer fledgling, yet still youthful artistic community in North Hollywood. In fact, organizers say that in its fifth year, the event--which has a quirky history--has come of age.

Created to showcase theater in the Valley, the two-day festival--this year featuring over 100 theatrical events at 13 theaters--is expected to draw close to 20,000 people on Saturday and Sunday.

"We always had the concept that we wanted it to be a really big festival," says David A. Cox, event co-founder and the man who dubbed the strip along Lankershim Boulevard the NoHo Arts District. "We wanted it to be a real theater festival that would cover the whole city. It's moving toward that. I'm hoping this year it will go to that next level."

With a long list of sponsors, big and small, it's hard to believe that in 1995 the festival nearly didn't happen. "The third year of the festival, we weren't sure that we were going to have enough money to pull it off," says Debra Sakacs of the Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "But thankfully it has progressively gotten stronger, and the attendance and interest have also grown."

Since that uncertain year, the festival has gained steam. This year there are two more stages, and major sponsors such as Texaco and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have joined a long list of community sponsors. Theater groups from "over the hill" have also been added. And the 13 venues showcasing talent are a big increase from eight sites last year.

"What I like is that it's getting on the Los Angeles calendar as an event," Cox says. "And that's something we always looked forward to, that the visitors bureau would put it down as something happening for the year. So now we start to attract people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world."

Theater is indeed still the lifeblood of the ever-growing festival, with free live performances Saturday and Sunday. Producers say there will be well-known works as well as new and obscure productions. In addition to the plays, there will be music, dance shows and street performers milling about Lankershim Boulevard to entertain people.

And as the festival, whose theme this year is "All the World's a Stage," has grown in recent years, so too has the reputation and influence of the city of North Hollywood and the NoHo Arts District, which Sakacs describes as a formerly blighted area "people used to come to only if they absolutely had to."

"The exciting thing is when you walk down Lankershim in the evening, around Magnolia, you don't feel like you are in L.A.," says Edmund Gaynes, festival co-chairman and Two Roads Theatre artistic director. "You feel like you might be in a mini-New York. In other words, there are people walking on the streets. They are walking from the coffeehouses to the restaurants and to the theaters. That's an incredible difference from what it was five years ago."

The New York vibes floating out of the NoHo Arts District are no coincidence. Cox, a New York transplant, had an idea of creating an L.A. theater community reminiscent of the famous SoHo section. Scouting out the strip along Lankershim Boulevard five years ago, he saw the possibilities.

"My original feeling was that this was a natural because it was right in the middle of the city," he says. "It was in between all the world's media--you know Disney, Warner Bros., CBS, NBC--but a depressed area. What a natural. I have instincts for things like that coming from New York and seeing what happened in the East Village."

The festival's boom and increasing presence in the music and dance fields are what Cox always hoped for, but he admits his greatest bragging right comes from how much the festival has stayed focused on its original goal.

"What the festival does is make people highly aware that there is a whole lot of theater in the Valley and that it's good theater," says Cox, who is artistic director at American Renegade Theater. "That's all I care about. I just want to see that happen."

This year's festival will highlight works that have been recently premiered, such as "Denial," a play by Peter Sagal about the Holocaust, and more well-known works, such as "My Life," a play by the renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard.

The festival has also expanded by one block and will feature a beer and wine garden and plenty of food. Audiences interested in seeing how the actors fine-tune their skills can participate in an actors' workshop.

And if scheduling conflicts stop someone from seeing a show, organizers will be selling a special discount booklet called the Summer Expo Pass. It costs $40 and is good through September for up to 10 theatrical events at 19 theaters in the Valley. The booklets will be sold only at the festival.

Organizers say the festival has become a special weekend for theater lovers from all over the city.

"It's just getting bigger and better," says Gaynes. "I guess the key is hoping it doesn't become so successful that we can't afford it anymore."

BE THERE

NoHo Theatre & Arts Festival runs Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., with play performances from noon to 6 p.m. A ticket booth dispersing free passes to shows will open at 11 a.m. on Lankershim Boulevard, just south of Weddington Street. For information, call (818) 508-5155.

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