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City Eyes Mid-Sized Circuit

May 17, 1998|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Not enough mid-sized theaters in L.A.? Not if the city's Cultural Affairs Department has anything to do with it.

Officials of the department last week discussed a plan to create a touring circuit for locally generated productions, using five city-owned theaters.

Two of the venues--the Ebony Showcase on Washington Boulevard in the mid-city area and the Madrid Theatre on Sherman Way in Canoga Park--will be brand-new, following completion of construction, though both will occupy the sites of previously long-existing theaters.

The former Madrid was razed after the 1994 earthquake, and construction of the new 484-seat Madrid is scheduled to be completed in September, financed primarily by a 1995 grant of $2.75 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The demolition of the old and seismically challenged Ebony is slated to begin soon, followed by construction of a brand-new 400-seat Ebony, with a completion target of late 1999, to be funded by more than $3 million that was provided in 1996 by the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Two existing mid-sized municipal theaters also will be part of the circuit: the 299-seat Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood and downtown's Los Angeles Theatre Center. LATC has three mid-sized stages under one roof (seating 498, 296 and 320), so completion of the new theaters would mean that six city-owned mid-sized stages would be available. The fifth member of the proposed circuit is the 1,500-seat Warner Grand in San Pedro--its size, however, might make it problematic as a host for productions that are otherwise playing mid-sized halls.

"L.A. is horizontal, not vertical," remarked James Burks, who is directing the Ebony Showcase project and also runs the city's William Grant Still Art Center. Observers have long wondered if L.A. would ever have a New York-style theater center, but the development of this circuit is a way of acknowledging the essentially horizontal geography of the city while at the same time trying to pull the strands together via touring. The plan is simultaneously decentralizing and centralizing, Burks said.

The tours could even extend beyond the civic boundaries to other cities in southern California.

Cultural Affairs Director Adolfo Nodal said he hopes the theaters will be "professional houses that will produce major [shows] that will travel." Yet many of the productions are likely to be less than fully professional, given the expense of producing professionally above the 99-seat level.

The Cultural Affairs theory is that some expenses can be amortized over the cost of a touring production, making it possible for shows to extend their total runs far beyond what they might be able to afford at only one venue.

The circuit is also based on the assumption that people who go to a show in their own neighborhood might be interested in seeing acclaimed productions from other neighborhoods, as long as they don't have to travel to do so. If true, this could be a shot in the arm for the idea of a unified L.A.

LATC probably would remain the primary venue for long-running productions, according to the Cultural Affairs plan. Because of the presence of three stages, such productions wouldn't tie up the entire facility, as they would at the single-stage sites (Ebony, however, will have a 50-seat black box in addition to its large theater). Still, the rise of neighborhood mid-sized theaters that charge the city's low rental fees also could lead producers to question whether they want to bother with LATC, which often has been plagued by the perception of being too close to skid row.

Lee Sweet, business manager of LATC and the Madrid, acknowledged this could be a problem but said that the city's staff would just have to work harder to attract shows.

"We won't be in competition with each other," said Ernest Dillahay, performing arts director for Cultural Affairs. "We'll share."


WILSON ON 'CHALK': Playwright August Wilson's controversial stance against the casting of black actors in roles that were conceived as nonblack was the talk of the theater world in 1996-97, but it came up only briefly in his recent public appearance at LATC. A questioner mentioned "The Central Ave. Chalk Circle," Cornerstone Theater's multiracial 1995 adaptation of Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at a Watts community center. After one of Wilson's fellow panelists said it sounded like an exciting idea, Wilson disagreed, saying it would not "fit into my definition of black theater, which promotes the values of my ancestors."

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